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Newsline 18 October 2013

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Evangelism in schools – a parent’s perspective

Evangelism in schools – a parent’s perspective

Opinion | Mon, 14 Oct 2013

A first-hand account from a parent on discovering and trying to deal with evangelism in his child's school.

Our son's non-faith junior school in Sheffield has been the object of a 'mission' campaign by a local evangelical Christian Church, hell-bent on 'capturing' nearby schools.

We were rather late to catch on to the fact that the venue where our son's carol concert was held was not in a mainstream CofE Church (not that this would have necessarily been in line with a 'secular' school) but, in fact, carol concerts were held at Christ Church Fulwood – a conservative evangelical Church (CofE) who proudly boasted its retrogressive, sexist and homophobic beliefs in a series of well-produced and clearly displayed podcasts on its excellent website.

We saw the 'brand name' CofE and stupidly assumed that this meant 'friendly' and 'mainstream' and 'not extreme'. What we hadn't realised (as we don't take a great deal of interest in such things) is that the CofE is of course, a very broad church and the evangelical wing has been gaining ground, power, and influence within the CofE. Indeed Christ Church Fulwood funds itself by tithing its middle-class congregation (some of whom it turns out are on the governing body of our son's school) in a wealthy area of Sheffield to the tune of £1.5m per year.

In terms of interference in our son's junior school and in the local infants' school, Christ Church Fulwood, we discovered (through a chance remark by our niece who attends the school) had been going into school on a very regular basis, leading assemblies which included getting the children to repeat a 'mantra' — the contents of which we still are unclear on — but was something along the lines of 'Jesus is the light of the world' which had to be repeated a number of times. We were unhappy about this and particularly when we looked into exactly who the church was that was pursuing such a close relationship with the school.

Amongst the podcasts, we found one (and we could only bear to listen to one) which was not only sexist, homophobic and misogynist (asserting that women were not fit to lead men because Adam appears in Verse 1 in Genesis and Eve does not turn up until verse 22) but which also made wild allegations about the local infant school and its teachings on personal and sexual education – utterly false and on a par with the more extreme leader columns of the Daily Mail.

Thinking that perhaps we had missed something when we were choosing a school for our son, we checked the school's prospectus and website and found nothing to suggest any links with any religious group – as you would expect from a non-religious state school. However, the school have since admitted openly that they have a 'longstanding relationship with Christ Church Fulwood'. Unhappy — very unhappy — with the continuing relationship between church and school we entered into a protracted, frustrating and at times Kafkaesque dialogue with the school and Local Education Authority. Meetings have been held to which we were not party nor have we been allowed to know how discussions have progressed. We have been told that it 'would not be constructive to share information about discussions on these issues with parents'. Promises were made which resulted in a 'new policy on religious visitors to school' which was approximately the same as the old informal policy on religious visitors — with the notable addition that in a new gesture of inclusiveness the Chinese School of Dance, that major world religion, would now be coming into school — in between the continued regular visits of Christ Church Fulwood. Coupled with this, a 'Vexatious Complaints Policy' appeared on the school's website around the time that we were making our concerns heard by the school.

11 months down the line we are no nearer a conclusion (from our point of view) to this business, and children in the school are still being visited by this reactionary evangelical church. Responses from both the school and the LEA have made us feel 1) that we are clearly a group of aggressively leftist non-believers who are being entirely unreasonable and 2) that the Powers That Be would rather we shut up and went away quietly. They have given us the requisite 5 minutes of their time and now want us to go away so that the status quo can be maintained. And so far, maintained it has been – with the hate-preaching church continuing to make its regular mission to the school.

The reality is that adults who come in and lead school assemblies are seen by the children as authority figures in the local community – and this means that the school has conferred a status of trust and respect on a group of individuals who preach hate and a fundamentalist, literalist and creationist approach to religion and life.

What of the conflicting feelings of children listening of other faiths, 'other' sexualities, or of course the 50% of the children who are female and therefore apparently unfit to hold positions of authority over men? Will these children look back from adulthood and wonder what on earth was going on? And won't this potentially seed very early feelings of shame and inadequacy in children who don't 'fit' the preached 'norm'? Children at school should be protected from harm and not exposed to potential damage in order to serve the evangelical mission statement of a local church on a mission.

Saul Freeman lives in Sheffield and has a son who attends a community school. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

Read our report: Evangelism in schools – The role of external visitors in publically funded schools

One oath for all

One oath for all

Opinion | Mon, 14 Oct 2013

LSS member Jessica Vautier argues that the proposal for a new oath isn't an attack on Britain's religious heritage. It is an attempt to make the justice system fairer, and for everyone to be treated equally.

Bristol magistrate Ian Abrahams hit the news last week with his proposal to abolish religious oaths in courts. The debate will be occurring at the Magistrates' Association AGM on Saturday 19th October in Cardiff.

Predictably, this has caused some upset in the higher echelons of the Church, with the Rev. Arun Arora (the Church of England's Director of Communications) even going so far as to say such proposals are "driven more by blinkered campaigning agendas than abiding interests in justice and truth".

As somebody in the legal profession who is very concerned about truth and justice, I believe that secularists should be vocal in supporting the magistrate's proposal ­– but first, it is important to know exactly where we stand.

Section 1 of the Oaths Act 1978 dictates the swearing of an oath on the New Testament (or the Old Testament if one is Jewish), beginning with the words "I swear by Almighty God". Only if someone "voluntarily objects" to taking this oath is there an opportunity to swear a non-religious affirmation (under Section 5 of the Act) as an alternative.

Incidentally, the option for an affirmation was originally included in order to accommodate religious people (e.g. the Quakers) who consider it blasphemous to swear on the Bible, rather than for the benefit of the non-religious. Removing the religious oath would not be anti-religious, but pro-equality.

The argument I hear most frequently against uniform secular oaths is that religious people are more likely to tell the truth if they are allowed to swear on their holy book. I am utterly unconvinced by this – such stereotypes are exactly the sort of assumptions that we should be trying to help decision-makers in court to avoid.

Call me militant, but I don't see why the first thing a jury finds out about a defendant or witness should be which (if any) religion they subscribe to. This piece of unnecessary information is then subject to their hypotheses – is a religious person more likely to tell the truth than a non-religious person because they have a holy book to swear on? If we know someone is religious but has chosen not to swear on the Bible, does this mean they are planning to lie? Are followers of certain religions more trustworthy than others?

As David Allen Green has previously pointed out, there is no way of telling whether somebody taking an oath on the Bible is religious or not, and the religiosity or otherwise of the oath-swearer makes no difference to the legal validity of the oath, which rather defeats the object. Further, if (as according to Abrahams in his interview with the Mail on Sunday) people are taking their oaths sworn on the Bible less and less seriously, the presumption that swearing a religious oath makes people more likely to tell the truth is not only incorrect but potentially damaging to the accurate decision-making of a jury or a magistrate.

Ian Abrahams' suggestion is to replace the current religious oaths and non-religious affirmations with a standardised oath, stating: "I promise very sincerely to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth and I understand that if I fail to do so I will be committing an offence for which I will be punished and may be sent to prison".

If it's threats of punishment that make people more likely to tell the truth, the threat of prison is far more immediate than the threat of God's displeasure, and it applies to the religious and irreligious alike.

It would, at the very least, prevent the magistrate or jury from considering the religious inclinations of a witness rather than the evidence before them, when evaluating their truthfulness. The religious stand to gain from such a proposal too, by preventing decision-makers with prejudices from exercising them (consciously or otherwise) in their judgments.

This is a suggestion for a secular oath, not an atheist one. It is not an attack on our "religious heritage", as has been claimed, but a deliberate attempt to make the justice system fairer. It makes all people equal (at least until they start answering questions).

Jessica Vautier is an LSS member. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

New analysis shows very few people in England engage in religious activity

New analysis shows very few people in England engage in religious activity

News | Thu, 17 Oct 2013

A new analysis of a survey undertaken in 2000-1 that looks at the way English people use their time has revealed that religious activity is something that the English are least likely to engage in.

Polish Catholic Church on the spot over paedophile priests and child abuse cover ups

Polish Catholic Church on the spot over paedophile priests and child abuse cover ups

News | Thu, 17 Oct 2013

Polish radio is reporting that a man who, as a child, was abused by a Catholic priest has written to the Pope after the Church refused to entertain a compensation claim.

Read this week's Newsline in full (PDF)

NSS Speaks Out

We were quoted in the Guardian's coverage of the NSS initiated exam board investigation which found that the Yesodey Hatorah Jewish faith school had blacked out questions on evolution in science exam papers.

Following on from last week's coverage of our Evangelism in schools report, our campaigns manager Stephen Evans discussed the report's findings with Iain Dale on LBC Radio and on BBC Radio Sheffield. We were also quoted by the BBC in their coverage of the report.

Keith Porteous Wood appeared on BBC Radio Liverpool to discuss the Al-Madinah school controversy and the need to reform RE.

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