Don’t panic Captain Mainwaring!
It's not the proposal to abolish collective worship in schools that's more dangerous, but our reaction to it writes, Martin Sweet of the Baptist Education Group.
I received a shock when my alarm clock radio woke me recently. The BBC started my day with a statement that seemed designed to rattle the Christian community: “Call to end compulsory worship in schools”
The headline was about a paper co-authored by former Education Secretary Charles Clarke alongside Linda Woodhead, organiser of the Westminster Faith Debates. The section proposing the abolition of the requirement for schools to have an act of collective worship was in fact the only issue the BBC had picked up from the paper.
Entitled ‘A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools’, the paper highlighted the fact that this legal requirement, introduced in the 1940s, had failed to keep up with changes in attitudes to religion in Britain.
I listened as yet again the BBC asked the British Humanist Association (of all people) to offer an opinion about the place of Christianity in society.
I readily admit, as someone deeply involved in supporting Collective worship in schools, such breaking news on my radio at 6.30am can induce a certain panic. Is this the end of Spinnaker Trust? After all, we undertake to support a lot of schools in their collective worship programmes.
However, a moment’s reflection allowed me to focus on a bigger view of what is happening. Instead of seeing this report as a threat, maybe I need to see it as ‘bait’, for in doing so, I am reminded of who it is I am actually wresting against. And who is on my side. After listening to the radio, I sat down to my Bible reading for the day which was Luke 24:50-53. Ascension.
Sadly, the argument that this is a Christian country may well have been lost, but if our concern is that ‘doors will close’, then maybe we need to consider what would be the best response. Perhaps we should start by identifying the exact nature of what it is we are seeking to do. If we argue for the right to ‘get all children to hear the gospel’ in school, then the BBC will no doubt have a field day.
If we continue, as I believe it correct, to seek to serve school communities in the most appropriate way, then the doors will remain open because it is about serving their agenda, and not ours.
There is a logic to this, since if eventually the Clarke proposals are taken seriously, it is vital that churches have a warm, established relationship with each school. If the autonomy of the nature and style of school assemblies rests with the school leader and governors, the solution will be for the local Christian community to be trusted and valued, as too will the principle of having collective worship in that school.
Or as someone wrote to me as they heard about the Clarke/Woodhead report, "some of my best memories .. are of inspiring assemblies including Bible stories and a comforting sense of belonging to a principled and caring community."
I do have a worry that the door will close, not due to the Clarke/Woodhead report, but because of our reaction to it. The worst case scenario in this is that the Christian community reacts in some sort of Corporal Jones-like panic, with statements that imply we have a ‘right’ to expect schools to have collective worship with a Christian emphasis. That will be counter-productive.
The strongest opinion in this whole debate will be school head teachers and staff in schools that value both collective worship and the fantastic support they get from a caring Christian community.
Does that mean we do nothing? Of course not. Christians certainly need to pray that God would be at the heart of any discussions and debates that take place, not least in government. We should also aim to be involved as closely as we can. However, the worst thing we can do at this stage is get defensive. So let’s start with prayer and seek to give the best support we can to each school.
There may be maybe bigger battles ahead and, no doubt, there will eventually be a debate that we need to engage with.
I do believe the doors of opportunity to engage with this generation are under threat, but please let’s not panic. After all, our Captain is a far better leader than the erstwhile Bank manager of The Eastgate Home Guard platoon of Warmington-on-Sea. For since our ascended Captain sits in absolute authority, maybe it is humanists who should be panicking?
I’ll remind myself of that as the alarm clock wakes me up in the future.
Martin Sweet writes on behalf of the Baptist Education Group (BEG). The vision of the Baptist Education Group is to encourage every Baptist church to strategically engage in supporting its local school.
Martin is director of Spinnaker Trust, an organisation with over 25 years’ experience, based in SE London, regularly supporting over 100 primary schools in London and the Southeast with RE, assemblies and much more.
Collective responsibility for school assemblies
Time for a coffee with a head teacher