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RE in schools – evangelise or secularise?

As of this September I shall be training to become an RE teacher at a Catholic school in Cumbria. This has lead, as one would expect, to a heightened interest in all things RE, but more particularly an interest in the way in which it is perceived more widely through contemporary society. I don’t mean so much its standing amongst those children who have to study it – I’m well aware that RE can be remarkably unpopular (it was for me!), especially to young adolescents feeling their logical certainties assaulted by the mysteries and paradoxes of faith. Rather, I’m more interested in how the subject is regarded within the education sector as a whole, and amongst our cultural and political elites in particular.

And the impression one comes across time after time, in document after document, proposal after proposal, research study after research study, is a fundamental lack of certainty about what Religious Education is actually for, and what it should look like.

At one end, of course, there are those who maintain all religious education should have no place in state schools, as if denying children such knowledge is somehow better for their education and development. At the other end, one still very occasionally comes across those who believe Religious Education should largely be a matter of catechetical instruction, as defined by the denomination or tradition in which that particular schools rests, with only the odd foray into contrasting religions and beliefs. And somewhere in between, though much closer to the former than the latter, there are those who maintain that RE is an important part of a decent education, but that it should be strictly confined to disinterested academic pursuit, the teaching of sociological features, historical fact and cultural quirk.

And it is this latter view that seems to have been raised into unthinking orthodoxy, certainly amongst those (usually academics and educational advisers) whose job it is to construct a consensus upon what role RE should play in the life of a school and how it should be taught within the curriculum (although it does remain non-statutory – which, theoretically at least, allows a certain flexibility).

Before he retired, the Bishop of Lancaster (now Bishop Emeritus) issued a report entitled Fit for Mission?, part of which concentrated specifically on schools. The document is bold and important, and was well received by many within the Church – which means, almost inevitably, that it was poorly received by many outwith the Church (more, the Bishop was pretty shoddily attacked at a parliamentary committee by a variety of mediocrities who appeared little more than thirsty for religious, or more particularly Catholic, blood – the video appears to be unavailable, but Douglas Carswell indirectly rebuked his colleagues by asking the Bishop if he thought he would have been treated with such hostility had he been a Muslim cleric – read a report here).

Anyway, one part of the document that struck me, particularly in light of recent events, was the passage,

‘Our Catholic schools and colleges must become powerhouses of evangelisation and catechesis. Again, I must stress that evangelisation is not proselytism, which is a coercive pressure to go against one’s conscientious beliefs. Evangelisation is an invitation to freely consider and experience the truth of the Catholic faith.

I am concerned that a failure to appreciate this clear distinction between proselytism and evangelisation has led some schools and colleges to be inhibited about proclaiming the full truth of the Catholic faith, due to the presence of non-Catholic pupils.’

Whilst the very first sentence of that passage will no doubt horrify some, nonetheless the Bishop is right to draw out the distinction between evangelisation and proselytism, one that must be upheld lest religious schools merely capitulate in the face of secularising forces that wish to erode the religious character of schools on the basis of an unthinking muddle of these two very different things. As such, there is a perfectly rational and robust defence to be made here – a Catholic school should be at liberty to be, well, Catholic, and if parents freely choose to send their children to a particular school because it is Catholic, or knowing that it is Catholic, then there is no reason for that school to cease to be Catholic, nor to cease inviting its students to share in that community of faith.

Perhaps this is partly the old English habit of striving to avoid giving offence when, in fact, no offence was ever likely to be taken. What seems to be the greater factor, however, is the apparent triumph amongst many of our educational elites of the view that only objective neutrality can guarantee profitable discourse and learning (which is nonsense) and that only secularism is both objective and neutral (which is nonsense). And so it is that ‘secularism’ has become the banner under which a motley collection of ‘anti-religionists’ increasingly march, the intellectual illusion through which religious education is constantly assaulted by precisely those relativisms and nihilisms that it should, more properly, seek to counter.

Accordingly, there was little surprise when news arose recently of an Ofsted report that claimed the teaching of Christianity in our schools is of a worryingly poor standard, and increasingly transgresses even the law of the land as to the minimum legal requirement demanded of all schools in the state sector (a report that, remarkably, never featured in the pages of the Guardian – proving the paper is less about delivering news and more about peddling ideological idiocies). Christianity, it is becoming clear, is not only regarded as just one eccentricity amongst others, but is even underplayed and under-taught in relation to various other religions. This is consistent with the prejudices of a wider cultural assault committed primarily by the liberal-left – an unflinching and destructive commitment to relativism more generally, and multi-culturalism more specifically.

Or, in the words of Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, ”What is happening in schools perhaps reflects what has happened in society generally regarding the importance and practice of Christianity… I think certainly in the last decade inspectors have wanted to see examples of multiculturalism, diversity and the promotion of community cohesion in RE, so that is what schools have shown them’

Which leaves us in a pickle, and gives prospective RE teachers something of a minefield to navigate. And it might not be as easy as just keeping in mind the essential difference between evangelisation and proselytism, and sticking rigorously to the former – because it seems that something much more fundamental is at stake; the right to evangelise at all, or at least to evangelise the Christian faith, be it a religious school or not.

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