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Newsline 22 November 2013

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The Church of England’s unrelenting exploitation of the nation’s schools

The Church of England’s unrelenting exploitation of the nation’s schools

Opinion | Wed, 20 Nov 2013

The Church of England's intention is clear. State funded schools will be regarded as churches – and serve as pulpits for evangelisation, argues Stephen Evans.

Parents and their children may have deserted the pews in droves – but that doesn't really matter anymore, according to John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford and Chair of the Church of England's Board of Education. "We don't need to attract them to church" he declared, "they're already there, if we embrace our church schools fully."

His comments, made in a speech to this week's Church of England General Synod, echo the former Archbishop Rowan Williams' declaration that "A church school is a church." Despite being publicly-funded, state schools are seen by the church as the primary method of recruiting the next generation of Anglicans.

At this week's Synod two separate, but related, motions provide a good reason why it isn't a good idea to allow religious organisations to run schools.

The former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, told the Synod that their Church was "on the brink of extinction." Lord Carey laid the blame at the feet of Church leaders and said they should be 'ashamed' of their failure to bring youngsters in. Dr John Sentamu's message was even starker. Without evangelism, he said, the Church is going to "die".

With this warning ringing in their ears, the Synod overwhelmingly passed a motion put forward by Archbishop Sentamu which makes evangelism, and making new disciples, a priority for the Church. That is, of course, their prerogative, but when our state education system is very much part of this plan, we have a problem.

The evangelism motion was based on a discussion paper circulated prior to the vote, which lists the discipline of 'catechesis, as one of the 'Seven Disciplines of Evangelisation'. Catechesis, described by the Church as "teaching and learning faith", is more akin to religious instruction than religious education. According to the paper, "Catechesis of adults and children and young people is absolutely critical to the growth of the church." The Church say it is a discipline exercised in the pulpit, in pastoral encounters, and, you guessed it, in schools.

The paper asks how the place of catechesis in Church of England schools be strengthened. In order to answer this question the Church is to create a task force which will "support Archbishops in taking forward the call to evangelism."

But a second Synod motion, concerning church schools, already sheds some light on how this will be achieved. The motion affirmed "the crucial importance of the Church of England's engagement with schools for its contribution to the common good and to its spiritual and numerical growth."

The motion invited dioceses to draw up plans for promoting the widest possible use of a "new online resource" for teaching Christianity, not only in Church schools, but also in non-Church schools.

Known as 'The Christianity Project', the resources have been developed to ensure that every child has a "life enhancing encounter with the Christian faith and the person of Jesus Christ." The Church insist that "all children, of all faiths and none, should be offered the opportunity for a serious engagement with the Christian faith."

According to the Church, "There is no expectation of commitment but learning about and engaging with the faith is a necessary pre-requisite for commitment especially for children and young people whose only experience of church is through the school."

The Church of England's clear intention here is to ramp up the evangelisation, not only in Church schools, but also in non-faith schools. They realise that the indoctrination of children, however subtle in its execution, is absolutely critical to its survival.

This results in our state education system being used by the Church to manipulate children and young people, in order to meet its own needs. For our legislators to allow this is both morally objectionable and intellectually irresponsible.

Unfortunately, as far as education policy is concerned, we can expect nothing but complete and utter deference towards the Church from our elected representatives, who appear to still be living in 1944, when the current settlement between the Church and the State with regard to education was negotiated.

State education has since become a playground for all manner of religions and denominations – and despite being one of the least religious countries in Europe, huge swathes of our education system being under religious influence – and in the case of the Church of England, being used to prop them up.

Comments by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, recently indicate that he intends to be as accommodating as he can in helping the Church in its ambitions to expand its influence in education. He said in parliament recently: "We praise and cherish the role of the Church of England in making sure children have an outstanding education. I welcome the [Chadwick report on church schools of the future] and look forward to working with Bishop John Pritchard to extend the role of the Church in school provision."

It seems that our education system is to be placed increasingly in the hands of proselytising priests. Parent power — systematically applied — is the only way to resist this.

Secularism seeks to balance everyone’s religious freedoms fairly. Why would anyone oppose that?

Secularism seeks to balance everyone’s religious freedoms fairly. Why would anyone oppose that?

Opinion | Tue, 19 Nov 2013

Despite the claims of its critics, secularism protects the freedom of conscience for all citizens, and welcomes believers and non-believers into the public square on equal terms, argues Stephen Evans.

As the old idiom goes, throw enough mud and some of it will stick. This appears to be the strategy of those with a vested interest in resisting secularism.

Secularism is often unfairly and portrayed by some as illiberal, intolerant and anti-religious. There is, without question, plenty of hostility to religion in Britain, but that is not the business of secularism.

In her speech about faith being "at the heart" of Government last week, the unelected Minister for faith, Baroness Warsi, made a point of singling out the National Secular Society for criticism. After doing so, she said "What really matters is that we support people in their right to believe" and "that we protect people from discrimination, bigotry and intolerance". That, she said, "is our stance on the place of faith in politics".

If this were the case, we would have plenty of common ground with the Baroness. But the trouble is, while she talks a great deal about freedom of religion, freedom from religion barely gets a look in.

But despite the repeated smears and distortions from Baroness Warsi, secularism does take religious freedom seriously. Very seriously. The difference is, secularists take everybody's religious freedom seriously, not just the religious freedoms of the faith communities Baroness Warsi chooses to represent.

As Jacques Berlinerblau rightly points out in How to be Secular: "Secularism is a fierce defender of religious liberty – perhaps civilization's best defender of it." He adds, "Few political ideologies go to the wall, as it were, to secure the freedom of conscience the way secularism does".

But with her desire to ensure religion enjoys "a voice at the top table", Baroness Warsi reveals herself as a firm believer in religious privilege. It should therefore come as no surprise that she appears to have an intense disdain for secularism, and the National Secular Society in particular.

It is a disdain she shares with the Church of England. Again, no surprise there. Secularism challenges the religious privileges that the established Church has grown so accustomed to. Any challenge to its being able to patronisingly impose its beliefs and doctrine on others is greeted with hysterical howls of 'persecution'. The Church, fearful of how it would fare in the free market of ideas without the crutch of its established status, must cling to the past for as long as it can.

In the latest Theos blog to take swipes at the NSS, the director of the Christian think tank, accused the NSS of wanting to "stamp out public religion in Britain". But what exactly is meant here by "public religion" is not entirely clear. But let's explore the validity of this claim.

At this time of year, some journalists like to peddle the myth that secularists want to 'ban Christmas', or at least take Christ out of it. This is of course, complete nonsense. People and public bodies are free to celebrate Christmas in any way they choose. If shops have stopped stacking their shelves with religiously themed Christmas cards, it's down to market forces, and nothing to do with 'militant' secularists.

Do we want to ban religious symbols? Absolutely not. Citizens should be free to manifest their beliefs subject only to limitations proscribed by law to protect the rights and freedoms of others.

Does the NSS advocate a public ban of burkas? Again, no. Restrictions on where it is worn will be appropriate in some circumstances, but generally speaking a woman's right to choose what she wears and her right to religious freedom should be respected. That said, religious freedom must never be allowed to trump all other considerations.

So what about public prayers? Well, yes, we did recently ask the High Court whether local authorities had the right to summon elected councillors to prayers. And it turns out they didn't. As Mr Justice Ouseley made clear in his ruling:

"[The law] should not be interpreted as permitting the religious views of one group of Councillors, however sincere or large in number, to exclude or, even to a modest extent, to impose burdens on or even to mark out those who do not share their views and do not wish to participate in their expression of them. They are all equally elected Councillors."

The intention behind our judicial review wasn't to "stamp out" religion, it was to point out the inappropriateness of publicly-elected councillors appearing to corporately subscribe to a religious belief – and to ensure that council meetings are conducted in a manner equally welcoming to all councillors, regardless of their individual religious beliefs. The ruling in no way interferes with anyone's religious freedom. The opposite is in fact true.

And yes, we also oppose school worship – which is currently imposed by law on all pupils attending state funded schools. The thing is, like many religious believers, we think religion should be voluntary. We believe in letting parents and young people decide for themselves if, how and when they worship. Who in their right mind doesn't believe that?

And no, allowing parents to 'withdraw' their child so they can sit alone in a room separated from their classmates does not 'respect' anyone's wishes.

We also oppose the public funding of faith schools. We agree that parents have a right to raise their children in accordance with their religious and philosophical beliefs, but they have no 'right' to do that via the state. Schools should respect all parents' beliefs equally (at least until they begin to impede upon a child's education) but it is not the role of state education to mould children into obedient followers of someone else's religion.

What about the so-called secularist desire to banish religion from the public square? Again, not so. Citizens motivated by their religious beliefs have just as much right as anyone else to express their views in the public sphere. Nobody can realistically expect them to 'leave religion at the door', but they do have a responsibility to express their concerns in universal, rather than religion-specific values. The days of being able to justify your position by claiming it to be the word of God are over, but that's not the same as saying that religious believers must keep their faith entirely to themselves. As the political philosopher John Rawls puts it:

"Reasonable comprehensive doctrines, religious or non-religious, may be introduced in public political discussion at any time, provided that in due course proper political reasons - and not reasons given solely by comprehensive doctrines - are presented that are sufficient to support whatever the comprehensive doctrines are said to support."

But allowing faith groups privileged access to policy making is highly problematic. Not only does it create a democratic deficit by disadvantaging the non-religious, who don't organise themselves in similar ways as religious believers, it also hands unrepresentative 'faith leaders' undue influence. Of course religious groups should be able to lobby the Government, but only on the same terms as any other special interest group.

Britain has changed a great deal over the last half century. Its demographics and the religious habits of its citizens will continue to evolve. We are a religiously pluralistic and super-diverse society, and a significant and increasing proportion of the population do not hold, or practise, any religious beliefs.

Therefore, when the nation comes together in remembrance, it is reasonable to question the appropriateness of that remembrance being dominated by the Church of England, particularly when fewer than 2% of the population attend its churches on the average Sunday. Don't forget, this is a Church that has fought tooth and nail to deny homosexuals equal rights to marry. They represent nobody but themselves.

Britain shouldn't be the Christian club that tolerates 'outsiders'. The beauty of a secular approach is that it enables all citizens, whatever their religious affiliations, cultural background, sex, or sexuality, to be — and to be made to feel like — equal citizens.

So while it is true to say the National Secular Society would like to see political structures and state affairs change to reflect the reality of changing times, it is not accurate to describe our agenda as to "stamp out public religion" or to describe out position as in any way "anti-faith".

There is a false dichotomy between secular and religious. The real culture war is between secular and anti-secular. It is only those with a desire to impose their religion on others who have any reason to oppose secularism.

This blog originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Don’t give in to the Gideons

Don’t give in to the Gideons

Opinion | Wed, 20 Nov 2013

The Scottish Government must take action to remove the proselytising opportunity presented by religious observance in our schools, argues Veronica Wikman.

The Gideon Society must think that female pupils and teachers at our high schools have become a bit uppity of late and need to be reminded that "a woman should learn in quietness and full submission" and that God does "not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent."

The above passage from the New Testament was included in the books that were provided to my son and the other S1 pupils by a group of proselytising evangelicals from this society during a general assembly held at a local authority non-denominational high school in Edinburgh on 14 November.

I'm not sure how these sentiments can help to promote, for example, a positive teacher-pupil relationship, which as a parent I've been led to believe is considered important at my son's school.

Will the female teachers at his school need to undergo a sex change operation in order to keep their jobs? Or, at the very least, dress up in drag and pretend to be Mr McKenzie rather than Miss McKenzie? Will they have to mime their lessons? Or perhaps speak through a ventriloquist's (male) dummy?

It also appears to be somewhat counterproductive with regards to promoting girls' educational attainment. Presumably it means girls cannot ask questions in class or even practise their French? As a translator I feel that I can speak with some authority on matters linguistic, and it goes without saying (or actually not, in this case…) that the phonetic skills required when learning the proper pronunciation of accueillir or maintenant cannot be acquired without repeated vocalisation, which is difficult to combine with keeping quiet.

Finally, it's also difficult to see how it could be used to promote gender-equality in general for that matter?

According to the document "Safer lives: changed lives", issued in 2009, the Scottish Government "expects all public bodies to have due regard to eliminating discrimination and promoting equality between men and women."

If these are not just empty words, primarily intended as a typographically pleasing arrangement of letters, then the Scottish Government must take action to remove the proselytising opportunity in our schools that the current religious observance (RO) policy affords organisations like the Gideon Society.

Perhaps the Scottish Government needs to be reminded of the fact that Education Scotland is a public body?

Evangelising Christians like the Gideons, believe that the Bible is "infallible in authority" and "divine in authorship" and that we all should "Come to it [the Bible] with awe, read it with reverence, frequently, slowly, prayerfully."

Allowing them free access to all of Scotland's school-children, i.e. the future men and women of our society, doesn't look like exercising "due regard to eliminating discrimination and promoting equality between men and women" in my opinion.

I can only assume then, that this isn't a priority any longer? I have to assume that the Scottish Government now thinks it's more important to indulge the self-interest of proselytising religious groups who want to turn the clock back on female emancipation. Among other things. Because it doesn't stop there of course. They also take an interest in science, for example.

The Gideon Society wants all of Scotland's school children to think that the Bible "is not at variance with any proven scientific fact" and that "some of its statements reveal knowledge of the world of science that the writer could not have had apart from Divine revelation."

Is that what the Scottish Government wants as well?

I find it deeply distressing and offensive that a state-funded school can be used as an instrument for groups in our society who are interested in cultivating anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, misogynistic, racist and homophobic views in our children and teenagers.

It is precisely to protect them from these groups that we need to remove RO from our schools.

If we maintain the status quo, more and more schools will increasingly turn into giddying playgrounds for the Gideons and like-minded organisations. These groups relish the opportunity to propagate their propaganda among children, and are always ready to exploit the fact that children are its perfect recipients.

We bring our children up to trust adults in authority. How could we not? We couldn't send them to school if we didn't. As a result, children are very unlikely to turn down the advances of an adult figure of authority.

It's important to remember that any adult that appears in a school, addressing the pupils, will always be regarded as a figure of authority.

Children are also unable to critically analyse and evaluate the messages they are given. In other words – it's a win-win situation for the evangelisers.

Children — on account of being just that — will always be at the mercy of the agenda of the adults they are surrounded by.

Veronica Wikman is the education officer for the Edinburgh Secular Society. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the NSS.

See also: Growing resistance to religious intrusion in Scottish schools

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NSS Speaks Out

Terry Sanderson was on the BBC Radio 4 "Sunday" programme discussing the "Pope Francis effect". He was also on BBC Three Counties radio and Radio Manchester talking about George Carey's prediction that Christianity would be dead in Britain within a generation. Keith Porteous Wood spoke on the same topic on BBC Radio Leeds.

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