Jonathan Croall reports on an initiative built on the belief that a concern for the natural world is essential to religion. Any initiative that has the blessing of God, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Jonathan Porritt would seem to have a lot going for it. But the success of the new Religious Education and Environment Programme (REEP) will depend ultimately on whether teachers look on what has been created and see that it is good.
REEP has grown out of the belief among many environmentalists, educationists and people involved in the major faiths that a concern for the natural environment is essential to religion, and that religious awareness can contribute to a respect for that environment. While such links may be made by many adults, they argue, they are rarely made in schools.
"Environmental education is generally taught through science or geography, and taught fairly mechanically," says Robert Vint, REEP's administrator. "It's an approach devoid of spiritual content, that ignores the idea of reverence for life. Similarly, religious education is often studied at a distance, whereas it could be made more practical and relevant."
REEP's patron Jonathan Porritt, who is both an ex-teacher and a Christian, shares this belief. "The project could have a very significant impact in improving the quality of training of teachers in this area," he says. "Many would argue that such an improvement is long overdue."
To provide support for teachers who want to try a different approach, REEP offers training events run by "presenters". Most are ex-teachers, some being specialists in environmental topics such as animal welfare or conservation, others experts in the teachings of one religion, or in multi-cultural education.
The sessions, generally held in school, may last a couple of hours, a morning, or a whole day, and can be tailored to the needs of individual schools or groups of teachers. Topics on offer include harvest and creation festivals, green assemblies and collective worship, churchyard conservation, animals in world religions, exploring religion and nature through the arts, and religious education in the school grounds.
Ann Lovelace, one of the team of 30 presenters, was head of religious education in a comprehensive school for 20 years. "RE can be quite a turn-off for young people, whereas an awful lot of them are interested in the environment," she says. "Green issues can have very obvious links with religion, such as in a reverence for creation."
Her speciality is green assemblies, which many teachers who contact REEP say they are interested in. She uses stories, poems, artefacts and visual images to show how children can be involved in practical activities. "This kind of thing isn't covered by teacher training; people want reassurance that what they're doing is both accurate and appropriate," she explains.
Initial reactions are favourable. Christine Wackett, head of Flamstead End Junior School in Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, says: "Schools can get very stale on things like assemblies: REEP threw a new light on what we were doing." Staff at Sir Thomas Abney Primary School in Hackney had a whole-day session. Head teacher Kathy Kelly recalls: "It was just wonderful: they have a very focused viewpoint, and gave us many ideas."
Many of the training events, especially those catering for primary schools, are deliberately inter-faith in nature. Others concentrate on a single faith, and look at how its teachings are relevant to environmental issues. Vivienne Cato runs sessions for teachers that link Judaism to the environment.
"Many children don't see the link between their faith and their interest in green issues," she suggests. "But there's a very strong drive in Judaism to guard the earth and protect it: a lot of post-Biblical Rabbinical teaching is about how to live righteously, why you shouldn't hurt animals or destroy things. All this isn't much known about."
Many teachers interested in adopting REEP's approach say they don't have the time to do so, because of the pressure to concentrate on core subjects such as maths and English. Others, perhaps prompted by uncertainty about whether they are complying with recent legislation, admit they are floundering.
"Primary schools commonly tell us they haven't covered RE at all," Robert Vint says. "They say they don't know where to start, they don't want to push a particular faith, and so they think the environment might be a good way in."
REEP is financed by the Metanoia Trust and the Goldsmith Foundation, and supported in its work by many established groups, including the Council for Environmental Education, Christian Aid, CAFOD, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Christian Ecology Link, and Human Scale Education.
It ran pilot sessions for a year before launching in July, with support from religious leaders and well known environmentalists such as Sir Crispin Tickell and Edward Goldsmith. And, of course, the Archbishop of Canterbury: "I find this very exciting and wish you God's richest blessing," he said.
For further information contact REEP, 8th Floor, Rodwell House, Middlesex Street, London El 7HJ, tel: 071-377 0604.