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Religious review impeded by C of E

Nicholas Pyke finds the national report on school prayers tentatively supports a 'new way forward' - but nothing else.

There is a strong and widely supported case for "a new way forward" in collective worship, according to the much-anticipated national report on school prayers.

But further than this it does not go, despite repeated media claims to the contrary.

In fact, with neither Anglican nor the Roman Catholic Churches willing to support a change in the law the report was inevitably limited in scope.

"A possible route for the future has been indicated," it concludes, rather uncertainly. "The Department for Education and Employment should now take over the baton and establish a governmental review of collective worship."

This new approach involves scaling down the current, much disliked requirement for a daily act of "collective worship" which is broadly Christian in character. Headteachers and others have been pressing for less frequent gatherings which take a more generally spiritual - rather than mainly Christian - direction.

For some time now the Secondary Heads Association and the National Association of Head Teachers have campaigned against a state of affairs which they believe to be impractical and divisive. Many secondary schools have no space to hold daily religious assemblies - and where they do have the space, they often lack the staff willing to take part. Minority faith groups meanwhile, find the Christian emphasis of the law offensive.

Last week's report, Collective Worship Reviewed, follows one of the longest and widest consultations to date and drew responses from all major faith groups and professional bodies.

It was based on three national conferences, jointly coordinated by the RE Council of England and Wales, the National Association of SACREs (standing advisory councils on RE) and the Inter Faith Network of the UK.

While the Churches remained cautious, the professional constituencies proved anything but. They gave solid backing to one of three options: "a new way forward" based on a statutory requirement for regular assemblies "of a spiritual and moral character".

Such assemblies, they argued, would enhance school life and help develop a moral community. But without alienating families from different faith backgrounds.

"The aim would be to hold assemblies in which all teachers and pupils are able to share in good conscience without the need to exercise a right of withdrawal," says the report.

The list of organisations choosing "the new way" included all the main teaching unions; the Professional Council for Religious Education; the Christian Education Movement; the Conference of University Lecturers in RE; the Association of Religious Education Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants; the Local Government Association; the National Association of Governors and Managers; the Society of Education officers and the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations.

It also had the support of the Methodists and the Free Church Federal Council; the British Humanist Association; the Buddhists, Sikhs, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Hindus. But there were other influential views. "The Church of England Board of Education was unable to declare a preference as it felt the choice was neither clear nor balanced," says the report. "The Catholic Education Service supported the status quo, the Evangelical Alliance had strong reservations about 'the new way forward' and there was a variety of opinion within the Muslim Educational Trust."

Both Anglican and Catholic Churches are internally divided on this topic and find it difficult to speak with a clear voice. Until they do, however, ministers will feel little inclination to step into this potential minefield.

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