Editorial - Collective worship falls short on moral validity

7th August 2009 at 01:00
'Secular wasteland' Archbishop warns us against has fostered liberty, democracy and more

The Archbishop of Wales is none too happy. He is worried because the Assembly in Cardiff has opted to follow its counterpart at Westminster and allow sixth formers to drop out of collective worship, which all state schools in England and Wales have to provide by law and which has to be "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character" (pages 1 and 25). He is concerned that the proposal could be the thin end of the wedge - the start of a process that "ultimately marginalises ... collective worship in schools".

For many teachers who share the Archbishop's beliefs, that would be a pity. Even many who do not share his beliefs can see the value in collective worship. Christianity is terribly handy when it comes to providing inspiring lessons for assemblies. It is not short on drama and its jukebox is peerless. When all is said and done, those of a different religion or none are hardly going to have their world view challenged by serial renditions of "Ave Maria" or "Kumbaya".

There again, there are those teachers who believe that collective worship means nothing more than slipping in a few verses of "All things Bright and Beautiful" for the benefit of a visiting Estyn inspector. And they would rather not have to go to that trouble. Indeed, the Archbishop is "not sure that all schools have got to grips with what 'worship' is about, as distinct from 'assembly'." Worship, he argues, takes assembly to another level and allows every youngster to get in touch with their inner spirituality. This, if you are a non-believer, is as convincing as Keith Chegwin as Hamlet and rather less illuminating. It means precisely nothing.

The Archbishop, however, is insistent. He believes that schools that lack a clear spiritual dimension "risk becoming narrowly focused on personal attainment". Moreover, his Grace goes on to lament that without exposure to worship, pupils will inhabit "a bland secular wasteland". At which point, many non-religious teachers could be forgiven for feeling ever so slightly miffed. That would be the same secular wasteland that has fostered liberty, democracy, unprecedented religious tolerance, respect for the individual, an appreciation of difference, multiculturalism, women's, children's and gay rights ... contemporary civilisation in short. It may have also spawned the X Factor, shopping malls and Noel Edmonds, but it sure as hell doesn't have to take responsibility for Beirut, Belfast or Belsen.

Teaching the worth of a world beyond the individual is not a value that is the copyright of churches, mosques or synagogues. Astonishingly, most people in Britain are perfectly capable of teaching their children right from wrong without reference to the Bible, Torah or Koran. For many Britons, places of worship, frankly, aren't that ethical. "Collective worship" has about as much moral validity as Enron. If the governments in Cardiff and London had any cojones, they would not stop at allowing sixth formers to opt out of compulsory collective worship, they would abolish it for the entire school community.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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