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Kirk goes back to its roots

When the Kirk debated religious observance at its annual assembly in May, it marked a return - in part - to its theological roots.

The reformers understood the nature of belief, that it began and grew in each person and not as the consequence of unquestioning obedience to the command of others. That inspired the revolution which was the policy of a school in every parish.

It was a view of belief which led to the Enlightenment and liberal democracy across the globe, shaping Scotland in a way few other decisions ever would. It is also a reason religious education remains the only subject required by law to be taught in schools. The idea of an inner search, the development of the self beyond the rational or the quantifiable, has long been understood as fundamental to the complete education experience.

These things are not solely the preserve of religious communities: they are about the nature and consequence of belief. Even to say "there is no God" is a statement of belief about the nature of existence.

Over the years, with exceptions, religious observance has not always helped in that search or personal journey. It has been closely tied to the Christian faith community and its calendar which has limited its appeal and led to tensions over potential prosetylisation.

In 2005, new guidelines were issued by the then Scottish Executive which offered a radical and inclusive approach to religious observance. They stated that it was to represent "community acts which aim to promote the spiritual development of all members of the school community, and express and celebrate the shared values of the school community".

The guidelines restated the central role of religious observance in the curriculum, noting: "It is of central importance that all pupils and staff can participate with integrity in forms of religious observance without compromise to their personal faith stances". In addition, "there should be a clear distinction between assemblies devised for the purpose of religious observance and assemblies for other purposes such as celebrating success".

The response to the guidelines has been patchy but it has led to some changes in schools. Many now have a time separate from assembly where they attempt to implement the guidelines. But it is not easy. As one head said: "I like the idea, but spiritual uplift is not in my skill set."

In response, the General Assembly heard that a partnership has been created involving Glasgow University, the Church of Scotland and Scripture Union Scotland, the aim of which is to create a university-accredited course in religious observance (hopefully also approved by the General Teaching Council for Scotland). The partnership is working closely with trade unions, practitioners, GTCS, HMIE, other faith communities and many others on this project.

The course will be peer-led. Its raw material will be real experiences and practice, focused especially on pupils. It will create a support network of practitioners in religious observance who will mentor each other. If we expect all parts of the curriculum to be led by properly-trained professionals, why not religious observance?

It will be open to school staff, chaplains and others involved in its delivery, although managers with responsibility for religious observance will be welcome. While non-school staff can access the course and get accreditation, it is the understanding of those involved that schools always have the sole say in who delivers religious observance.

Thus, the Kirk is returning to its roots in a 21st-century way, supporting an inclusive approach to the search for the spiritual that begins with the individual. It is maybe not quite what John Knox (pictured) had in mind - but that is probably no bad thing.

Ewan Aitken is council secretary of the church and society department of the Church of Scotland.

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