James Noble believes there's usually only one thing wrong with religious assemblies: they're boring. Luckily, he's got some very lively - and very devout - friends who can lift the tedium. Katherine Miller reports.
Is anyone prepared to stand up for religious assemblies? Last month the headteachers' union reaffirmed its call for daily acts of collective worship to be abolished. And no less a figure than the Archbishop of Wales, the Most Reverend Alwyn Rice Jones, has said in a letter to The Times that he would rather see school prayers ditched than done badly.
James Noble is also dismayed by the decline in the quality of assemblies, many of which he says are little more than "general notices about blocked lavatories". For the past 10 years Mr Noble, 77, has been fighting to take the boredom out of religion in schools. A former theatre impresario in the West End, where he worked with the likes of Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward and Ralph Richardson, he now takes bookings for more spritually motivated performers.
He is chairman of A Company of Speakers, a charity he founded in 1988 and which he runs from his home in Cambridge. It aims to enliven religious discussion and activity in schools "by the orchestration of the talents of experienced Christian speakers".
"Clergy are not allowed to promote themselves," Mr Noble says. "That, coupled with a diffidence on the part of many state school heads to approach, say, a bishop, means that many of this country's best speakers remain undiscovered by state schools. I believe our children deserve better than that."
He has 239 volunteer speakers on his books, from both the clergy and laity, who are chosen for their ability to "reach out to children with magical stories", drawn from their own experiences. "There is no Bible-punching or indoctrination, speakers are inter-denominational and, when addressing multi-racial groups, cover subjects common to all faiths, such as prayer and forgiveness.
"There is no asking 11-year-olds to come to the platform to give their lives to the Lord."
The speakers all come to him on personal recommendation, and he visits each school before deciding who to select, and gets feedback on each "performance". Speakers deemed boring are quietly dropped from his list.
John Reilly, head of sixth form at the Cotswold School in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, regularly invites Mr Noble and other speakers to address his students. The benefits are two-fold. "It lets us off the hook, and the kids are captivated by the language, emotion and subject matter," he says.
An Anglican himself, Mr Noble finds that his most gifted communicators are often Roman Catholic nuns, many of whom have taught disadvantaged children. "If I have a difficult school to go to, I ask myself, will it be a bishop, a general or a nun? The nun nearly always wins."
One such nun is Sister Marie Clancy, whose repertoire extends to primary and secondary schools and who gets rave reviews wherever she goes. "It's less to do with me and more to do with what I tell them about being people with rights and responsibilities," she says.
"I have them in the palm of my hand because no one has ever told them that they must make the best of their gifts." After one visit, a headteacher wrote to James Noble to say: "We have never had such tranquillity in school, before that nun spoke to us."
Another popular speaker is the Revd Ron Lloyd from Oxfordshire, a former maths and RE teacher and the author of several books on school assemblies. Twinkly-eyed and blessed with a mellifluous voice, Lloyd attributes his enthusiasm to his Welsh upbringing. "One vicar I knew would always wrap up his sermon with a story. It was then I realised the power of a good story to encapsulate my message."
One of his tales, which works with all age groups, concerns two little boys who are dying in hospital. One boy puts aside his own pain to entertain the other by describing the activities of the people he can see from the window - scenes, as Mr Lloyd's young listeners gradually discover, he has invented to ease the suffering of his companion.
Falklands War veteran Chris Keeble is also in James Noble's "first X1". A regular guest at secondaries, Mr Keeble presents his audience with ethical dilemmas, taken from his own career, in which pupils choose not between good and evil, but between two conflicting goods. "I try to raise their awareness of spiritual ideas," he says. "What I find remarkable is what they don't ask, as if there is a moral muteness about."
James Noble's own account of God and godlessness in the Japanese POW camp where he was interned for three years during the Second World War is moving and dramatic, without a trace of self-pity. However, there is one anecdote he does not tell: at the age of 14 he was expelled from boarding school for a trivial misdemeanour. Expulsion in the 1930s was rare, and the young James was despatched to a school for "backward boys", with his father's reprimand that he had "lost his social standing for all time" ringingin his ears.
But James's form master stood by his disgraced former pupil, with whom struck up a correspondence, and James Noble went on to shine at his new school. A triumph of faith, you might say.
* A Company of Speakers: 25 Portugal Place, Cambridge, CB5 8AF.