Presidential Address – Governing Body, September 2009

As you know, at this Governing Body we will be discussing the Church in Wales’ educational review and I am grateful to all those who have been responsible for it. As the report and the motions following it make clear – and this point is crucial, the Church in Wales is interested in every aspect of education and not just in its own church schools. In other words, the report is not just about our internal affairs, important as those are, but about education and educational policy as a whole.

That is why I entered the debate about the Welsh Assembly Government’s decision earlier this year to allow sixth formers in Wales to opt out of collective worship in schools. It is important to remember that this legislation does not bring an end to school worship for sixth formers, as some people have maintained, but makes it optional. I am concerned, however, that this is the thin end of the wedge and could be just the start of a process that devalues and ultimately marginalises the provision of collective worship in schools. It also gives the impression, of course, that collective worship is something that young people grow out of by the age of 16, at precisely the time when it might be the best way of feeding both their minds and their hearts as they start to explore the responsibilities and consequences of adult life.

The daily act of collective worship presents for pupils of all ages a special occasion in the daily life of the school, when the community comes together in recognition, affirmation and celebration of shared values. It is, as Bishop David Wilbourne put it “about giving worth, giving worth to the world in which we live, giving worth to those we encounter through daily living, giving worth to ourselves and the people we are meant to be.”

Without a clear recognition of a spiritual dimension, schools run the risk of becoming narrowly focused on personal attainment. The fundamental responsibility of every school is to develop and nurture the full potential of its pupils. Worship can play a role in this by allowing young people to ask searching questions and explore issues of personal faith that the curriculum does not address.

School worship can also be an opportunity to share the faith journey of others while extending personal knowledge and understanding and opening different pathways into spiritual experience.

Even schools in the most culturally diverse areas ought to be beacons of good practice in collective worship, where pupils can be offered the chance to learn the facts of faith and culture and then experience it alongside their brothers and sisters in the shared journey of faith. There is something very special about hearing Muslim and Christian children talk in friendship about the things that unite them and the things that make them distinctive. And that already happens in church schools as well as state schools.

The law that requires a daily act of worship in schools is not a mandate to compel pupils to recite the Lord’s Prayer and be so inspired that they turn up at church the next Sunday. It is an invitation to experience what faith and commitment might mean. How vital it is, therefore, to feed the minds and hearts of the 17 and 18 year olds who stand on the cusp of adult life and all the responsibilities it carries. We must help them encounter a world that is not a bland secular wasteland, but a place of rich spiritual diversity where faith plays a fundamental role in moulding and shaping our lives.

Religion claims to discern the meaning and purpose of life and on educational grounds alone, this deserves serious consideration. Children and young people have a sense of wonder and awe and older children have an interest in religious phenomenon and are searching for meaning in life. Education is about encouraging and developing this search. The aim of both religious education in schools and worship is not to proselytise. It is not part of the job of a secular school to bring about a commitment to the Christian faith – that is the job of the church, of Christians and of the home. The aim of religious education in schools and worship is not to defend and maintain the Christian faith, but rather to help people to understand what religion is and what it would mean to take up religion seriously. That’s an educational task and not an evangelistic one. All this can be done by exploring many aspects of religion and studying the Christian religion in greater detail because this has affected our life in Britain most deeply. The educational aim (the job of a school) is to help children understand religion as distinct from the evangelistic aim of helping to make children religious (job of the church and parents).

And Christians have to keep their nerve for there is the wider question of the place of religion in public life in general. Some of the letters I receive assume that religion is dead, irrational and full of superstition and has no place in public life at all, nor that Christians have any right to voice their concerns about any issue. But the world we live in may be more receptive than we think. It is true that the church is in decline in the West whereas it is growing in Africa, Asia and Latin America. And yet, as events over the last decade in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union have shown, neither atheistic humanism nor atheistic socialism, nor atheistic science, have succeeded in superseding religion. It is a fact that no non religious society has ever been found anywhere in the world and there is no culture that is not profoundly influenced by religious premises. The believer is not an aberration, but the non believer is. We need then to be bolder in the face of what we judge to be omnipresent religiosity.

We live in a country that is clamouring for values. People do turn to the church to look for meaning in life. Melanie Phillips, the well known journalist says, “when churches are brave enough to engage with such questions as the meaning of existence, far from turning people away, they draw them in”. People also forget that this country’s beliefs in freedom and equality and the desire to remove poverty, injustice, oppression and slavery are based on Judeo-Christian values.

There is a view abroad that religion should be restricted to home and church and excluded from the public square, that is with what individuals do in and with their leisure time – a kind of marginal and private pursuit for those who like that kind of thing. For Christians, all things have their origin in God. Since He is the creator of the universe, nothing is separate from His creation and therefore all things in the end must be related back to Him for He has a concern for every aspect of it since He brought it into existence.

And it is simply not true to say, as some continue to insist, that we live in a totally secular society. By that they mean that most of life in this country is lived out without reference to God and has no connection to Him. Apart from the fact that this country has been shaped by the Christian faith and its history is inextricably bound up with it, most people still claim to believe in God. And as the Archbishop of Canterbury recently pointed out, religion, instead of allowing itself to be quietly marginalised, “has continued to be a presence – sometimes vocal, often influential in the public square”. When people are killed on our roads or there are awful tragedies, piles of flowers mark the occasion. It’s as if people are trying to relate their feelings to something or someone greater than themselves.

As someone else put it, “the church is still a place where people place emotions that won’t go anywhere else” and again to quote Archbishop Rowan, “in a rational carefully administered secular society, there ought to be no superfluous emotions, images, sensations and aspirations. They ought to be catered for, and they are not. And the church and other religious bodies remain places where those unformulated, almost unconscious questions and aspirations are allowed to be voiced”.

Of course, there is a world of a difference between contributing to a public debate on say, assisted dying and indoctrination. Some want to argue that Christians should just be silent because they argue from particular premises whereas secularists assume they do not.

Christians are interested in the good of society as a whole – the common good, not just their own good and that’s why Christians work for charity, want to change the conditions of the poor and the marginalised and the powerless and also want to build a society where all human beings can flourish. In other words then, Christian faith does not believe that we are simply conditioned by purely utilitarian economic or technological matters. We believe that there are deeper questions about the meaning and purpose to our lives and that our actions must be governed by them and it is right that we should raise them.

It is also worth remembering that in this country there are substantial communities of people, Christians and others, for whom religious belief is quite normative and defines who they are and how they think. And to argue as some do, that we should not even engage in public debate is to diminish our human rights. What we have to remember as well is that people of other faiths have no problems with Christians taking the lead in these matters. It is nervous public officials or aggressive secularists who have their problems.

Thomas Aquinas put it very succinctly “theology has no particular subject matter but rather attempts to say something about everything in relation to God”.

And that brings me to the recession. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in June 2009, published a paper by Professor Jose Harris, where he reminds us that social theorists and moralists throughout human history have warned against the dangers of affluence and acquisitiveness for their own sake, rather than for meeting basic human needs or for public and communal purposes. In that paper, he says that mounting research suggests that “the pursuit of consumption as an end in itself regardless of the value of the objects consumed, or of prudent calculation of future needs, may in fact be a powerful generator of personal misery, failure of rational self discipline, social pathology and economic disorder and decline”.

Professor Michael Sandel, in his 2009 Reith Lectures, “A New Politics for the Common Good” sees relative poverty, deepened during the period of market triumphalism as a serious danger to civic good and argues that it leaves the rich and poor living increasingly separate lives. The wealthy live in affluent neighbourhoods, which the urban poor cannot afford, with good schools or opt-out for private schools, and enjoy private health care, transport and social clubs, thus leading to the deterioration of public facilities for which the affluent become increasingly reluctant to pay for. It also causes an increasing gulf between citizens from different walks of life who no longer encounter one another on common ground, and leads to corresponding decline in our sense of community.

In the UK, we have already seen a sharp decline in active participation in charity and voluntary work and in sporting activities. Our loss in community feeds into a corresponding loss of trust and confidence in our public and professional bodies. The current economic crisis has led to a deep and widespread loss of trust in the banking and financial sector, and revelations about the use and abuse of public money by MPs has severely tested public belief in our system of government.

Professor Sandel seeks a re-framing of political argument, both through public debate but also about the moral limit of markets, and also through more robust public discourse, which engages more directly with moral and even spiritual questions. Decisions are often based on cost benefit analysis, in which everything including human life is given a monetary value. This might help us as consumers, but does nothing to nurture democratic citizenship, and causes governments to focus on maximising GDP rather than on bigger issues such as seeking distributive justice. What Professor Sandel is arguing is that ethical and moral issues need to be put back on the political agenda to help bring about cultural shifts and surely churches have a role to play in this and a key role.

Despite the undoubted pain it has brought in its wake, the global recession may have helped bring us to a tipping point. Market-driven politics have been discredited.

There is a groundswell of public concern about excessive self-interest and the breakdown of community. Since the 1960s, moral and ethical debates and passion for great causes have been increasingly frozen out of politics, which has helped to create the divided society we have today. To some extent the church has been complicit in this. The growth of ethnic and religious diversity, political correctness, the rise of atheism, our absorption in our own internal politics as well as the prevailing political atmosphere have all conspired to still our voices. Now we need to start lifting them again, raising the consciousness of our congregations and communities, challenging perceptions, looking at the bigger picture and helping to put the difficult moral debates firmly back on the political agenda, I believe that as the demonstrations against the Iraq war showed, the public will is there, if we can but capture it. If we can do that, and make people feel the relevance of the church once more, who knows where it may lead.