Joanna Bogle on the interdenominational Schools Bible Project which has been giving pupils an opportunity to explore the reality of Christianity for over 20 years

OK, let’s talk ecumenism. No, I don’t mean Agreed Statements and the like – this is not the time. The whole issue of women’s ordination has closed one set of options there. But there are other things that can still be done – and indeed are being done. So let’s get on with them.

The need for education

Schools. Christianity is still meant to be taught as part of Religious Education in schools in Britain. It is not possible to understand all sorts of quite ordinary things about history, geography, the laws and customs of Britain and other nations, music, drama, literature and science, without some basic knowledge of the Old and New Testaments.

Place-names, traditions, sayings, ideas, and all sorts of things from pub signs and nursery rhymes to major ethical and legal issues are all a bafflement to those with no knowledge of Christianity.

Most schools recognize this, and the idea that there is a massive opposition to any mention of Christ in the classroom is largely mythical. Christianity is a reality and schools recognize this: some basic information about the subject has to be conveyed and there is a recognition of this too.

The local churches are a major resource here, and many schools use them. Inviting in a speaker – clergy or lay – to come and address the pupils is one option, touring a local church another, visiting a cathedral or monastery a third. The anniversary of the King James Bible in 2011 gave a great deal of scope for good educational work, and many schools seized the opportunities presented.

The Project’s origins

The Schools Bible Project has now been running for over 20 years. Its origins lie in an inter-denominational group originally established in the Fifties – when ecumenism was a great deal less fashionable than it would later become. The group was a very small one, and did not include Roman Catholics: it was based in Hampshire and members met to pray together at the home of the Methodist founder, Ernest Tapp.

In the Seventies, when it was flagging, it received a whole new lease of life. New initiatives following the Second Vatican Council brought in the RCs, and a new sense of urgency – a soaring divorce rate, abortion more or less on demand, rising crime rates and sagging church attendance – brought a whole fresh approach.

The group began to publish books and videos on a range of topics, and ran conferences with top speakers on topics that included sex education, religious education in schools, adoption, marriage preparation, the needs of the handicapped and the care of the terminally ill. People began to take notice of its work. Its materials were quoted in debates in Parliament on some of the topics mentioned, and several of its members – including the present writer – made forays into TV and radio debates under its auspices.

Biblical events

But probably the group’s most significant project is its work in religious education. This began with a pilot project in 1989 when Bishop Maurice Wood, then the recently-retired Bishop of Norwich, was chairman. The idea was – and is – simple. Pupils are invited to imagine themselves present at an event in the life of Christ.

They are given half a dozen from which to choose – miracles, specific encounters, moments of teaching, the Crucifixion, a post-Resurrection event – and the relevant Bible references. They must write about the event as if they had been actually present. They can invent a character for themselves, or choose to be someone who was actually there (Mary Magdalene, Peter, Caiaphas, Barabbas … ).

That first pilot project was aimed at primary schools, and focused on Christ’s miracles. It proved popular and successful – the winners came to London and the prizes were presented at a service held at St Stephen’s, Rochester Row. But it was clear that the real needs in RE were in secondary schools. After a year’s gap and some serious research into what was required, the Schools Bible Project took shape in its present form.

Organization and prizes

Using a commercial mailing company, all secondary schools in Britain are sent a brochure. It sets out the entry requirements, with the usual rules (essay to be the pupil’s own unaided work, etc.) and lists the New Testament events that have been selected for that year. Entries can be handwritten or produced on a computer. There are cash prizes for the winning schools plus personal prizes (Bibles and other books) for the winners.

There are a large number of runner-up prizes and certificates of Merit and Special Merit. The main winners come to London with their families and teachers and receive their prizes from Baroness Cox, who is one of the Trustees. They get a tour of Parliament and tea, and meet the organizers and committee.

The Project is relatively simple to organize, is assisted by all the obvious things like a website, occasional newsletter to schools, etc., and has proved immensely popular. The essays arrive at a London Post Office, are collected together and taken to a major educational centre and are read by a team of judges. Mailing out of the Bible prizes and certificates, a major task, is done by relays of volunteers working from a small London office rented for the purpose for a couple of weeks in the summer.

The Schools Bible Project brings together Anglicans (of all sorts!), RCs, Baptists, Evangelicals. The judges include teachers, youth workers, clergy, people who serve as school governors and magistrates, and more.

Tackling ignorance

There is of course massive ignorance about Christ and Christianity among many of Britain’s school pupils. Lamenting this is easy – tackling it is a challenge but one to which it is possible to rise. The Schools Bible Project has shown what is possible. Many of the essays which pour in – we get huge numbers – are of a high standard and reveal that there are dedicated teachers and eager learners in many schools. Some of the essays are extremely moving – Mary Magdalene meeting the risen Christ on Easter morning, a Roman soldier standing at the foot of the Cross and hearing Christ’s words of forgiveness, Peter starting out across the water, Jairus gasping with joy at his little daughter’s revival. And of course there are some very funny howlers – Pontius the Pilot makes a regular appearance, Christ chooses twelve Oppostles, and – my personal favourite – the three Magi according to one young writer brought ‘gold, frankincense and a mirror’.

If you have any links with a secondary school, encourage participation in the Schools Bible Project. It does not preach, it does not urge faith on pupils, it does not involve anything that intrudes on anyone’s own private and personal search for truth. It offers an opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ and the New Testament, and to explore the reality of Christianity. It works for pupils of all abilities.

For more information, go to the website or drop us a note if you like: Christian Project, PO Box 44741 London SW1P 2XA. And it wouldn’t come amiss if you kept this project in your prayers from time to time: the young people at our schools deserve your prayers and mine. ND