`Worship' the key to assembly problems

4th November 1994 at 00:00
A more flexible definition of worship could solve the problems posed by the laws demanding daily "broadly Christian" assemblies, according to the Church of England's spokesman on education.

There is already a professional consensus that the law is unworkable, with the headteachers' unions stating that their members are unable or unwilling to stage acts of collective worship. The Government's inspectorate has found that a very high proportion of schools is breaking the law.

Speaking in a personal capacity, the Rt Rev David Young, the Bishop of Ripon, last week told The TES that collective worship could have meaning for many more pupils and teachers if schools ceased to concentrate solely on traditional forms of words, focusing instead on spiritual development in assemblies.

The bishop, chairman of the Church of England's Board of Education, caused controversy earlier in the year when, again speaking in a personal capacity, he said that the law should be amended and that schools should be free to choose whether or not they want to have collective worship.

"I would want to make strong links between the emphasis in the '88 Act on spiritual growth, and the place of collective worship," he said last week. "By the word spiritual I'm meaning something like the development of the interior person, the development of creativity and motivation, as well as the academic or learning skills.

"I would be looking for opportunities to explore experiences of community, experiences of success and failure, of grief - all these important experiences which are part of living. They are also educational experiences. There is a great deal to explore: ideas of symbol, or of form - silence, reflection, as well as words."

An emphasis on spiritual development would please Her Majesty's Inspectorate which, in a private briefing for the Department for Education late last year, said that daily acts of broadly Christian worship were both unworkable and potentially divisive. Instead, it praised the large number of assemblies it had seen which were spiritual, but not broadly Christian.

A wider vision of worship could conceivably be reached without the antagonism from entrenched Conservative party opinion that an attempt to change the legal wording would provoke. Much of the official view is contained in circulars on the subject rather than in the statute, as for example illustrated by the demands that collective worship give a special status to the person of Jesus Christ.

This was contained in a circular issued last January, but makes no appearance in the 1988 Education Act. A changed definition of worship could similarly be confined to a circular.

The Church's Board of Education is considerably more cautious than the Bishop of Ripon, and includes several traditionalists who have yet to be persuaded of the case for dropping the current approach. The recent announcement that it will "review" its position on collective worship is, however, testament to the weight of opinion now massed against the existing situation. In a recent statement, the board went so far as to say that a change in the law may prove necessary.

The board does not consider "collective worship" to be the same as corporate worship - which is to say the sort of activity carried out by people of the same belief, as in Church. Which leaves very much open the question of what "collective worship" does involve.

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