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National Secular Society

Challenging Religious Privilege

Even the Church of England knows that collective worship in schools is unjustifiable

By Keith Porteous Wood

The debate last week in the House of Lords in which NSS-instigated amendments on Collective Worship were considered certainly got under the skin of the Church of England’s hierarchy.

Dr Rob Gwynne, the C of E’s head of schools strategy told the Church Times: “There is no doubt that there is a calculated attack by secularists on the traditions and practices of Church of England schools currently supported by legislation”.

NSS Honorary Associate Lord Avebury, who led the debate about which Dr Gwynne was complaining, thought this comment was so wide of the mark, he wondered whether Dr Gwynne had actually read the Hansard record.

Dr Gwynne was certainly correct, however, as identifying the NSS and our Honorary Associates as being the source of his disquiet. We provoked what was probably the best debate on collective worship there has been, with calls for optional worship and optional attendance – and, failing that, older pupils to be able to absent themselves from the daily ritual without the permission of their parents.

The chair of the Church of England Board of Education (the Bishop of Oxford) claimed that because the census showed 71% identifying as Christians (undefined) that “most parents are happy with the way we go about things at the moment”.

Perhaps somebody could mention to the noble prelate that the number of under-15s going to church would be a more relevant statistic. Whatever basis is taken for the figures, they show an inexorable and spectacular decline in organised religion.

Figures by Dr Peter Brierley show attendance in England exceeding 1.4 million in 1997 had shrunk to below 0.5 million in 2010 and was predicted to fall to 374,000 in 2020. Seemingly, losing 1 million children in less than a quarter of a century is not worthy of comment by the bishop.

The Bishop of Lichfield did little better. He justified the continuation of this daily intrusion into the rights of children to follow their own conscience by claiming that the first thing demanded by young soldiers returning from war is a religious service.

We do not doubt that they want to pay respect to their fallen comrades, but before accepting any validity or relevance in the Bishop’s comments, we would like to see the evidence of whether the troops concerned have been asked whether they would prefer a religious service or a non-religious ceremony.

The desperation of the excuse-making for retaining collective worship indicates that even the Church of England realises that Collective Worship is untenable.

Following the debate, Lord Avebury, and the NSS’s Keith Porteous Wood and campaigns manager Stephen Evans discussed technical aspects of Collective Worship with officials at the Department for Education.

Published Fri, 29 Jul 2011