Articles of Faith, Bury Business Centre, Kay Street, Lancashire.
Tel: 0161 705 1878. Jon O'Connor discovers a selection of religious artefacts to appeal to all ages.
For teachers wishing to introduce a more meaningful approach to religious education, the 16-page Articles of Faith catalogue provides a plethora of solutions, including "starter packs" for each of the major faiths and a remarkable range of individual items.
The company is run by Christine and Leslie Howard, who have both held posts in local education authority advisory services. They specialise in providing original religious artefacts which attest to religious conviction, works of art within a religious tradition, representational figures and items used in ceremonies and festivals.
Some artefacts reflect religious culture, such as the woman's head scarf within the Islamic section, serving as a reminder of the tradition that Muslim women should be modestly dressed.
The Touch Torah toys designed for Jewish children, such as the soft fabric Chanukiyah, with delightful detachable velcro flames, show the commitment of major faiths to what might be described as an apprenticeship to faith.
While some materials are intended to make ceremonies and spiritual symbolism accessible for the young, children will also wonder at the craft work and the richness of the materials used by adults.
The beauty and quality of the selection reflects the fact that none of the items are produced specially for schools; they are all genuine pieces, which are used as part of everyday religious observance and practice.
Christine Howard explains her own credo with infectious enthusiasm. All items for inclusion in the catalogues are assessed according to whether there is a clear purpose for them in the classroom. Such first-hand experience leads naturally to further enquiry into the purpose and nomenclature of these symbols of faith.
The company imports representative materials from around the world, such as an exquisite wooden crucifix from San Salvador. This can sometimes lead to tangling with complex customs clearance procedures which seem more surreal than spiritual. At the moment, hidden away somewhere in a crowded warehouse of bureaucratic limbo, there is an overdue stock of turbans. The effort to bring Bhuddist robes through has involved lengthy negotiations, culminating in the bizarrely mundane classification of these robes as "occupational dress".
The Articles of Faith Collections offer a saving of up to 20 per cent over the individual items they include. The Hindu Collection includes a set of prayer beads, small murti (models) of characters from the Ramayana, a Puja set for worship, Joss sticks and Kum Kum powder, used for making the tikla mark of blessing on the forehead.
The Jewish collection includes a nine-branched traditional brass Chanukiyah, the Torah scrolls and the Passover Seder plate.
From the Buddhist collection, the most striking items include a white plaster Kamakaru Buddha seated in the meditation posture and a Tibetan example of a wooden prayer wheel.
The Christian collection includes a white china Madonna, an icon, a crucifix for wall mounting, an olive-wood rosary from Israel, Advent calendar and baptism certificate. This particular set emphasises the diversity of Christian conviction within dozens of cultures and traditions.
The Muslim collection provides a beautiful prayer mat, a Qur'an stand and English-Arabic Qur'an, Eid card, Hajj Robe and a Quiblah, which is a compass to show the direction of Mecca.
The Pakistan and Saudi Arabian national flags represent an interesting reminder that in some cases the commitment of a people to a particular faith is literally woven into their identity.
The Sikh Collection includes a starched turban not necessarily approved on all sides of the Sikh community, despite its origins in Amritsar. There are also the Mala prayer beads, the Kirpan sword and the Kacchera (shorts) which are among the five K's of Sikh symbolism. In each and every case, their presence motivates enquiry into the underlying meaning of symbolism attached to such artefacts.
A series of cassette tapes provides examples of religious music and a series of video cassettes introduces pupils to the main tenets of Hinduism, Bhuddism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism and Christianity. There are individual titles which are suitable for pupils of all ages. Posters are also available, as are books ranging from teacher guidance to traditional recipe collections. For customers spending over Pounds 100, the company offers a free copy of a guide to the use of artefacts in religious education. They will also provide in-service training courses for local authorities or individual schools.