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Newsline 11 October 2013

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Evangelism in schools?

Evangelism in schools?

Opinion | Fri, 11 Oct 2013

A report published this week by the National Secular Society has shone a much needed spotlight on the activities of evangelical Christian organisations operating in our children's schools.

The report reveals a concerted effort from evangelical organisations in the UK to target publicly funded schools as bases to promote the Christian message to young people, most of whom would otherwise have little or no contact with the Church.

Evangelical Christians can be a resourceful bunch. Packaging their evangelism as an 'educational resource', well-organised and sometimes well-funded evangelical groups and individuals are busy in schools pursuing their missionary objectives to 'bring children to Jesus' by providing schools with subjective and manipulative teaching resources, delivering lessons (not only as part of RE), and by preaching to pupils during schools visits.

At their worst, evangelists can turn school classrooms into pulpits to preach their own interpretation of the gospel. Often, however, aware of the need to justify their activity in schools on educational grounds, their approach is much more surreptitious, but no less manipulative.

The duplicity of their approach is well illustrated by this observation from one Christian schools worker:

"[evangelism is] the dark shadow in the closet of schools work. To the churches we talked evangelism. To the Head Teachers we talked education. We prayed the two would never meet."

I don't doubt for one minute that Christians, motivated by their faith, are carrying out valuable youth work up and down the country. I'm also aware that pupils' education can be greatly enhanced by the input made by external contributors. But, there is a clear clash of agendas between schools — whose purpose is education — and evangelical groups — whose primary concern is, quite clearly, evangelisation.

For example, one of the groups active in schools, Youth for Christ, regard it as their mission to "raise up lifelong followers of Jesus". According to its website: "Taking the Gospel relevantly is what we do. That has always been our vision, and it always will be...until every young person in Britain has heard and responded to the good news of Jesus Christ."

Another organisation active in schools is Scripture Union. It describes its mission as "to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ among children". The group's goal is to ensure "that all may come to a personal faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, grow in Christian maturity and become both committed church members". With the aim of "reaching the unreached with the gospel", Scripture Union says working in schools is one of its main priorities.

Another group, Prayer Spaces in Schools (PSiS), has been busy setting up almost 600 'prayer spaces' in schools (at last count). The initiative has reached more than 100,000 children and young people, many of whom "have prayed personal prayers for the first time in their lives", say PSiS.

Prayer Spaces in Schools is an initiative of 24-7 Prayer, an organisation that exists "to reconcile the world to God in Jesus Christ". According to Prayer Spaces in Schools, its work helps to enable young people to meet many of the requirements for religious education in primary schools. 24-7's vision for the UK is to "establish a national project working with teachers to serve the national curriculum so that hundreds of thousands of students can swap talking about God in Religious Studies classes to talking to Him".

So there we have it. Instead of talking about God in religious education, what these groups really want to see is pupils talking to Him.

For many, the point of religious education isn't really to teach objectively about religion and belief, it's about teaching children how to be religious – but surely that's purely and squarely a parental responsibility, for those who want it, and certainly not the role of a state education system.

Worryingly, gaining entry to schools appears to be a relatively easy process for evangelicals on a mission. According to Open the Book, a national organisation that sends teams of Christians from local churches into schools to perform dramatised Bible stories:

"More and more people are grasping the simplicity with which churches can extend and enjoy their ministry to every child in their locality – especially to the 'unchurched' and their families."

In some cases, it seems likely that visits to schools are being facilitated by sympathetic teachers. But often, unsure as to what they're supposed to be achieving in 'collective worship' and RE, schools are naively welcoming offers of help when local evangelical groups come knocking.

Given the rapidly changing religious landscape in Britain, and in particular the diminishing interest in religion amongst young people (and their parents), it is easy to see why evangelical groups regard access to schools as essential if they are to raise the next generation of believers.

But the presence of such groups in schools undermines the rights of parents who rightly expect a state education for their child that doesn't run counter to their own religious and philosophical convictions. There is therefore a need to question and scrutinise the activities of evangelical organisations and individuals working as external visitors in our schools.

The Department for Education, who, let's face it, have been caught severely lacking when it comes to regulating the activities of religious groups involved with schools, could lead the way by issuing clear national guidance to schools setting out best practice for working with external visitors and contributors. Schools also should publish their own robust external visitor's policy which expressly forbids proselytizing and evangelism.

But ultimately, what we need is a more secular approach to education generally. A removal of the legal obligation to provide worship, and a replacement subject for RE that takes an objective and balanced approach to education about religion would go a long way to shutting the door on groups seeking to use our education system for their own evangelical ends.

Until then, it's clear that head teachers need to be much more discerning about the groups they are letting into their schools.

Read the report: Evangelism in state schools - the role of external visitors in publicly funded education (pdf)

Scouts: Reflections on a victory from a former Scout Leader

Scouts: Reflections on a victory from a former Scout Leader

Opinion | Thu, 10 Oct 2013

So, it took about 25 years but it's finally happened.

My campaign to get the Scout Association to change its promise began in the late 1980's when a brilliant assistant leader I had was hounded out of the movement for daring to suggest that the movement introduce just what they have introduced.

Along the way, I have met many heartbroken adults who've been desperate to give back to Scouting what they got from it as children, but were prevented from doing so by the movement's strict religious requirements. But I didn't just campaign for them.

During my 30 year career as a Scout Leader, I campaigned for girls to be admitted. 'Never!' they said. The first ever girl who joined my Scout Troop now runs it and also trains other leaders.

I campaigned for gays and lesbians to be given membership. 'Never!' they said. Last summer I stood in Regent Street watching The Fellowship of Lesbians and Gays in Scouting marching through London on the Gay Pride March wearing the scarf I designed for them!

But when I campaigned for a simple secular promise OPTION that would allow non-believers to join whilst (rightly) leaving the religious one intact, they said Never! far more loudly than ever before. And no amount of campaigning by me, the NSS and BHA or the many hundreds of leaders who joined my cause, could even get them to consider it.

It took a moment of brave realisation by one official that the world had changed and that as a movement, Scouting by definition, had to change with it to bring about the simple change we sought.

Scouting now really is open to all – something that the writings of Baden Powell show he would have wanted. Last summer, I retired from all work involving children after 35 years, so I no longer wish to play the game of Scouting. However, as the old saying goes, 'once a Scout, always a Scout'. And I am once again proud to be a Scout.

Shaun Joynson is a former Scout Leader and an NSS member. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

NSS welcomes Ofsted analysis of the state of RE, but warns recommendations don't go far enough

NSS welcomes Ofsted analysis of the state of RE, but warns recommendations don't go far enough

News | Sat, 05 Oct 2013

The National Secular Society has welcomed a new analysis of the state of religious education in schools from the education regulator Ofsted, but has warned its report's recommendations don't go far enough.

What is the freedom of expression if not the freedom of the heretic who thinks differently?

What is the freedom of expression if not the freedom of the heretic who thinks differently?

Opinion | Thu, 10 Oct 2013

"The right of each person to dress … as they choose has been at the core of the cohesion of our multicultural society"
– Jay Stoll, General Secretary, LSE Students' Union, September 18, 2013

"The SU asked the students to cover the t-shirts in the interests of good campus relations"
– Jay Stoll, General Secretary, LSE Students' Union, October 4, 2013

The trouble with advertising yourself as an institution for people who enjoy being "challenged intellectually, socially and personally" is that some of us will actually believe it, and expect you to live up to that promise by being a haven for free inquiry and free expression.

This was the delusion under which Christian Moos and I set up our Atheists' Stall at the LSE Freshers' Fair on Thursday morning, wearing t-shirts featuring an award-winning comic strip known for its crisp satires of the monotheisms. In this way, we hoped to greet our new members with a popular and light-hearted lampoon. Then political correctness caught up.

The London School of Economics Student Union (LSESU) will tell you that its scandalous crackdown was prompted by concerns that our t-shirts jeopardised "good campus relations" and the "spirit of the Freshers' Fair". Perhaps some of this bonhomie was lost in translation, because where a polite request would have sufficed, we were subjected to an ambush.

At noon, the Community and Welfare Officer Anneessa Mahmood barged in and began ripping our publicity material off the wall, while her companions, the Deputy Chief Executive Jarlath O'Hara and Anti-Racism Officer Rayhan Uddin, demanded we take off our t-shirts on pain of being hauled bodily from the premises. Their Kafkaesque refrain was that the t-shirts were "offensive" to some students and that an explanation would be provided at some point after our eviction.

We stood our ground, protesting our innocence, and so Paul Thornbury, the Head of LSE Security, was summoned to inform us that we were not behaving in an "orderly and responsible manner", and that our wearing the t-shirts could be considered "harassment", as it could create an "offensive environment", which is an absurd claim to make of wholly innocuous t-shirts whose writing, in any case, is obscured unless you stop, stare and squint at the right angle while the wearer is still. And that's if you visit the Atheist Society Stall, never the most popular hangout for deeply religious people anyway.

Mr Thornbury was unmoved by our arguments, and had us surrounded by security guards, with the warning that should we disobey his command, we would be dragged out. Browbeaten and awaiting a clearer interpretation of the rules, we said we would temporarily put on our jackets, and so in a surreal sequence, the Head of LSE Security hovered about us like a short-sighted tailor, assessing whether we had concealed enough, pausing to protest at one point that the word "prophet" was visible from a certain angle. He then deputed two guards to stand in the aisle, facing our stall, to stop us attempting to take our jackets off and to shadow us wherever we went till closing time.

We wrote overnight to LSE Legal and Compliance, seeking an explanation and a legal justification for our treatment. No adequate clarification was forthcoming, and so the next morning, we arrived at the Fair having covered the front of our t-shirts with tape bearing the word "censored", so that you'd now have to visit our stall, stop, stare, squint for several seconds while we were still and then ask us what was beneath the tape, and we'd have to explain it, before you could make out the innocuous depiction. But we reckoned without the bloody-mindedness of the SU.

Shortly after midday, Deputy Chief Executive O'Hara descended on us, demanding we take the t-shirts off as per his instructions of the previous day. We explained to him that we had redacted them this time, and offered to use our home-made tape to cover any other areas he wished to see covered. Our concessions came to nought. He refused to hear us out, and left, warning us that he was summoning LSE Security to remove us from the premises.

Surprisingly, several hours passed before their next move (a curiously tardy response for an administration purporting to counter harassment), in which Mr Thornbury reappeared near closing time, armed with a letter from the School Secretary Susan Scholefield, which claimed that since some students found our t-shirts "offensive", we were in possible breach of the LSE Harassment Policy and Disciplinary Procedure. It claimed that our actions were "damaging the School's reputation" and concluded by asking us to "refrain from wearing the t-shirts in question and cover any other potentially offensive imagery" and warning us that the School "reserves the right to consider taking further action if warranted". On our way out at closing time, we saw Mr Thornbury, General Secretary Stoll and Deputy Chief Executive O'Hara skulking in the corridor, accompanied by a posse of security guards. They shadowed us to the exit.

The great polemicist Christopher Hitchens used to say that whenever someone complained to him that something was "offensive", he would retort "I'm still waiting to hear what your point is". This neatly skewers the fatuousness of such a complaint.

Our motives have been relentlessly impugned over the past two days, with Mr Thornbury and Mr Stoll rashly accusing us of wishing to cause offence. We categorically deny this, and struggle to fathom how such innocuous t-shirts, which contain neither threats, nor racist taunts, nor foul language, could support such an accusation. Forcing us to cover up a harmless likeness of the prophets amounts to demanding we obey religious law to avoid upsetting the religious. What is the freedom of expression if not the freedom of the heretic who thinks differently?

Mr Stoll later took to the LSESU's blog to defend the LSE as a place that is "committed to promoting freedom of expression" because its public lectures feature a "wide range of speakers". I don't see why this should imply broad-mindedness – hosting crowd-pulling contrarians is the price of maintaining your reputation as a landmark on the global lecture circuit. A truer test of a university's commitment to freedom of expression is how it treats two lowly students summoning up the courage to stand by their principles in a dignified and understated manner.

And Mr Stoll and the School have some nerve to claim that we were threatened because "it was feared" that we would "disrupt the event", when in fact the event was progressing perfectly smoothly until it was disrupted by the ham-fisted intervention of the student union. We strove to remain calm, pacific and reasonable, standing our ground even as we were subjected to a barrage of increasingly egregious demands and jostled by security guards. If harassment is, as the LSE Harassment Policy defines it, anything that "violates an individual's dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment", then we were harassed.

Our critics contend that we were being needlessly inflammatory. Quite apart from the cliché that the people who rule over us are the people we cannot criticise, do these people genuinely think it is a waste of time and effort defending freedom of expression from religious reactionaries? Could they suggest a better cause? Perhaps they will be swayed by the fact that the gifted cartoonist whose t-shirts we wore publishes his work under a pseudonym because of threats to his life.

These sickly invocations for decorum are of a piece with the risible claim made by Mr Stoll and the School that their clampdown was prompted by the fear that we were sabotaging the prospects of a sanitised Fair "designed to welcome all new students", and that our t-shirts and posters were welcome once this delicate initial period had passed. We have good reason to doubt this.

For one thing, Mr Thornbury contradicted it with his warning that we would be evicted if we were ever seen wearing these t-shirts on campus again. And just last year, our efforts to better signpost ourselves for Muslim apostates on campus by adding "ex-Muslim" to our Society's name (on the lines of ex-Mormon groups in the U.S., and for the same reasons) were gratuitously frustrated. First, the Union ordered us to prove "clear cooperation with the Islamic Society" before they would consider our application; then, they backed out with the wet excuse that the change could jeopardise the "safety" of ex-Muslims in our group, which came as news to the ex-Muslim organisations on whose insistence we'd sought the change.

Amidst the acrimony, it would be remiss of me not to mention the countless open-minded Christians and Muslims, among them women in hijabs, who visited our stall out of curiosity, engaged us in good-natured banter about our work and accepted our invitation to the first of the many public debates we conduct with religious societies through the year. On their behalf, I accuse the LSE of slandering its religious population by allowing its most peevish elements to speak for the whole community and infantilising religious students by creating the impression that they are unable to handle gentle satire.

But it isn't all gloom.

In one of those beautiful little ironies of life that makes even a staunch atheist like me wonder if there might, after all, be a god, the LSE student newspaper reported in its edition of October 3 that LSESU had been rated the worst Students' Union in London, and that the LSE was ranked the fifth-worst university for crime in the UK. Would that Mr Stoll and Mr Thornbury were always so ubiquitous.

Abhishek Phadnis is a Master's candidate at the London School of Economics & Political Science and President of the LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

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NSS Speaks Out

Keith Porteous Wood was on ITV "Sunrise" programme talking about religion in schools, he was also on Radio Five Live on a similar topic. Terry Sanderson was on LBC Radio talking about the Ofsted report on religious education, Stephen Evans was on Radio Northampton.

Our report on evangelism in schools was covered in the Independent, TES and the Times (subscription). Stephen Evans was on BBC 5 Live, Radio Three Counties and Premier Christian Radio to discuss the issue.

The proposal by magistrates to ditch religious oaths in courts brought interviews for the NSS on Radio Ulster, Humberside, Radio London, Radio Three Counties and Voice of Russia.

Terry Sanderson was quoted in the Guardian, Daily Mail, The Independent and the Telegraph about the Scouts new secular Promise.

The clash over free speech at the LSE featured quotes from the NSS in the Independent and the Huffington Post and here.

The temporary closure of the A-Madinah free school saw us quoted in Huffington Post and here.

Terry Sanderson was quoted in this Times story about the Church of England's latest doomed attempt at evangelism (subscription).

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