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CofE school guidance claims compulsory worship can be ‘inclusive’

New Church of England guidance on how Church schools should carry out compulsory collective worship claims such worship can be ‘inclusive’ when the view of most people is that this plainly cannot be the case, Humanists UK has said. The guidance is in fact ‘completely contradictory’ and not fit for purpose in a diverse society.

The new Statement of Entitlement and Expectation for collective worship in CofE schools was published by the Church’s Education Office last week. It says worship ‘is the unique heartbeat of the school’ and involves giving pupils ‘an encounter with Jesus Christ and with Christian faith’ that includes ‘prayer, reading and reflecting on the Bible, liturgy, sacrament and experience of the musical and other imaginative riches of Christianity’.

Many CofE schools teach pupils whose families do not share the faith. In many areas this happens because the Church school is the only option available to them. The document states that, because of this diverse intake, collective worship should be ‘welcoming’ and ‘inclusive’. But, because – as UK Government guidance states – worship means ‘reverence or veneration paid to a divine being or power’, Humanists UK is often contacted by parents who do not share belief in a Christian God and say their children find taking part in worship uncomfortable and alienating.

The new CofE guidance says ‘there should be no compulsion [on pupils] to “do anything”’ including ‘sing strongly confessional lyrics’ to hymns. But it goes on to say that worship will ‘involve meaningful contributions from the whole school community’ and that ‘pupils and adults will encounter the practice of regular prayer and worship as a normal part of the life of the school.’ It then suggests that parents or pupils who are uncomfortable with worship should exercise their right to withdraw from these sessions, and schools should explain how to do this. However, schools are under no obligation to offer a meaningful alternative to children who have been opted-out of worship and the practice can be difficult and isolating. What’s more, only sixth-form pupils are entitled to do this without their parents’ permission, meaning younger pupils who would prefer to withdraw may be forced to take part even when they feel unhappy about doing so, threatening their freedom of religion or belief.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented:

‘The CofE says that “collective worship… should meet the needs of all, wherever they may be on their journey of faith and belief.” But when will they understand that for most young people their needs involve no worship at all?

‘The idea of inclusive Christian worship is completely contradictory. Worship means giving reverence to god. For this reason, by definition, those who don’t believe in such a god cannot take part in worship. This is why the legal requirement for all schools, including those without a religious character, to carry out worship is not fit for purpose. To protect the freedom of religion or belief for all pupils in state schools, compulsory worship should be replaced with a requirement to provide properly inclusive assemblies that are suitable for all pupils regardless of background.’

Notes:

The UK is the only sovereign state in the world to impose worship in all state schools, including those without a religious character. Outside of faith schools, this worship must be ‘broadly Christian’. Parents may withdraw their children from worship and sixth form pupils in England and Wales may withdraw themselves, but younger pupils may not withdraw without parental permission. This process is often difficult and no meaningful alternative to worship is offered in the vast majority of schools – a fact that Humanists UK believes is discriminatory.

Next week, a new Bill that proposes to replace compulsory religious worship in English schools with inclusive assemblies will be introduced in the UK Parliament, after being drawn ninth in the House of Lords Private Members’ Bill ballot. The Education (Assemblies) Bill was tabled by All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group (APPHG) Vice-Chair Baroness Burt with support from Humanists UK.

In February, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child pressed governments across the UK to ‘to repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools and ensure that children can independently exercise the right to withdraw from religious observance at school.’ A prior report by the same Committee in 2016 also said the requirement should be abolished.

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham via ruth@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3000 or 07725 110 860.

Read the Church of England guidance on collective worship.

Read our latest article on the new Bill that proposes to replace compulsory worship with inclusive assemblies in schools without a religious character.

Read our article on the Government saying it will ‘remind schools of their duty’ to carry out Christian collective worship.

Read our article on the UN Committee pressing the UK to repeal collective worship laws.

Read our article on children’s rights experts telling the UK to repeal compulsory collective worship laws.

Read more about our work on collective worship.

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