The cultural historian Christopher Dawson once wrote the following:
“In politics Christianity can accommodate itself to any system of government and can survive under the most severe forms of despotism and autocracy. And in the same way, it is not bound to any economic system and has in the past existed and expanded in a world of slavery as well as in a world of freedom, under feudalism and capitalism and state socialism. But if it loses the right to teach it can no longer exist.”
That was written at the beginning of the 1960s, forty years before many Christian parents in Britain seemed to have lost “the right” for their children to be educated in state schools within the Christian tradition. By the end of the 20th century and in this first decade of the 21st century Christians were even being attacked for expressing the Christian faith in schools. By 2009 a child could be disciplined for talking about Jesus Christ and eternity in school and the child’s mother lose her job for writing to friends to pray about the situation – witness Jennie Cain’s experience at Landscore Primary School, Devon, where she was on the staff and her daughter a pupil. But should Christians expect state schools to be other than totally secularist or at best lowest common denominator “multifaith”? The answer is most certainly “Yes.”
The latest figures from the Government on religion and religious affiliation are the September 2010 figures from the Integrated Household Survey of the Office of National Statistics (ONS). These came from nearly half a million people. In answer to the question: “What is your religion even if you are not currently practising?” the response was 71% Christian, 20% “no religion at all”, and 8% for all other religions – the options being “Buddhist”, “Hindu”, “Jewish”, “Muslim”, “Sikh” and “any other religion” (Muslims were 4%).
It is true that when you use a stronger test according to the latest independent and smaller NatCen survey, in answer to the question: “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” you get 50% saying Christian and 43% saying “no religion”. But sociologists have long been arguing that in Britain, for a range of reasons, there is a phenomenon of “believing without belonging” (this may be related to what some are calling “vicarious religion”). So secularists and others should not argue only from “belonging” figures and give them great publicity in the media to suggest a further marginalization of the Christian faith, as is done. This is hardly being responsible. For there still seems to be a significant desire to be associated with the Christian faith rather than with secularism as indicated by the ONS. This should be understood in academia. But there, the Christian faith is perhaps even more marginalized (at the tertiary or university level of education) than at the primary and secondary school levels. Certainly in Britain today too many teachers coming out of the colleges seem quite unaware of two facts. One is that the tradition of Western education that has led the world and that others are wanting to imitate is a Christian tradition. The other fact is that this Christian tradition, undoubtedly, has been responsible for the democratic freedoms and progress enjoyed in the West and that these others are also envying.
The first fact
Take the first of those two facts. The church had pioneered education in the West and in Britain. In the North East our Anglo-Saxon ancestors had established one of the great centres of learning in Europe at the monastery in Jarrow in the 8th century. Then Alfred the Great inaugurated a remarkable programme of Christian education in the 9th. At Oxford there is even a claim that he founded University College. The result was that at school and university level (except for University College London, founded 1826) education was generally Christian and church led. Then in 1870 the state in Britain began to play a significant part. How church and state schools should relate was resolved as the Second World War was drawing to a close. The justly famous 1944 Education Act led to a new educational church-state partnership. When Lord Selbourne introduced in the House of Lords the 1944 Bill that laid the foundation for modern education in Britain, he said this (with Hitler as yet undefeated):
“The real enemy is naked materialistic paganism which has reared its head in Europe to a height unknown for a 1,000 years which threatens Christianity today and with it our civilization, our homes and our people ... Anglo-Saxon democracy would perish without the Christian ethic and unless we are brought up to be a God-fearing Christian nation, all our vaunted progress in other directions will crumble into dust.”
The church’s agreement in 1944 to go in with the government was based on state schools having non-denominational Christian education and daily prayers. In 1988 the Education Reform Act (and subsequent legislation) endorsed that ethos by insisting on an act of collective worship that is to be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character.” Also the 1988 Act said religious education is to “reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teachings and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain”.
The second fact
The second fact that people fail to realise is that the Christian tradition (or world-view) has been responsible for democratic freedom and other social goods enjoyed in the West. However, the latest anti-Christian attack on this tradition is by a group including some educationalists, some secularists and some liberal religious people. They are wanting to abolish Christian assemblies in state schools alleging democratic freedom to be the issue. One signatory to a letter to the Secretary of State for Education says: “the issue is a common commitment to freedom of belief. It shouldn’t be the role of the state to enforce or prohibit worship.” Such an argument looks plausible but needs to be resisted.
First, no school is neutral. To think that saying “Jesus is Lord” is being religious while other philosophies are neutral is quite false. For all schools have a positive philosophy whether hard line secularism or a softer “multifaithism”. But neither of these two options is neutral. Not to echo in a school the belief that Jesus is Lord is not being neutral. It is to believe that saying Jesus is Lord is either unnecessary to, or a hindrance to, the school. However, as we have noted - at the moment 71%, it seems, echo that belief. We may assume they would resist hard-line secularism, and also “multifaithism” (if it was explained that it is not compatible with the Christian faith that sees Jesus Christ as the unique and final revelation of God and the only Saviour of the world).
Secondly, this is a matter of great urgency. True liberalism is at stake as are other humanistic values when the Christian faith is marginalized. Lose the Fatherhood of God and you lose the brotherhood of man. Lose humankind as created in the image of God and you lose fundamental democratic human equality. And lose ultimate divine judgment with God allowing people to reject him, and you lose freedom for belief. It is this freedom that currently allows parents to withdraw a child from Christian assemblies and allows a tiny fraction of state schools (0.8% - 200 out of 25,000) to make provision for another faith community’s worship because of their demographics.
Thirdly, and most importantly, you will lose fundamental human rights themselves with the loss of Christian faith. The modern understanding of human rights goes back to the English and American liberal Puritan tradition that sees natural rights as God’s gift. So the American Declaration of Independence claimed “all men are created equal and … endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights”. But lose that belief in God and you soon reject fundamental natural or human rights (endorsed by the Bible) as “nonsense on stilts”. This is the phrase of the secularist Jeremy Bentham, who attacked the American Declaration. Jefferson, however, defended God-given rights with a question: “can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties were a gift of God?” Unless there is some transcendental anchorage, rights are simply what Parliament votes. So Nazi Parliaments can vote for “a final solution” and immediately Hitler has a legal “right” to exterminate millions of Jews. Unless you have a grounding for human rights that is “above” human governments, all you have left are power struggles and pure utilitarianism which can justify even a Hitler. Had Hitler been successful many would have done so. Thank God, the wickedness of the Nazis re-awakened the world to “God-given human rights” and the folly of Jeremy Bentham. The result was the UN Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953). All this is why to marginalize the Christian tradition from public life, including public education, is to open the door to a creeping totalitarianism. This denies basic human rights such as some Christians are now experiencing. Some, indeed, are now being arrested for preaching the Christian faith and articulating Christian moral values.
Finally, why this move to abolish Christian school assemblies must be resisted is this. Individual freedom has to be balanced with collective freedom. The Western liberal tradition is clear that the state may not enforce individual belief. But the state, in a democratic free society, will also need to respect the majority’s freedom from having their beliefs undermined by dissident minorities. At the moment the state, with the impossibility of a “naked public square” and the majority of parents identifying with the Christian tradition, should require that schools help those parents in at least keeping alive their preferred religious tradition. At the same time, of course, it should make provision for parental withdrawal from assemblies. This it does. And, of course, once the Christian principle is established, OFSTED needs to insist it is being adhered to properly and genuinely. That is another matter.