Worship opt-out is betrayal of the young

7th August 2009 at 01:00
Wales' decision to follow England on religion-free assemblies condemns post-16s to spiritual wasteland

When I meet sixth formers in schools, I am struck by their enthusiasm for issues of faith and their willingness to engage in meaningful discussion. That is one of the reasons why people across the spectrum of faiths were so disappointed by the Welsh Assembly Government's decision in January to allow sixth formers in Wales to opt out of collective worship in school, following England's decision to do so three years ago.

In so doing, collective worship has been branded as something that young people grow out of by the age of 16, at precisely the time when it might be the best way of feeding both their minds and their hearts as they start to explore the responsibilities and consequences of adult life.

It is important to remember that this legislation does not bring an end to school worship for sixth formers, but makes it optional. Even so, I am concerned that this is the thin end of the wedge and could be just the start of a process that devalues and ultimately marginalises the provision of collective worship in schools.

The value of this daily focal point for a school community will hardly be acknowledged by pupils lower down the school if those who they look up to in the sixth form choose not to attend.

The very mention of school assembly can conjure up a variety of memories for us all. For some, it will be the place where we heard the parable of the Good Samaritan or the story of William Wilberforce's struggle to abolish slavery, and were challenged to look at issues of forgiveness or social justice in our own lives and communities. Sadly, for others the memories will be of a mumbled Lord's Prayer followed by the football and hockey results and a telling-off about school uniform.

The daily act of collective worship presents for pupils of all ages a special occasion in the daily life of the school, when the community comes together in recognition, affirmation and celebration of shared values. A shared spiritual experience, the development of a sense of awe and wonder and a reverence and veneration for the divine all provide a chance for pupils to participate fully in, reflect on and respond to life and religious issues.

Without a clear recognition of a spiritual dimension, schools run the risk of becoming narrowly focused on personal attainment. The fundamental responsibility of every school is to develop and nurture the full potential of its pupils. Worship can play a role in this by allowing young people to ask searching questions and explore issues of personal faith that the curriculum does not address.

School worship can also be an opportunity to share the faith journey of others while extending personal knowledge and understanding and opening different pathways into spiritual experience. Worship that is well planned and well organised, engaging pupils in a conversation about their spirituality, will add an extra dimension and an added value to their education. Moreover, there should be an expectation that churches and faith groups will work in partnership with their local schools, ensuring that collective worship is stimulating, engaging and well resourced.

In September, the Church in Wales will publish a major report about its involvement in education across the principality. One of the key recommendations of the Church in Wales Education Review concerns the role of local churches and their engagement with secondaries in their community. Christians, along with the whole community of faith, can serve as a resource for schools, providing prayerful and practical support that might see them sharing expertise - in particular for collective worship.

Our work to equip the clergy to be effective communicators and reflective practitioners with an empathy and engagement with young people provides a further resource for schools.

The best collective worship sees a programme of imaginative, reflective space created in the lives of pupils during the school day. Sometimes, the strength of this is found in bringing the whole school together for a shared reflection. At other times, year groups or individual classes form a powerful peer group where common concerns can be explored in a way that goes beyond the curriculum.

Yet I am not sure that all schools have got to grips with what "worship" is about, as distinct from "assembly". There is enormous value in bringing a school community together for a shared time of fellowship, but worship can take this to another level. Every person has a deeply rooted spirituality and in young people this can be nurtured by asking deep and searching questions. Times of worship can allow this to take place.

Even schools in the most culturally diverse areas ought to be beacons of good practice in collective worship, where pupils can be offered the chance to learn the facts of faith and culture and then experience it alongside their brothers and sisters in the shared journey of faith. There is something very special about hearing Muslim and Christian children talk in friendship about the things that unite them and the things that make them distinctive.

Those who advocate a totally secular education system might do well to look at other nations that have followed this path, notably France and the United States, and reflect on their struggle to build a sense of cultural understanding and mutual respect that allows their diverse communities to live side by side.

The law that requires a daily act of worship in schools is not a mandate to compel pupils to recite the Lord's Prayer and be so inspired that they turn up at church the next Sunday: it is an invitation to experience what faith and commitment mean. How vital it is, therefore, to feed the minds and hearts of the 17 and 18-year-olds who stand on the cusp of adult life and all the responsibilities it carries. We must help them encounter a world that is not a bland secular wasteland, but a place of rich spiritual diversity where faith plays a fundamental role in moulding and shaping our lives.

Dr Barry Morgan, Archbishop of Wales.

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