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Religious Education in post-Christian Britain

Despite what sociologists forecast religion remains a major factor in world affairs even if we are shocked by some of the headlines it generates. Nevertheless, the religious character of Britain has changed. 

A poll last year found 77% saying they are not religious. Whatever they recorded on the 2011 Census form 66% have no religious affiliation and 80% consider religion a private matter that has no place in the public square. Another poll found that only 55% could name one of the four Gospels. Only 6% attend church weekly and the numbers and visibility of non-Christian religions are growing. All this raises questions about religious education in our schools.

These questions are addressed in a report by Charles Clarke, the former Education Secretary and Professor Linda Woodhead. They propose the abolition of the statutory requirement for every school to hold a daily act of collective worship that is mainly and broadly Christian. They note that 76% of secondary schools fail to meet this requirement and only 28% of pupils attend a daily act of worship. They support the need for schools to provide for the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of their pupils but don’t think this means a compulsory act of worship.

They distinguish between religious instruction aimed at forming a faith and religious education that increases understanding of the world's religions. The former is properly the responsibility of the family and faith community whilst the latter is the school’s responsibility. They expect religious and moral education to equip students to understand the differences between the world’s religions and equip them to think critically and respect diversity of belief. If RE focuses on those objectives, Clarke and Woodhead think parents should no longer be allowed to withdraw their children from RE classes. They also identify an urgent need for a sufficient supply of well-qualified specialist RE teachers. RE is badly taught in many schools, too often by non-specialists with some slack in their timetables. OFSTED has found a lack of clarity in schools about the purpose of teaching RE. Its exclusion from the English Baccalaureate has not helped.

Predictably this report will provoke a hostile reception from conservative Christians, especially at the proposal that secular humanism and other non-religious philosophies should be included in the RE syllabus. They may also be uneasy about replacing locally-agreed RE syllabuses with a single national syllabus determined by the Secretary of State. They have to accept, however, that RE teaching in many schools falls well short of being adequate. That is worrying at a time when Jihadists are seeking to radicalise young British Muslims and threaten violence in our cities. It is also naïve to expect non-Christian teachers to be responsible for the faith development of our children.

The London Diocese is aiming to double the number of young people in their churches. That should be the goal of every church, equipped by youth organisations like YWAM and Urban Saints to do it effectively. 

Unless we do this the churches will continue to contract so we should pray that God will move us to act to prevent this happening.

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