Past perspectives

5th March 2004 at 00:00
Terence Copley looks at the issues raised in a controversial thesis.

Whatever Happened to Religious Education?

By Penny Thompson. Lutterworth Press, pound;17.50

Did liberal Christians, who dominated RE in the 1960s, cave in unnecessarily to humanist pressure to scrap Christian-based RE? If so, the Christian basis of the subject was jettisoned to appease a minority lobby.

What if this was reinforced after 1988 by the best intentions of the Education Reform Act being thwarted by leading RE professionals and the DES, to promote the opposite - a view of RE, which was by then rigid orthodoxy inside the RE profession? This highly controversial thesis is proposed by Penny Thompson, herself a seasoned classroom RE teacher, who has researched the recent history of RE and also expounds what, in her view, RE should be doing. "A religion needs to be taught for what it is, for its own sake and for the inspiration that it uniquely offers." But RE teachers now are "expected to adopt the position of an agnostic".

Modern RE is bland, nice, and tame. It has domesticated religions.

"Learning from religion" is a bad attainment target and leads simply to finding secular parallels for religious beliefs and practice, reducing religions to morals. RE has been damaged by thematic teaching, by Goldman's attack on using the Bible, by the phenomenological approach, by an unsuitable orthodoxy gripping teacher training, by avoidance of religious truth claims and by blatantly subverting the wishes of the 1988 legislators in the House of Lords debates on RE.

Penny Thompson's book contains some valid criticisms of fashions in RE, which were muddled or ill-conceived. But her basic argument is flawed in four respects. There never were, and certainly aren't now, enough Christian teachers in RE to staff "Christian-only RE" in every school, even if we wanted to do it. Christian RE ran into trouble at least from the 1930s.

Secondly, if RE had not moved away from Christian nurture and into a more open and world-religions-based approach, it might well have been swept out of the curriculum altogether in the 1970s as an exercise better suited to the churches than the community school.

Thirdly, when legislation arrives on the statute books, one ignores the words of the legislators to concentrate on the words of the law. Only the law is binding.

The final problem with her argument is that the humanists were not baddies.

All that most of them were asking was that RE should not proselytise and that it should allow children the right to choose between religious and non-religious interpretations of life. Penny Thompson's spirited case in the end is "not proven".

Terence Copley is professor of RE at the University of Exeter

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