The lesson of Good Friday

28th March 1997 at 00:00
Elizabeth Templeton on why religious education matters more than ever.

Various layers of awareness fuse in my consciousness. This is Good Friday, possibly the most solemn feast of the Christian year, yet increasingly insignificant to secular culture, except as the start of a holiday weekend. It is five days into the gloves-off contest for the next election victory, where Michael Forsyth's extraordinary claims to be "raising the standard" face the multiple challenges of staffroom misery and college disquiet. It is 45 months off the millennium, which - even if few own it as a specifically Christian anniversary - is likely to be some kind of time for global stocktaking, not to mention religious hysteria of various sorts.

Who are we? Where are we going?

The Christian Education Movement has existed in its present form for 32 years, with roots going back to the liberal ecumenical traditions of the late 19th century as "the Student Christian Movement in Schools". The name is misleading to those who expect Christians to be concerned about defending Christianity against other faiths, or exclusive in their concern for its propagation. The CEM has been in the vanguard of those who, since the 1970s, have helped to change the face of the classroom RE scene, from a haphazard mixture of vaguely Christian nurture and Biblical learning along with smatterings of ethical debate, to a professional subject whose rationale is clear, and whose range is excitingly enlarged.

Many parents, with bleak memories of tracking St Paul round the eastern Mediterranean, or even of learning the Ten Commandments off by heart (not so many of those around nowadays), may be surprised by the width of the curriculum: a third specifically devoted to Christianity in its various aspects; a third to more than token presentation of other major living world faiths; and a third to what is called "personal search", the child's own journey towards grasping the meaning of their own life, and the identifying of basic values.

The CEM, in tandem with the Scottish Working Party on World Religions in Education, is convinced that these three areas of concern interact. The child doesn't discover a sense of meaning, value and purpose in a vacuum, but in interaction with society, the environment and, specifically in RE, with the major living traditions which command significant allegiance in today's world. You don't have to be religious to be human: but understanding religion can help the growth process.

For all that we are a broadly secular society, it is not possible to live creatively as a citizen of today's world, be it in the Middle East, in South-east Asia or in central Glasgow without some grasp of how a religious heritage is received and modified. Children are not asked to learn about Sikh festivals or Buddhist monks in order to cram their growing brains with miscellaneous assorted data, but because awareness of and sensitivity to the major faiths may help them become more open, caring, thoughtful, critical and empathetic adults.

It may not make them believers, but it should make them religiously educated, which is a different matter, demanding a maturing sense of what a 1992 CEM publication called The Pursuit of Truth in the Community. In contemporary society, both "truth" and "community" have taken some knocking, not least from a Government with massive ideological commitments to individualist and consumerist values. The framework of the religious and moral education curriculum provides one place within the school where there can be some explicit grappling with such questions. Schools might even find a focus for some cross-bench reflection on what kind of microcosm of society they are trying to be.

Many children register quite early in life that religion has negative implications in terms of its capacity to generate intolerance, bigotry and war. For some, that is the final judgment, though, rather to the surprise of the secularist predictions of the 1960s, religion is still a source of controversy and interest. If we are to move in the next centuries to a new stage in global village-hood, huge energy must be put into mutual understanding across faith boundaries just as the last century inched its way to a point where Catholics and Protestants now see themselves more and more as members of a shared Christian community.

That will not be without conflict and opposition: for one of the aspects of our age, pre-millennial or not, is a tendency to fundamentalism, and fundamentalists of any faith or ideology do not like dialogue, openness, exposure to "the other". The distrust between leading personalities in the British Jewish community, the fervour of Taliban extremists against moderate Islamic practice, the shrillness of the moral majority towards liberal Christian textbooks bear witness to the power of the hard line. Sectarian interests are alive and well even north of Hadrian's Wall and need combating. Religious and moral education has a key role to play here, but these are hard times, especially for non-specialist primary teachers, who face an imploding curriculum, and are deprived of the specialist guidance that was, before disaggregation, available through regional advisers. Only a small minority of the new councils have a specialist responsible for RE advisory services, and most of those are part-time or responsible for several other curricular areas.

The Christian Education Movement seeks to assist teachers, students, churches, individuals who want informed and positive resources for the educational conversation with and about other faiths. We work through publications which help teachers to offer lively, accurate, imaginative RE at all curricular levels. We see that not as inconsistent with the Christian faith which brought the movement into being, but as a direct consequence of it. As Colin Johnson, the CEM's publications director, writes in Christian Teachers and World Faiths (1996), the concern for truth, the commitment to love and the willingness for dialogue all commit the Christian teacher to multi-faith RE. For others, the motivation, religious or secular, may be named differently, but a positive commitment to multi-faith education is no betrayal of any specific faith.

For Christians this is particularly salutary to remember on Good Friday. On the political level, crucifixion is, in our society, merely a metaphor, but a potent one. In addition to our role as providers of materials and in-service resources, the Christian Education Movement also seeks to stimulate awareness of, and dialogue about, basic issues of justice and value in education as a whole. In particular, the critique of the "money culture" and its negative skewing of educational vision and strategy has been high on the agenda in recent years. Here, too, ideology "costs lives", the lives particularly of disadvantaged children and the teachers who serve them in some of the least "presentable" settings of Scotland, being scapegoated as failures to vindicate the rhetoric of meritocracy.

"From him that hath nought shall be taken away even what he hath." Dynamite, this Christianity. Handle with care. Especially before elections.

Elizabeth Templeton is development officer with the Christian Education Movement in Scotland.

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