Andy Hawes on broken laws and broken promises

‘Where God is dead, anything is possible’ is a cynical summary of ethics without a Christian conscience, or a religious basis. For over a hundred and fifty years generations of English and Welsh children were reminded of the vivacity of God in school assembly. Oft repeated hymns and prayers were etched into impressionable minds and hearts, providing a religious language and spiritual landscape in which to grow up. The positive effects of Collective Christian Worship in schools day by day and season by season would be difficult to evaluate. Most readers of this magazine will recognize that their spiritual life was partly or substantially formed through school worship. Even if this was sometimes a negative or dry experience, nevertheless it was for many a place of revelation. It provided not only the focus for the 1st XV Rugby results but also the context for significant pastoral and ethical teaching. Sometimes it was a place of real prayer – when a pupil was seriously ill or died; in a time of local or national disaster. I, for one, could not say after thirteen years of daily school worship ‘it was a bad thing, it ought to be done away with.’

It came as no surprise that our local grammar school, where I have been a parent for the last twelve years, received as excellent OFSTED report. It is high in the league tables and all that. In the summary of the inspectors report was a single line which read ‘The school has failed to meet the legal requirements for collective worship.’ Further enquiries (over the tea table) revealed that this was in fact the case. The idea of worship had been completely abandoned – not even a Christmas Carol or ‘There is a green hill.’ This has come as a shock. As a governor of this school in the year 1999–2000 I was involved in discussions that drew up the school’s revised instruments of government which described the school as ‘a Christian school’. It is an Elizabethan foundation that in earliest days met in the parish church. It still has the requisite numbers of foundation governors appointed by Church of England bodies.

It seems that our local grammar school is one of the 76% of secondary schools, inspected in the last year, that have failed to meet the legal requirement for Collective Worship. The relevant statutes are found in the ‘School Standard and Framework Act 1998, part ii, sections 70 and 71. ‘Each pupil in attendance shall each day take part in an act of worship. ‘This worship ‘shall be wholly or mainly of a broad Christian character.’ It has been pointed out by OFSTED that it is not a legal requirement for the whole school to assemble for worship; this may take place in any ‘convenient’ group. It is also clearly acceptable for other faith communities to be involved and represented in school worship as the law states that ‘shall be only or mainly of a broad Christian character.’ The law is flexible enough to meet most objections as to the practicality of collective worship. Where there is a will, there would certainly be a way. There is no will, however, in many schools to find the way.

There is a striking contrast in our area between the care and attention given to collective worship in primary schools and its neglect in one of the two secondary schools. Around one third of the secondary schools intake is from church schools. It would seem that for the graduates of these large village schools a bitter lesson is being taught: ‘growing up means that we don’t pray.’ It is a cause of great concern that in an area where church life and community life interact at every level Christian spirituality has no place in the education and formation of young people.

The chief inspector of schools David Bell is clearly aware of this dilemma. He used a speech in the House of Commons on April 24th this year, given to commemorate the diamond jubilee of the Education Act of 1944, to raise the issue of collective worship in schools in order to initiate a national debate. Mr Edwards’ observation was quite simple: ‘In a society where attendance at formal religious services is declining, and the religious culture of Britain ever more diverse, it is increasingly difficult to find teachers who are able and willing to lead acts of Christian worship.’ The question has now been put ‘Does collective worship belong in schools?’ It is a measure of the secularization of British society that a law placed on the statute books in 1998 should after six years be impossible to enforce.

I do not wish to ignore the real problems faced by those who do step up to lead worship in secondary schools. In many the atmosphere is openly hostile. In the school quoted above the ‘Gideons’ distributed Bibles only to witness pupils putting them in dustbins as they left! There is a crisis here. There is also an opportunity to contribute to the debate at a local and national level. Here are a few suggestions.

First, find out what the practice is in your local secondary school. If you are parent, use the avenues open to you through parent governors, annual meetings and other school contacts.

Secondly, if there is good practice, encourage and thank those who are responsible (they seem to be part of a dying breed).

Thirdly, if the law is being ignored, challenge those responsible (in law, the governors) to do something about it.

Fourthly, this subject should be on the agenda of every Christian forum from clergy fraternals to deanery synods. PCCs could also usefully discuss it. Invite teachers in to share the problems surrounding the issues.

Finally, it is important that the Church should pray around this problem and seek a way to respond to the challenge. In some ways the issue of collective worship touches a broader issue – the marginalization of Christian ministry in our communities; most of this is the churches’ fault. It is matter of spiritual life and death for our children and grandchildren that we find new ways to nurture them in the language and habit of praise and prayer. We do well to remember that where God is dead anything becomes possible.