A bit like Marmite


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If one were to read all the various papers that have been written and published over the past couple of years on the theme of ‘should schools have collective worship?’ you would get the picture that there are two opinion groups, a bit like the pro or against Marmite debate. So when it comes to school collective worship, some love it, and some hate it!

The real question is to ask who is in what camp? And the second question is to ponder why they feel that way?

There is a third question which would be something like, “what do we do about it?”  

Do you put the Marmite on a breakfast table? Or not? And if you think people get animated about Marmite, try having a debate about collective worship! Because over the years I have become aware of the factions who hold a distinctive negative view of collective worship in schools. What surprises me is that often some of those negative opinion are expressed by Christians. 

Recently someone commented to me that they felt it was wrong for a Christian (like me) to lead an assembly in schools because they questioned the principle that school children could engage in ‘worship’ because they believed that children cannot worship because they “don’t know God, do they”. Yes, I was shocked because I believe the discussion is a bit more than black or white (or dark brown if it were Marmite).

Before we go too far, I will state I am not that keen on Marmite. My wife loves it. But just as one’s taste buds change over time, apparently, so has our nation’s appetite for Christianity in the context of state education. Obviously I am a keen enthusiast of primary school collective worship. Well I would be wouldn’t I, having been involved with Spinnaker Trust for the past 30 years! However, I would not usually talk in terms of ‘sharing the gospel’ in primary schools. Why not?

The awkward response, or if you will, the person who has Marmite for breakfast, lunch and tea, is someone who insists that as a ‘Christian’ country, we should have Christian collective worship in schools. The ‘anti’ lobbyist might appear to be headed up by the National Secular Society who produced a paper Evangelism in State Schools October 2013. In it, they quote from the web pages of well-known Christian groups who visit schools on a regular basis who state the obvious in that the low priority given to collective worship and the lack of legal clarity provides an opportunity for evangelism. 

A church leader, who was probably anti-Marmite, once asked me to clarify what I meant when I talked about ‘opportunity’ in visiting schools. I think he was probing for me to say something about evangelism since I guess his issue being that some groups within the Christian community expressly see it as an opportunity to extend the scope of their ministry, especially to the unchurched and their families. 

Now whilst I would love to claim this aim, I can’t. For if we were to express ourselves in this way, are we not tiptoeing into proselytising strategies? And if we do, we deserve all the criticism we would attract. 

There are currently 4 possibilities ahead, according to a paper by Charles Clark and Linda Woodhead.

  • Maintain current government guidance and assume it is largely ignored.
  • Put more effort into enforcing current guidance.
  • Maintain the requirement for some form of assembly which promote s.m.s.c.
  • Abolish statutory requirement and let each school decide for themselves

Clearly this discussion is not going to resolve this issue in hurry, any more than the family argument around the breakfast table. Although some responded to this discussion by suggesting that the aim of this paper was to fundamentally ‘secularise’ education by undermining the principle of commending Collective Worship in schools. 

The recent Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life: chaired by Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss - gave the following statement: 4.17 page 35:   

“There are still requirements on most schools across the UK to provide religious worship and for this to be Christian. The arguments in favour of retaining compulsory Christian worship in UK schools are no longer, however, convincing. There are arguments for total repeal, but also there is widespread support for an alternative provision that … endorses this approach as an example .. that it would build on the good practice of holding inclusive assemblies that already exists in many schools but remains technically unlawful.”

The AHRC network report on collective worship made a number of recommendations that sought to shed some light on the current situation, not least that there should be some guidelines for all local authorities on appropriate practice for schools regarding right of parents to withdraw their children from collective worship and that schools should clearly set out the content and format of collective worship, with guidelines for external speakers

There may be no clear way forward at this time, except that collective worship in schools does provide for children to see something outside their normal view, maybe challenging and hopefully inspiring. 

But the final word, inevitably, may rest with European legation on human rights: 

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance. 

2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.

So perhaps the bigger question for everyone to ask is what harm is it doing for children to hear about a loving God and the life style that such a faith stance encourages? 

In other words, it is really a problem in Marmite is on the table? 

(photograph: CC licence CC BY-SA 3.0)