A death in Bideford

Christianity is over. Finished. Done for. Born in Bethlehem, died in Bideford. It seems strange that a belief system can survive the shocks of knowledge and philosophy over several centuries, only to choke at a small harbour town’s county council, but that is the awesome power of local government for you. Turns out, it’s not legal to formally summon councilors to prayer – and a faith that can’t be forced on someone else is no faith at all.

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Teaching God

It’s not easy being the national religion of a mostly secular nation. Christianity is priveleged in lots of ways in the UK. The presence of the Lords Spiritual in the House Of Lords gives a legislative voice to the C of E; the BBC offers Songs Of Praise and the Daily Service, making Christianity a consistent part of our cultural output; and state schools are required to provide “broadly Christian” acts of collective worship, meaning that the religion is an unavoidable part of most children’s education.

But if you feel that Christianity deserves even more prominence, then all this might seem dignified rather than efficient. After all, only 50% of Britons describe themselves as Christian, while 43% say they have no religion (according to the British Social Attitudes Survey). Some people wonder if there shouldn’t be a way of making this ostensibly Christian country a bit more, well, Christian.

And so, when Ofsted releases a report criticising the provision of religious education in UK schools, traditionalist voices like the Telegraph are ready to jump all over it and blame “misplaced enthusiasm for multiculturalism” and the “ignorance” of teachers for the limited treatment of Christianity. Ofsted’s report highlights several areas of genuine concern in the way Christianity is taught, and most educators would accept that a stunted understanding of religion will affect children’s ability to learn about (say) history and literature – studying the Renaissance or the Reformation without a rough grasp on Christian beliefs is pretty much going to be a bust.

That doesn’t mean the same as this claim from the Telegraph, though:

Our youngsters have no chance of understanding the history of Britain, or its fundamental values of equality, toleration, and freedom of conscience, unless they also understand where those values came from.

If it even makes sense to talk about instilling “freedom of conscience” through compulsory religious instruction, it’s patently excessive to ascribe all those liberal values to Christianity. Many Christians have done great work for social causes – but then, so have people of every other faith and no faith at all. Christianity hasn’t got a monopoly on the nation’s morals.

The problem for the Telegraph is that, if it wants Christianity to be taught like very other religion, then it has to accept that Christianity is like every other religion. Not an unchallenged part of the national life, and not an inevitable object of worship, but a system of belief that can be studied as an outside phenomenon. And the scrutiny of religious beliefs (although the Telegraph doesn’t mention this) is another area where the Ofsted report noted that religious education was failing:

There were significant inconsistencies in the way humanism and other non-religious beliefs were taught, and some uncertainties about the relationship between fostering respect for pupils’ beliefs and encouraging open, critical, investigative learning in RE.

So while the right is presenting Ofsted’s report as another warning from the death of Western civilisation (snore), the report itself is arguing that agnostic and atheist arguments need to be better presented in schools. And that’s not all: while the Telegraph is getting all hot for the “self-starting schools [that will] spring up as the state contracts”, Ofsted is clear that the problems with religious education could be down to too little centralised control.

“There is still very significant variability in the quantity and quality of support for RE provided to schools by local authorities and Standing Advisory Councils on Religious Education,” states the report. “A review is needed to determine whether the statutory arrangements for the local determination of the RE curriculum which underpin the subject should be revised or whether ways can be found to improve their effectiveness.”

The ill-fitted union of classical liberals and social conservatives that makes up the Tory party (and, by extension, the coalition) is going to founder on issues like this. At the moment, both tendencies have reason to believe they can get what they want from education reforms (as well as the policy on academies and free schools, Gove has already said that he wants neocon historian Niall Fergusson to advise on the history curriculum). But the ideological tension between the desires for a small state and a homogenous culture suggests that they’ll soon find themselves in opposition to each other.

What’s guaranteed is that, whichever side gets the ascendancy here, it’s going to be the thoughtful, critical parts of the curriculum that suffer – and, inevitably, the children who are dependent on the state for their education. The Telegraph likes to promote the idea that Christians are under cultural siege. But the coalition’s contradictory impulses are going to ensure it’s the pupils who get thrown to the lions.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; photo by Paul Johnston, used under Creative Commons.