Case study: a minister takes assembly

28th November 2003 at 00:00
It's 10:15 on a Tuesday morning in late September. A piece of classical music plays as the junior classes file in and sit down. Once everyone is settled, the headteacher asks if anyone knows the composer, gives out a few notices, then introduces me. "Bruce is taking our assembly this morning."

I'm waiting for groans - understandable, given that I've taken well over 150 assemblies at Comber Grove, but the children are looking up at me expectantly. My youngest daughter is in Year 4, so she's somewhere in the middle.

I start with a lateral thinking exercise. "What have the following numbers got in common - 8, 16, 24, 32 and 41?" A few of the older ones immediately lapse into the eight times table but realise mid-answer that it doesn't quite work. None of the teachers has a hand up. In the end I tell them:

"They're all king prawn dishes." Nobody gets it, so I explain, then encourage them to try it out on their parents. I always enjoyed knowing things my parents didn't.

Usually the starter has something to do with my theme for the morning, which I tend to develop with a combination of interactive bits, stories from the Bible and other books, and important moments from history and my own experience. Stories are always a winner, although the telling needs to be well-thought through and crafted, with special attention given to any lessons I want to draw from them. It's their complexity, not their simplicity, that's so compelling, and you can ruin a story by coming out with some trite lesson that isn't really there.

I've always felt uneasy about assemblies "of a broadly Christian character", not least because I'm plying my trade in a state school. The blend of Christian, nominal Christian, other faith and no faith presents a substantial challenge. I'm regularly told by adults that they applaud Christian values but can't stomach the dogma, and while I'm always ready to argue that point, I also recognise the importance of retaining teachers'

and parents' confidence.

When the Conservative government introduced its legislation about collective worship having a "wholly or mainly Christian character" in 1988, our local authority came up with an ingenious definition of the word "worship" - those things to which we attach worth. I'm happy to run with that, so I never lead prayers in my assemblies, and I don't talk about belief and unbelief. The downside is that one of my infant assemblies was failed by our first set of Ofsted inspectors; the upside is that parents don't feel the need to withdraw their children on religious grounds.

The biggest challenge is to pitch the assembly right. If I don't, I may be saying important stuff, but nobody's listening. I always do Christian songs with the infants, but I've found it more difficult to do that with the juniors, perhaps because of the wider age-spread and the musical taste of the older ones. Eye contact is important, so while I record in detail what I'm going to talk about, it may seem to the children as though I'm making it up as I go along.

The idea that every human being bears the image of God is a religious concept, but it does say something important about the way all people therefore need to be handled with respect. I talk about two older people I knew who were known as local drunks. When the first one died, it was a fortnight before anyone discovered his body. There seemed to be no one looking out for him. When the other died, I was asked to take the funeral.

I made the usual enquiries about his earlier years, and discovered that the drinking only started after he was jilted at the altar. The children are listening closely and something seems to be registering.

By 10.40am it's over and everyone is filing out to the playground. I'm feeling quite drained and a little unsure as to how it has been received.

The headteacher smiles and thanks me. Now I've got to start thinking about Thursday afternoon with the infants.

Bruce Stokes is minister of Brandon Baptist Church, Camberwell, south London, and a governor at Comber Grove school, London borough of Southwark

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