C’s piece yesterday interested me greatly. As a Christian who spent his working life in education (secondary) and even taught RE (as it was then called). I’ve a deal of sympathy for anyone trying to do it, and I shared some thoughts with him, which he’s suggested I do more widely here.
The biggest difference between the start of my career in teaching (1967/8) and the end six years ago, was what educationalists call the ‘cultural capital’ pupils brought to school in respect of Christianity. As I started my career on what was then not called Merseyside, it might well be that because of a large number of Catholics of Irish descent, what I encountered by atypical, but since it tended to be the same with the more numerous Protestants, I think not. On the whole they knew the basics. No one had to explain what Easter was about, or tell them it wasn’t about a ‘bunny rabbit’; by the end that was necessary. No one had to tell them who Jesus was, although we might have had to tell them about how to understand some of the things they had read in the Bible – and they all had a Bible at home. Many of them were occasional church goers, some regular, but they were all part of a broadly Christian culture, however diluted in parts. This was reinforced by social norms. No one back then was arguing that marriage meant other than what it had always meant, or that to call children boys and girls was some sort of prejudiced comment which discriminated against the ‘genderfluid’. Shops were shut on a Sunday, which felt very different to the rest of the week; indeed, most shops closed on a Saturday lunch hour. This made teaching RE easier, as we were largely dealing with Christianity and in filling in the gaps in their knowledge – which admittedly were often quite large.
That changed across time. By the mid 1980s I was not the only teacher at my new school, which was in God’s own country of Yorkshire – who noticed that we could not assume any longer that the children would know what we meant when we talked about ‘Anglican’ or “Catholic’. Church seemed a foreign place to many. Our lessons seemed suddenly to require us to do more of what had always been a small part of them – comparative religion. I was never sure that, knowing little about the faith of their own country, the children got very much out of superficial thumb-nail sketches of what Sikhism was, but with the advent of a national curriculum, even public schools felt an obligation to steer in that direction, not least because that was where the public examinations syllabi were all going.
There was a point at which RE lessons became ‘Personal and Social Education’, and seemed to be about ethics – abortion rights, contraception rights, that sort of ethics – sex and ‘finding yourself’. A generation which on the whole, by the 1990s, knew very little about Christianity, was deliberately not taught anything, at least on the whole. I recall saying this at a staff meeting and being told that was the job of church schools and Sunday schools; the colleague had a point, not as good as he’d imagined, as in my view knowledge of Christianity was necessary to study Shakespeare and much English literature, as well as to understand our history, but of course, what he didn’t know was the extent to which the churches were failing to do this.
I wish C and his diocese well in their efforts. They are brave to set out to sea in the current stormy weather, and I shall pray for their good success – they’ll need it.