Education (Assemblies) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:22 pm on 10th September 2021.

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Photo of The Bishop of Oxford The Bishop of Oxford Bishop 12:22 pm, 10th September 2021

My Lords, I warmly welcome this debate. As others have said, it is very timely that it is raised. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, for her careful introduction, and other noble Lords and noble Baronesses who have spoken, particularly my distinguished predecessor but one, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, with whom I think I am about to disagree.

Worship and spirituality are a vital part of what it means to be human, and it is absolutely right, for all the reasons that have been given, that it be carefully reviewed and, possibly, that some changes should be introduced. But my reason for in conscience finding this Bill difficult goes back to my experience of leading assemblies as a local parish priest many years ago in Halifax. I put a great deal of time and energy into rehearsing the parable of the good Samaritan and the stories of Joseph and Moses, only for the otherwise extremely good and gifted head teacher of the school to reinterpret my assembly with the phrase, “Of course, what the vicar really means is don’t run in the corridors, and pick up the litter in the playground.” It is the reduction, without a serious faith tradition, of the fantastic values that are being articulated, to simple practical motifs which I fear is the danger of a Bill like this.

There are many benefits to collective worship in schools, as has been said, as a time to pause and reflect, to gather in community, to mourn in times of tragedy, as we have seen recently, to foster common values, to celebrate festivals, not just Christian, and to build religious literacy, which is vital. Although there is some evidence to the contrary, there is other evidence that suggests that the present arrangement works well, as many schools and children will testify. The noble Baroness and others have argued that the Bill would liberate schools to use the valuable time gained to cover themes such as the environment, health relationships and self-esteem, but all those themes are regularly part of good school collective worship in the present pattern, within the context of the great faith traditions.

If the Bill is passed, one effect may be to make anything that is more than secular assembly not legal and contested in our schools. I fear that one risk of the Bill is that it will weaken the protection around this valuable space for reflection in the school day, that the life of our schools will move in an ever more utilitarian direction, and that children will grow up in ignorance of the possibilities and depth of the faith traditions which, as the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, has said, have formed our society and culture and the societies of the world, where faith still plays a massive role.

Is it right in a pluralist society that worship remain wholly or mainly Christian? I believe it is, and for the following reason. The alternative to rooting collective worship in the Christian tradition is to root it in a largely invented contemporary gathered syncretic tradition, which lacks depth or authority, is unconnected to any faith community and will quickly be abandoned. The effect of the Bill may be to replace a tolerant, humane and hospitable Christian faith as the main strand of worship in our schools, combined with other faith traditions, with a largely manufactured cluster of ideas with few roots in our stories or culture and varying enormously from school to school. I do not think that the majority of the nation’s children and young people should be denied the experience of spiritual, moral, social and cultural development connected to a living tradition, which research shows they value. It is right that we are having this debate, and I hope that many conversations come from it, but I urge your Lordships not to progress this Bill.