Putting life back into Christianity

28th November 2003 at 00:00
Why is the world's largest religion taught so badly, asks Terence Copley, and what can we do?

Seventy-two per cent of the UK population still claim to be Christian (2001 census), although the number of secular weddings and funerals is increasing. But the 50 per cent of the nation's children who went to Sunday School in 1950 have shrunk to approximately 5 per cent today. Only 8 per cent of adults attend church regularly - though this is a disputed statistic and may be higher - while the other 64 per cent who are Christian are presumably in Tesco, bed or the fitness club on Sunday morning.

Maybe lots of people identify with Christianity but feel that the worship of the churches doesn't help them, except perhaps at Christmas and Easter.

At the same time, secular voices are articulate and loud in the media. It isn't politically correct to call the UK a Christian country any more. Even Christmas cards are now called season cards in some shops. Unnecessary and daft! Non-Christian religions aren't offended that the birth of Jesus is celebrated. Atheists don't refuse to sing carols. So how has this political correctness - actually a piece of secular indoctrination - come about?

Let's face it, British society is mixed up about religion and finds it embarrassing. Ask any RE teacher what a conversation stopper it can be at a party to reveal what their job is. In this confused situation, teaching about Christianity in RE lessons during the 11 years of compulsory schooling is extremely important. It offers children - whatever their religious upbringing and their developing personal beliefs - insight into the culture of the UK and into the world's largest and still growing religion and its history. It also offers some children the option of a faith to live by. It gives all students the chance to disentangle the muddle. Yet Christianity is frequently the worst taught religion in RE and the least enjoyable to learn. Why?

In the primary school the teacher already has the skills needed to teach Christianity in RE - story-telling, art, drama, question and answer, montage and so on. But many teachers are iffy about teaching Christianity more than other religions. This could be because non-specialist teachers may be unsure about RE in general and wonder if they're still expected to promote Christianity rather than to present it. It may be because they aren't sure about their own beliefs and values. Or it may be that they feel they lack adequate subject knowledge, especially in terms of the biblical background.

In the secondary school the problem is more to do with the "done it already" syndrome from children. They may be confusing "doing Christmas" every year in primary school with "doing Christianity".

Secondary RE needs to emphasise, where primary hasn't already, that for 300 years Christianity existed without a Christmas Day. It also existed without a Bible, church buildings, a day off for worship and a professional clergy - which can help children to question their assumptions about Christianity if it was not all these things for 300 years.

Research at Exeter University shows that at least in relation to Jesus, key stage 3 RE agreed syllabuses are not presenting the Jesus of world religions - Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Rastafarianism - or the Jesus of the latest New Testament scholarship. The results of questionnaires and selected interviews with 542 Year 8 children asking what they understand about Jesus and where they got their ideas from are contained in a research report. Free e-copies can be requested from biblos@exeter.ac.uk Currently the Exeter Jesus Project is testing curriculum materials to improve classroom teaching by action research.

But the biggest challenge in presenting Christianity in RE is to show that it is a vibrant, expanding world faith, whether one chooses to join it or not - and not just a pallid set of beliefs that no one would bother to live for, let alone be willing to die for.

Heritage Christianity - showing how it underpins our cultural past - is rather like the clapped out old trains which some railway companies are still using, laughably named "heritage rolling stock". They're useful but they won't roll very far. Heritage Christianity matters to understand western culture, but it can distort the vibrancy of the living thing. We can easily present Islam as an expanding, culturally diverse, planetary faith with a confident self-identity. So how come we can't do the same for Christianity? And if British Christianity is in unconfident decline, why do we assume Britain is leading the world?

Terence Copley is professor of religious education at the University of Exeter


Present it as a culturally diverse, global religion

Illustrate that most of the world's Christians are non-Europeans

Show different sorts of Christian worship: formal, informal; different denominations: Pentecostalists, Anglo-Catholics, Salvation Army, house churches

Show that one third of the world's Christians are Orthodox (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox etc)

Include Roman Catholics - RE is often implicitly Protestant in its presentation of Christianity. Yet Roman Catholicism is the biggest church on the planet.

Put biblical narrative into its own cultural context - the gospels are not like modern biographies

If older children claim to "know it all", study unusual material like the Gospel of Thomas

Let children interview "real" believers and ask them questions, don't let pupils be talked at

Get a member of the clergy to go through a week in their diary with a class to show their work

Induct KS3 and 4 into the current debates and arguments in Christianity

Present Christianity as something that can change lives.


Assume everybody knows what it is

Present it as a white European religion

Present Christianity as just a set of beliefs

Never mention Jesus's Jewish identity

Don't explain the word Christ

Moralise Jesus's parables, omitting all mention of God

Present the Temptations (Matthew 4.1-11) as facts a TV camera would record

Tell the miracle narratives without any explanation or discussion

Use only pictures of middle-aged male clergy in old church buildings

Reinforce the British public image of a declining Church

Invite elderly Christians to give boring talks about Christianity in lessons

Restrict "modern Christians" to Mother Theresa and Cliff Richard.

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