The 1944 Education Act defined RE as comprising teaching (RI)
and assembling (Collective Act of Worship). Forty and more years
on, the tendency is to disassociate RE from any school assembly
for worship because the latter is anti-educational. Whereas, it
is said, education requires critical thinking and openness, worship
has a more exclusive focus in confessing a particular faith. It
is far more appropriate therefore to take up worship in the classroom
as an element for study within the teaching of RE. Donít pray
in school. Instead, strive for boys and girls to understand what
it means to worship and pray.
But how? Meeting recently with a group of secondary headteachers
I was told by one that it was useless to introduce first year
pupils to Hindu and Muslim. festivals because the primary schools
have left them ignorant of even Christian festivals. Instead,
she said, we must concentrate on the Christian ones so the children
would have a point of reference from which to move later on to
other faiths. This is a beguiling argument but actually self defeating.
For it seeks to explain the unknown in terms of the equally unknown.
Prayer and worship, like festivals, may actually entail quite
strange language and experience for many children. For in their
own family traditions overt religious activity and belonging may
scarcely occur. Where then to begin?
The answer in part at least depends on the understanding of religion
and worship that we as teachers are working with. If they are
perceived as entirely discreet and discontinuous from all other
human activity and experience then there will be little prospect
of finding related or analogous elements in the everyday lives
of children. Being Christian or Muslim means going to the church
or mosque; worship is hymn singing or the rituals of Friday prayer.
Such definition is evidently accurate, but actually inadequate.
If that is the major emphasis, it is questionable what appreciation
will be acquired by boys and girls who from home are unaccustomed
to such activities. For the purposes of conveying the personal
significance of being religious or worshipful, rather, more is
A common example of this failure to connect occurs in primary
school text books that speak baldly in less than half a page of
the Aztec practice of worshipping the sun. They may even add that
human sacrifice was offered to this object of devotion. And then
they shift their attention to Aztec pyramids or gold; religion
and worship have had their passing reference and attention now
properly turns to other things. What is missed in all this is
any attempt to explain or explore what might have moved Aztec
Indians to focus so much attention on the sun and to be prepared
to make gifts of human life itself. But then again if religion
and worship are eccentric activities no one need be surprised
by bizarre extremities. They can be remarked as such; teachers
and taught may express momentary fascination but that will be
an end to them in all their strange religiosity. Real living experience
is of a different order; that, instead, we can take for granted.
Yet it is commonplace to hear from anthropologists and social
psychologists alike that religion and worship are pervasive in
human experience ó expressed in myth, ritual and community buildings.
Transculturally from tribe to differentiated technological society
the human context is shot through with stories and gestures that
express dependence and gratitude, regret and praise, and even
silent wondering. Though these may sometimes be labelled as religious,
often they are not, but sing instead the plain song of humanity,
plumbing heights and depths as these unnamed are stumbled on.
It is in this territory that a teacher may choose to dwell in
the interests of opening up the genuine glimmer and glow of worship.
If so the strategy used may be no less systematic or structured
than one that begins with the overt liturgical form of synagogue
or gurdwara. For these are ingredients recognisably recurrent
across the range of that which is basically human or religious.
We might begin with wishing and hoping. Although estimates of
it may differ from one tradition to another, this is common across
religion in the form of petitionary prayer. But it is also common
to children or adults who might hope against hope that things
could be other than they are. Doing the pools, crossing fingers,
or pleading before God, have a common core of desire that circumstances
might change, and usually for the better. Time would be well spent
exploring different ways boys and girls express their hopes, the
various forms that the hopes take in terms of desired outcomes,
and by what power and force, or intervention, fulfilment might
be achieved. It is likely that there would be no shortage of examples
from a class.
"Iíve got a lucky cornish pixie at home. If you put it
on it gets good luck and when you take it off you donít get
any good luck at all . . . I wear it on Sundays, because I always,
I never get told off on Sundays if I wear it" (7-year-old
When my mum was young, about 12 to 16 and she see a piece of
coal she used to hack it out and wrap it in a hanky and put
it in her pocket, it always came lucky to her. She still does
it now sometimes, she always keeps an old hanky. And it really
works? Yes, I think so (12-year-old boy).
Equally some ranking of hopes according to their greater or lesser
worthiness might be tried out. Groups within a class might be
encouraged to engage in a classification activity (e.g. self-serving/other
serving, material/illuminative) before then going on to weigh
their respective significance. Against the background of such
activity a direct approach to specific examples of petitionary
prayer might become more intelligible than otherwise would have
been the case.
A second theme for preliminary exploration might be that of being
sorry. Expressions of regret for whatís been done or not done
occur within family, between friends, or more occasionally in
public life. Examples of each might be described by members of
a class in pairs, perhaps orally at first, and later elaborated
in letter form. Implicit in such statements will be a sense of
individual responsibility for particular actions. Having begun
with the experience of regret, it would be appropriate to move
on to consider typical responses by the person(s) wronged. Some
of these might be more punishing, others more accepting, but again,
by pooling examples, a basis in common experience can be arrived
at. Building on this base rather more should now emerge from direct
reference to specific prayers that express comparable sentiments,
as also from reference to any verbal and dramatic expressions
of forgiveness that follow. By such means as these fundamental
distinctions like that between accepting a person but rejecting
certain actions can be exposed, and acts of penitence, individual
or collective, better understood.
Being thankful is another theme that would repay this kind of
attention. To whom are children commonly thankful and for what?
What is the difference between polite thank you and thanks that
come from the bottom of someoneís heart? Much thankfulness quite
appropriately goes on without any reference to anyone other than
the friend/relative/professional peer concerned. Yet there is
a deeper sense of thankfulness that can sometimes go beyond the
persons immediately involved. This is illustrated by the following
extract from a conversation with an eleven-year-old boy who is
basically confused about the outward forms of religion and yet
perceptive of some deeper meaning within:
Whatís inside a church? A cross . . . I know a church near
where we live which has got a bronze statue of the Mona Lisa
about five foot tall and a little Jesus hanging on the top.
Why has it got a statue of the Mona Lisa? The mother of Joseph
who was the father of God. . . have you ever been inside a church?
yes. Iíve been to a wedding, and once me, my mum and my friend
went in a church and we prayed. Why did you do that? We just
prayed because weíre thankful for what weíve got . . . Iíve
got a little dog called Santa and it kept on messing on the
carpets and my brother came out of the bathroom and put his
foot straight in it. Mum was going to take him to be put down
ó she had to sign a form and she couldnít do it so she brought
him back home and weíve still got him. Iím thankful for that.
An example such as this could relevantly lead on to a consideration
of specific songs/hymns/prayers that have been generated by religious
believers. Again, the language of a specific hymn or prayer of
thanks will often deserve close inspection; so, too, the different
forms that individual and collective acts of gratitude might take.
A celebration or festival within a family, nation or separate
faith community may itself be intended, in part at least, as an
act of general thanksgiving. Gifts too may be motivated by a sense
of thankful appreciation of another or others.
Praising and cheering, being still and wondering, are some of
the other recurrent ingredients of worship. They too deserve to
be explored from the everyday human end as well as by reference
to explicit religion. Running throughout all the themes however
will be the open question of to whom the thanks, the praise, the
penitence or the pleading is addressed. Much of the time they
will quite simply involve the individual in relation to self or
other(s). But within any one of those relationships, there may
also be a religious ingredient which sets that humanity in italics
as extra special and pointing beyond its own immediately given
This pointing beyond, or transcendent quality, is central to
worship proper. Thus talk of God, gods, or another world, is now
called directly into play. Here too the same investigatory approach
which moves from the experience of boys and girls to references
that are beyond them is both appropriate and necesary if the question
of religious claim to truth is not to be completely dodged. It
has been suggested that a variety of classification work is appropriate
to arrive at an understanding of the forms of prayer and worship.
Equally important would be some analysis of the qualities of transcendence
in whatsoever form it is found or affirmed. Thus the God who is
believed to be welcoming of human sacrifice may be very different
from the God who is healing hospital for humankind; rather closer
to a Nazi nationalist cause that is stubbornly indifferent to
the wholesale gifts of follow- ersí lives its policies take for
Take the sun: what are its qualities? It generates warmth and
light. It is reliable, even predictable. Yet, it is high up and
beyond reach; it is outside human control and gives its benefits
to poor and rich alike. Without the sun there would be no life,
but with it there is also drought and burning.
Take an oak tree. Like the sun itís not of my making. It is strong
and bears fruit but it is also vulnerable to disease, fire, old
age and the human axe. Itís been known to give shelter and shade.
Its roots reach down under our feet but its branches reach way
up higher than ten of the tallest humans. It began to grow decades,
even centuries, before us and may well continue long after we
die. As a tree it is obvious for all to see, but it also bridges
into unknown worlds.
Take a nurse: what qualities here? Physical warmth and shelter;
bringing light, nourishment and healing potions according to human
need. Not just aloof, standing over and beyond, but patient and
approaching close and expressing personal care and interest. The
nurse is other than you or I but yet somehow nearer to us than
tree or sun can ever be. The very nearness in time and space that
makes the human closeness possible also restricts the outreach
and coverage of nursesí care.
The sun, the tree of life and the healerís companion are all
images that have recurred in the religious experience of mankind,
as expressions of the immanence and/or transcendence of God. But
so too are mountain, river, thunder; manufacturer, destroyer,
rescuer; child, wise one and clown. Without first exploring in
relation to their own experience the personal thoughts and feelings
associated with each, children will have difficulty making any
sense of the evocation of god-ness that is variously represented
by them. Transcendence with a capital T may not be coterminous
with transcendence but the one is apprehended in its correspondence
with, as well as its distinction from, the other.
There is in other words a very important activity of moral, humanity-testing
scrutiny to be begun with boys and girls if they are ever to fathom
for themselves the different doubts and affirmations which move
men and women to worship so doggedly in such diversity. Acts of
worship in this sense are still central to RE!
The 1988 Education Reform Act leaves no doubt that Worship should
be seen as central. There shall be worship every school day, in
every school for all pupils up to the age of eighteen. This seems
strange for a society which would struggle to find even 1% of
adults engaging in public worship every week day. It could have
been stranger. Lord Thorneycroft, with all the authority of his
former Party Chairmanship, sought a normative prescription of
worship comparable to that in his parish church on a Sunday. He
was defeated, but the more general prescription stands. There
are some other specifications, too. Timing and composition are
now more flexible than in 1944: no longer necessarily the whole
school together, nor at the beginning of every day, but may be
sectionally and at times to suit the school. Whereas previously
not defined, now the worship must be wholly or mainly of a broadly
Christian nature. Legal interpretation reveals a greater flexibility
here than first impression. Mainly means at least half; the content
of the rest is left undetermined. The majority category is of
a broadly Christian nature. That is, not denominationally specific.
It is collective (i.e. assembled together), not corporate (i.e.
not presuming equal degrees of participation and belief).
Like the rest of the curriculum, it must be sensitive to age,
aptitude and family background; no license here for any empty
liturgical routine. And as a fail-save there is the conscience
clause, withdrawal rights, for pupils and teachers, plus a facility
for sectional majorities of another faith in a particular school
to apply for a waiver from the broadly Christian rubric. Schools
will understandably look to their LEA SACREs for procedural guidance
and examples of good practice, but the law will oblige them to
give more attention to worship than previously most have done.
In so attending, colleagues may themselves find value in approaching
worship where the children are and arising from within the deeper
concerns of school and community.