Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:09 pm on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of Lord Harries of Pentregarth Lord Harries of Pentregarth Crossbench 12:09 pm, 10th September 2021

My Lords, I support the Bill both in my own person and as a member of the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life, chaired by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. The commission’s Living with Difference report urged just such a change in the law as the Bill suggests.

I am not opposed to compulsory worship in schools in principle. It was entirely natural that, when our society was a predominantly unified one, the beliefs of the society as a whole should be expressed in state-funded institutions. However, as is obvious, this is no longer the case. As we know, worship has to be wholly or predominantly of a Christian character, but there are millions of people of other religions: Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Jews. Even more significant than that: we know that about half the population now say that they have no religion at all, and the percentage of young people who have no religion is even higher than that, so our present legal situation simply does not reflect the society in which we now live.

My second reason relates to our present situation, where the obligation to have compulsory worship in schools on a daily basis is either widely ignored or so widely interpreted that it is, in fact, evacuated of all significant religious content. As we have already heard, some 53% of primary school teachers indicated that there was no active religious worship in their schools. The Bill rightly insists that religiously designated schools continue to have compulsory religious worship, but, of course, with those schools, the parents sign up for it: it is where they choose to send their children. The situation is of course totally different with the whole range of those schools—the vast majority—that do not have a religious designation.

As we heard in our briefing, a spokesman from the Church of England said that the present situation gives a very valuable opportunity for pupils to pause and reflect. However, you do not have to have an obligation to have an act of worship in order to do that. The Bill makes very good provision for compulsory assemblies where children’s spiritual and moral development can be considered. My guess is that most heads, who are now pretty indifferent to what the law says, would gain new energy and imagination in order to make something of those assemblies, if it was something that they could wholeheartedly agree with.

I support the Bill because Christianity is fundamentally committed to free choice. The only good reason for believing in a religion is because you believe and personally recognise it to be true. The pioneers of religious freedom in this country, like John Locke, were Christians, and they passionately believed that Christianity ought to be able to shine in its own light. I support the Bill on Christian grounds because I believe that the Christian faith is such a wonderful thing. It could shine in its own light, if people could only do away with all the distortions with which it is usually presented in order to see it as such.

So I support the Bill for three reasons: the present situation simply does not reflect where we are as a society, it brings the present law into disrepute and it does a disservice to the Christian faith itself, which ought to be able to shine in its own light, as I believe it does.