Joanna Bogle on an exciting competition to encourage children to read the Bible
For over a quarter of a century, an ecumenical group has been organising a popular and successful project for schools, in which pupils study the New Testament and write essays showing their understanding of some of the major events of Christ’s life and ministry. It’s the Schools Bible Project, and I am currently the chairman. More particularly, the Editor of New Directions is also involved and, among much else, is one of our team of judges helping to read and evaluate the hundreds of essays that arrive from schools across Britain.
The key to the Project’s success is its simplicity. Schools are bombarded with literature and propaganda about all sorts of things, along with ideas for projects, fund-raising schemes, suggestions for students’ participation in community events, and more. We offer a simple one-page leaflet, inviting pupils to imagine themselves present at one of six major events in Christ’s life – we give a list, with Bible references – and to write about it. Deadline for entries is the end of June, and the essays are read over the summer – winners and runners-up are notified at the start of the Autumn term.
The main winners get cash prizes for their schools, and personal book prizes. They come to London with their parents and teachers to receive these at the House of Lords from our trustee, Baroness Cox, and get a tour of Parliament, and tea. This takes a bit of organising, but is well worth the effort. The group running the whole thing is Christian Projects, initially established back in the 1950s as the Order of Christian Unity. It has some (modest) funds so is able to pay the pupils’ fares for the prizegiving, and of course cover the other costs of the whole Bible Project: leaflets, prizes, postage etc.
Is it worth while? Definitely. It allows schools to make Religious Education real: getting pupils to ponder the significance of the Wedding at Cana, or the healing of Jairus’ daughter, or to enter into something of the mystery of the Last Supper. It is non-threatening: pupils have a right to know about these things as part of their general education. It is enriching: studying these things opens up the spiritual dimension of life. It is a project open to all, and works both for the extremely able and gifted pupils (we get some essays of a very high standard) and for those who are definitely less intellectually gifted but are often those offering the deepest insights into these great events.
Of course we get howlers: Pontius the pilot makes a regular appearance, and Jesus has been known to call the Apostles by ’phone. And there are those who enter into great detail on an aspect of the story that they relish – bridesmaids’ dresses at Cana, plus the menu (chicken and chips and peas seems to be the most popular). But mostly there is thoughtful, sensitive writing, exploring the mystery of Christ, his message, his miracles.
Following the popularity of the Schools Bible Project, we have supported an initiative for primary schools. This is run on different lines, as the idea came from a women’s group, has been taken up by various voluntary groups in different parts of Britain, and is funded in part by us. This is the Children’s Handwriting and Artwork Project, and it involves children at primary schools writing out the Lord’s Prayer, decorating it, and answering some simple questions to show their understanding of it. Credit must go to the LOGS – Ladies Ordinariate Group – for taking this project forward in London, and other groups involved have been the Catholic Union of Great Britain, which in 2016 ran the project in schools across Yorkshire and Lancashire, and this year in West Country schools.
Want to help? We are particularly keen to spread the Lord’s Prayer project to other parts of Britain. Funds would help, as would a commitment to run it in a particular area – covering, for example, one specific local education authority. We have a standard leaflet that can be printed with a local address, and I am most willing – indeed extremely keen – to come and talk to any specific group that would like to run the project, and to explain how it’s done. An email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org will put you in touch.
Above all, it is crucial to understand that Christianity has a place, as of right, in the classrooms of Britain’s schools. It is part of the national curriculum, and schools have a duty to teach it. Pupils don’t want or need vague preaching about Jesus being a kind person who believed in social justice: they need to know who he was and what he taught and did, with some understanding of why we might number our years after his birth and how it has happened that an entire civilisation emerged following the events described in the Scriptures.
Current folklore among Christians has created some urban legends, of which a popular one is the conversation overheard in a jeweller’s shop in which a customer is buying a cross and is asked “D’you want a plain one, or one with a little man on it?” The story has gained widespread traction because it represents what many of us sense is a frightening truth: many of our young adults know nothing about Jesus Christ. The Schools Bible Project is one way of helping to rectify that.