A Critique of Christian Religionism in Recent British Education


John M Hull


 in Jeff Astley and Leslie J. Francis (eds) Christian Theology and Religious Education: Connections and Contradictions London, SPCK, 1996, pp. 140-164




In recent years a particular approach to Christian education has become influential in England and in other parts of Britain. Having outlined the context of this development, and drawn attention to some problems of method which face the theological researcher in this area, the main features of this approach to Christian education will be described. The study concludes with a brief evaluation in which it will be suggested that the theology in question can be regarded as a form of religionism.



The 1988 Education Reform Act, which affected England and Wales, was the most far-reaching educational legislation in Britain since the1944 Education Act. In addition to important financial and organisa­tional changes, the Act set up the compulsory National Curriculum.’ In its early stages, the proposed legislation did no more for religious education than to renew the provisions of the 1944 Act, according to which religious instruction (as it was then described) was to be given to every child (unless withdrawn by the parent) in accordance with an agreed syllabus, which the Local Education Authority was to draw up. Each school day was to commence with an act of collective worship on the part of all the pupils in attendance at the school, unless withdrawn by their parents. Nothing positive was said about the content, either of the agreed syllabus or the collective worship. They were, however, not to include teaching in accordance with any formulary or catechism distinctive of a denomination.

It was evident that the introduction of a new and prestigious National Curriculum would marginalise religious education. Its position, already anomalous as the only required subject on the timetable of the school day, would become still more peculiar as the only required subject not in the National Curriculum. Various appeals were made to the Government to strengthen the position of religious education but without much result until early in 1988 the Bill went up from the House of Commons to the House of Lords. A group of Christian members of parliament in both Houses had decided that it was necessary not only to strengthen the position of religious education but to ‘reform’ it. A number of amendments to the Bill were agreed. The most significant of these referred to Christianity. The result was that both the content of the agreed syllabuses, which remained a local responsibility, and the content of collective worship were subject to a positive Christian requirement. Any new agreed syllabuses were to ‘reflect the fact that the principal religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’ (Section 8.3) while on most of the days of the school term, collective worship was to be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ this being the case if it ‘reflects the broad traditions of Christian belief’ (Section 7). Arrangements were made for schools where such Christian worship would be inappro­priate to appeal to the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education (SACRE) of the Local Education Authority, which had the power to issue a ‘determination’ lifting the requirement for Christian worship from that part of the school (or all of it) for which the determination was sought. It was expected that such applications would come from schools where there were signifi­cant numbers of pupils from Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jewish and other religious traditions.

Unfortunately for the Christian reformers, compromises were introduced into the legislation, partly because of the controversy aroused by the proposals, and partly because of the pressure of time.’ Thus, the second part of the clause about the agreed syllabus content was added, i.e. the requirement that the agreed syllabuses should ‘take account of the teaching and practices of the other principal religions’. The section about Christian collective worship became quite convoluted, with so many qualifi­cations and possibilities that its interpretation became a matter of specialist debate. As has been already observed, the requirement is that collective worship should be wholly or mainly Christian, which means that no single act of collective worship need ever be wholly Christian. Moreover, the act of worship is not to be uniquely Christian nor even specifically Christian but only of a ‘broadly Christian character’. The attempt to define this theologi­cally in terms of reflecting ‘the broad traditions of Christian belief’ was equally ambiguous. In any case, such acts of worship only had to take place on a majority of days during any given school term, and the remaining days were to be of an unspecified character. In interpreting this, schools were to take account of the age, aptitude and family background of pupils, and the determina­tion procedure could apply to any part of the school or to the whole school, and several determinations could be sought and granted. On top of all this, the parental right of withdrawal remained absolute, and schools were encouraged to be sympa­thetic towards the spiritual needs of withdrawn pupils, who could thus have their own acts of worship in accordance with the wishes of the parents .3

The Christians now had two problems. First, it was necessary to show to the public that these Christianising additions, so contrary to the British tradition, were necessary and second, if they were to be effective from the Christian point of view, it was necessary to conceal from the public and the profession the ambiguity and, indeed, vagueness of the legislation and to insist upon a single meaning in law, i.e. a meaning which maximised the position of Christianity. The first of these tasks had already been undertaken as part of the preparation for the introduction of the Christianising amendments .4 The need for the second only became apparent when it was clear that the legislation had been botched, although it was some time before the Christians realised the extent of this problem. They were already worried, as the debates-in parliament clearly demonstrate, but they hoped that the Christian cause would roll on triumphantly. Alas, this was not to be so.

The teaching profession remained largely unconvinced and the Local Education Authorities through their agreed syllabus confer­ences produced syllabuses which were not strikingly different from those which had been produced before 1988.5 Although Christian parents made useful complaints against the new agreed syllabuses of the London Boroughs of Ealing and Newham, the results were disappointing. The most that could be shown was that the new syllabuses were not sufficiently detailed. In the meantime, the Government had taken legal advice on what view the courts would be likely to take of the meaning of Section 8.3. The result, again, was not completely satisfactory. The legal view was that ‘The fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian could be reflected by devoting most time to Christian traditions but in my opinion the flexibility inherent in the word "reflect" means that this could be done in other ways e.g. by comparison with other religions and discussion as to the differences and similarities between Christian and other traditions." This was exactly the kind of syllabus which the Christians wanted to prevent. This part of the legal advice was therefore not released to the public. Instead, a much shorter section of paragraphs consistent with the view of the Christians was released .7 The National Curriculum Council carried out a survey which claimed to show that none of the twenty-seven new agreed syllabuses ‘matched all the legal requirements’ of Section 8.3.8

Efforts to block up the ‘loopholes’ in the legislation took place in 1992 and 1993 when religious education was again debated in parliament. By now, however, the Government had become a little more cautious. The Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and other reli­gious communities were becoming more vocal9 and the Church of England was inclined to let the 1988 settlement alone in spite of some vigorous Christian voices within the General Synod and its Board of Education." Most of the amendments which were proposed in the House of Lords in 1993 were therefore described as probing amendments and were withdrawn on the understand­ing that the substance of them would be included in the circular of guidance which the Department for Education would shortly produce. These included proposals that the number of religions which could be studied in school would be no more than two or at the most in exceptional circumstances three, and that schools should give seven days notice in writing to parents of any act of collective worship which was to contain material not drawn from the Christian tradition." There was one success. The composition of the group or committee on the agreed syllabus conference and the SACRE which represents other Christian denominations than the Church of England and other religions was not now to be selected at the discretion of the Local Education Authority but was to represent the numerical strength of the religions and denominations in the area.

The task of stopping-up the rest of the loopholes was left for the departmental Circular, which was issued in draft form on it October 1993. This showed a clear intention to drive home the distinction between Christian and non-Christian both at the level of the agreed syllabus content and in the school population itself in the acts of collective worship. For example, the character and content of collective worship was now defined in more specifically theistic and Christian terms so as to make the withdrawal of other pupils irevitable.12 The final form of the Circular, issued on 31 January 1994 removed some of the less cautious expressions but the spirit,)f the document remained unchanged. The Chris­tians were beaming cautious rather than penitent. In the mean­time, it had been decided to bring additional pressure upon the uncooperative agreed syllabus conferences and Local Education Authorities by publishing exemplary or model syllabuses, in which the Government’s rigid interpretation of 8.3 would be formalised and instantiated. The model syllabuses were published by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) on 25 January 1994 for consultation. Once again, a number of discrimi­natory features were removed but the separatist character of the syllabuses remained unchanged. It is notable, however, that in both the consultative and final forms of the model syllabuses there is no loner an attempt to insist that 8.3 can only be met legally by separatist syllabuses. Since receiving its legal advice about the ambiguity of the clause, the Government could no longer play that card. Instead, it was necessary to argue that only the separatist approach was educationally acceptable.

The final fore of the model syllabuses was published on 5 July 1994 Because of the failure of the documents to indicate a de­cisive predominance of Christianity over the other religions, the Christians with whom we are concerned expressed their disap­pointment. Leafing representatives of all major religious com­munities including the Archbishop of Canterbury acclaimed the plurality of the approach. The Christians had gone too far.13 There, for the tine being, the matter rests.




The Problem o f Variety

The advocates of this approach to Christian education are not a homogenous group. Some are not Christian or religious at all. Their motives are cultural or educational. Some of those who represent this approach believe that they speak for or express the views and interests of between eighty and ninety per cent of the population, although it is admitted that the majority of this public is Christian in little more than name.14

On the other hand, there are certainly many Christians support­ing this approach who have a very definite and strongly held commitment to Christianity. To describe this group as conserva­tive evangelicals would be too simple, since there are many conservative evangelicals who do not support every feature of the policy and practice which has been outlined. The leading evangeli­cal association of teachers (the Association of Christian Teachers) usually takes a broader educational view than the one represented by the Christians we are here interested in. Nevertheless, it would be true that most if not all of those participating in this approach who are motivated primarily , by religious commitment are somewhat conservative, often very conservative. Many of the most influential are members of the Church of England; others belong to independent, evangelical congregations. Sometimes the background is Pentecostalist or charismatic; at other times eschatological or apocalyptic; yet others seem to be primarily orientated towards the authority of the Bible. The approach is supported by some who while conservative in outlook would be better described as traditionalists rather than fundamentalists or charismatics. At one end of the traditionalist spectrum there are staunch supporters of the rights and privileges of the established Church, while at the other end of the spectrum the traditionalists merge with those whose emphasis is more cultural than religious.

The approach is supported by those whose motivation appears to be primarily political. Here again we must distinguish between the support which the approach receives from the Conservative Party, where a certain electoral advantage is perceived in being seen as the party of Christian standards and values, an approach which is shared by a number of the tabloid newspapers who presumably think that this. emphasis is good for their sales. On the other hand, the connections between this approach to Christ­ian education and the Conservative Party must not be exaggerated. The approach finds support from members of all the major political parties, and members of parliament supporting the vari­ous measures we have outlined often specifically present them­selves as a cross-party group.

Finally, this approach to Christian education covers an enor­mous range of social class and educational background. At one extreme, it includes individuals and possibly one or two small organisations, whose level of education is evidently very low, and whose views are expressed in rather crude language. At the other end of the spectrum, there are people in this approach, including its most articulate supporters, who are in the highest social stratum and are people of undoubted sophistication, intelligence and charm. Some of the leaders of the movement are people of wealth and influence, including front line politicians. They would undoubtedly disown some of the more crude statements by some of their grass roots supporters.


The Documents

The people who associate themselves most vigorously with the recent and current Christian education campaigns are not for the most part theologically trained, nor are they usually religious education teachers. Many of them are indeed involved in educa­tion, as headteachers, school governors or as teachers with other subject specialisms. There are also business people, journalists, politicians, some college lecturers, the occasional lawyer and so on. As a result, there is a small but scholarly literature in support of this approach from the legal side,15 but little from the theological side.

Another reason for the lack of theological literature lies in the fact that the approach we are considering is essentially practical. It is a public campaign, often skillfully organised, with shrewd and very effective public relations, and dealing pragmatically with problems and crises as they arise from time to time. The burden of the movement has been to change certain things rather than to reflect about them. Much of the literature is thus ephemeral, consisting of leaflets and pamphlets, speeches delivered here and there together with newspaper articles. Some of the material consists of speeches made in the Houses of Parliament and recorded in Hansard. Not only is much of this material of a practical nature, relating to a particular controversy which hap­pened to blow up at a certain time, but much of it is rhetorical. It is intended to serve a public relations function and any beliefs about religion or theology which might be less appealing to a general public tend not to appear. Cultural and social arguments tend to predominate, together with rhetorical attacks upon those who are thought to represent an opposition. Some of the most explicitly theological documents are in the form of private letters, but since these usually come from individuals and are sometimes anonymous, it is difficult if not impossible to know how repre­sentative the views expressed might be.

It is necessary therefore to try to build up links between the different kinds of document and the various groups described in the previous section. One reads a house newsletter produced by, let us say, the group called ‘Christians in Nottinghamshire Schools’ or another one from ‘Christians and Tyneside Schools’. One then finds a number of groups of this kind commended in a speech in the House of Lords delivered by one of the leading protagonists of the approach we are considering." It then seems fair to use the local newsletters alongside the speeches in the House of Lords as complementary and supporting material. Some­times the links are more individual and personal. Browsing through the pages of a little-known Christian magazine one comes across an article by or about somebody well-known on the Christian education scene. This can give one insight into the theological environment within which the Christian educators live and work. Generalisations, however, must always be used with caution.

There is, in fact, little in the documentation which could be called theology. Of religious belief, there is a great deal. These Christians, however, do not generally consider themselves to ‘have a theology’. They are just Christians, pure and simple. I am referring, of course, to those whose subjectivity is more explicitly moulded by Christianity, not to the cultural, traditionalist or political groups.



An attempt will be made to discover frequently occurring motifs, often expressed in recurrent words or phrases. These motifs will be illustrated by reference to the implied or explicit religious beliefs, which will generally involve working downwards from the more public statements such as those in parliament to the informal and local literature. The local, individual and concrete will be regarded as the base upon which the policies and public relations rhetoric expressed by the more articulate is the super­structure. This does not necessarily mean that the religious beliefs found at the base will be shared by the spokespeople at the top; what is being attempted here is a general sketch of a movement as a whole.


The Fundamental Distinction

This Christian education programme is driven by the belief that the fundamental distinction is between Christian and non-Christ­ian. In the religious education syllabus, for example, Christianity as the heritage of this country is to be sharply distinguished from those religions which are merely represented here."‘ This distinc­tion in content is mirrored by a similar distinction between persons. The attempt to make collective worship in school more Christian necessarily involves distinguishing between what is and is not Christian and who is or is not Christian. The Christian material will be the content and the Christian children will be the participants. Collective worship will, in effect, give way to the particularity of religious worship. Many schools have, however, interpreted ‘broadly Christian’ and ‘mainly of a broadly Christian character’ so as to include elements from non-Christian traditions. Since it is difficult now to change the legislation, the only way forward is to break up these collectivities by highlighting the distinctive features of worship.

Thus in Circular 1/94 the distinction between Christian and secularist is secured by emphasising that the worship is to be worship of God.18 ‘Worship ... should be concerned with rever­ence or veneration paid to a divine being or power’,19 while the distinction between Christian and other religions is secured by insisting that worship must ‘contain some elements which relate specifically to the traditions of Christian belief and which accord a special status to Jesus Christ’." It is necessary to emphasise the Christian content of the broadly Christian worship because other­wise we are stuck with a piece of legislation which undoubtedly permits ‘acts of worship which contain elements drawn from a number of different faiths’. The only way to safeguard the funda­mental distinction now is to use the determination procedure.

This means, however, that Muslims and others must be encour­aged to press the schools to seek determinations. So it is that a Christian body like the ‘Parental Alliance for Choice in Educa­tion’, chaired by Baroness Caroline Cox, is now actively interven­ing in local school disputes in support of Muslim parents who insist upon a distinctively Muslim act of worship" to put them on an equal footing with the Christian children who are enjoy­ing a characteristically Christian act of collective worship. The fundamental distinction must be secured at all costs in the area of worship, since this is where the heart of religious loyalty lies.

In order to drive home the fundamental distinction, it is neces­sary to heighten the awareness of both pupils and parents that they belong to a named religious tradition. It is instructive in this connection to study the use of the expressions ‘religious traditions’ and, on the other hand, ‘religious communities’ in the rhetoric. Section 8.3 of the 1988 Education Reform Act refers to ‘principal religious traditions’, and the second half of the sentence which, as we have seen, was reluctantly accepted by the Christians, requires every agreed syllabus to take account of these other principal religious traditions. This is required as part of every agreed syllabus and would thus be part of the learning experience of every child, regardless of the faith or lack of faith of that child unless withdrawn by the parent. The Act thus clearly requires every syllabus to include materials from more than one religion. This, however, blurs the fundamental distinction, so some other interpretation must be sought.

The alternative explanation found clear expression in the House of Lords when Lady Caroline Cox, referring to the 1988 debates, said that the intention had been ‘to ensure the teaching of Christianity in RE while at the same time and for the first time specifying the rights of other faith communities to have provisions for RE which would respect the distinctiveness and coherence of their own faiths’22 and she continues a little later ‘one of the objectives in the formulation of the amendments was the pro­tection of the rights of non-Christian faith communities. That is why the earlier versions of the amendments specified their rights to RE in accordance with their own religious traditions.’23 Thus an educational requirement affecting all children becomes a con­cession to the human rights of the specific non-Christian com­munities. It is as if the Christian part of the syllabus is to be taught to the Christian children, the Muslim part to the Muslim children and so on, which is exactly what the Christians would like. However, the concept of an agreed syllabus is precisely not one of a number of different religious syllabuses bundled together and taught on a faith community basis. Agreed religious education is not separate religious instruction. Making a virtue out of necessity, Cox now hails as an achievement (granted for the first time) the words which in 1988 she and her fellow Christians received with some concern. The community interpretation ena­bles one to avoid the unpleasant inter-faith implications of the educational interpretation. So by separating Christian from non­Christian people in their communities it is possible to separate Christian content from non-Christian content in the syllabus.

A typical outworking of the fundamental distinction can be seen in the way in which the so-called model syllabuses published by SCAA were drawn up. Instead of asking a group of parents, teachers, theologians and representatives of various faith tradi­tions to meet together to make recommendations about a religious education syllabus suitable for all the children, a group of Chris­tians was invited to create a Christian syllabus, Muslims were asked to make a Muslim syllabus and so on. Every participant in this stage of the syllabus-creating project had to have a religious label. The result was obvious and therefore (on the assumption of intelligent planning) intended. We have model syllabuses in which the fundamental distinction is rigidly observed. Christianity is to be taught in a watertight compartment, and so is every other religion. The fundamental distinction between Christianity and other religions is carried forward into a similar distinction be­tween each of the other religions.


The Integrity or Coherence of Christianity and the Other Religions

The understanding of Christian faith which we are considering interprets it very largely as a system of beliefs. The cognitive element is extremely important. The logical and coherent charac­ter of the cognitive map is vigorously affirmed. One is reminded of the characteristics of what Ruben Alves calls ‘Right Doctrine Protestantism’.24 This cognitive coherence is called ‘integrity’.

In order to assert and maintain this kind of integrity, three things are necessary. First, the doctrinal set must be entire and complete. It is difficult in a religious phenomenon as diverse and complex as Christianity to know which unit is to be regarded as possessing this integrity. Obviously, the Roman Catholic faith claims its integrity, and so does the Church of England, and so do most Christian denominations, and there are nearly 25,000 of them. There is little or no discussion of this problem in the literature we are considering. This is because of the second requirement, that a clear boundary should be set around Christ­ianity as a whole in view of the fundamental distinction discussed above. This demands that the basic unit of integrity should be Christianity itself. This makes it possible to put the other religions on separate pages." We might contrast the well-known American religious studies book entitled Protestant, Catholic, Jew, a form of words which clearly blurs the fundamental distinction.26 Third, it is necessary to claim a similar integrity for each other religion. This necessity is imposed upon the Christians by the exigencies of public debate in what is undeniably a pluralist context. They must never allow themselves in public to appear to give to Christianity in principle anything not granted to the other religions, provided the fundamental distinction is observed. Mar­ginalisation will come later, but that is not argued for in principle, as we shall see.

Baroness Blatch, speaking in the House of Lords on 14 February 1994, said ‘it is right and proper not only that Christianity should be safeguarded within the syllabus for religious education but also that there should be a recognition that other faiths exist and that the integrity of those faiths should be sustained’.27

Later, in response to a question about the future of Britain as a  ‘stable, multicultural society’, Baroness Blatch said ‘it really does depend on what one means by "multiculturalism". So long as the integrity of each religion is preserved, then education is very sound in prospect. Sadly, however, it has become a melting pot and, as my noble friends like to refer to it, a mishmash. I do not believe that it does any more than serve to confuse children if it is done badly. What is absolutely essential is that the integrity of each of the religions is properly preserved when taught.28 In a similar vein, Baroness Cox said ‘it is important to recognise that these criticisms of the thematic, multifaith approach do not imply an attempt to hinder teaching about different faiths, but they stress that it should be done in ways which maintain the integrity of each faith’.29

It is a curious paradox of the Christian theology under discussion that in bestowing an undifferentiated integrity upon all religions no heed is given to the character of the various religious traditions. The fact is that the religions of the world vary both in their degrees of integrity and coherence and in the importance which they attach to such coherence. We may place Islam at one end of the integrity-and-coherence continuum, since Islam is truly remarkable for those qualities. We may place the Buddhist traditions at the other extreme. Within Buddhism one finds both theistic devotion, non-theistic meditation, polytheism, non­theism and almost everything else. Indeed, one should speak of Buddhism as a whole series of spiritual and religious traditions flowing from the teaching and practice of the Buddha rather than as a single integrated religion. Something similar is true of the religions of the Indian subcontinent, characterised by western scholars since the middle or late nineteenth century as ‘Hinduism’. One only has to visit a Hindu temple and a mosque to realise the different values placed upon integrity in the sense under dis­cussion.

None of this matters to our Christians. The main point is that the concept of integrity is necessary in order to ring-fence the Christian faith from contact with other faiths. Integrity sounds better than separation. As our study of this theology unfolds, however, we realise that the emphasis upon the integrity of Christianity is but a step towards a disentanglement of the various religions from each other, without which the fundamental distinc­tion cannot be established, nor followed by the marginalisation of the non-Christian faiths.


Christianity Amongst the Religions of the World

It is clear from their preoccupation with the fundamental distinc­tion, and what is called the integrity and coherence of Christianity and the other religions, that the place of Christianity within the religions of the world is a key issue for the Christian theology we are considering. At this point the problems of method discussed above become pressing. First, in the public statements, the other faiths are always spoken of with courtesy, and respect and tolera­tion for them are urged. Second, there is a refusal to admit that there is any common ground whatever between the different religions. Any attempt to find common material is rejected. Third, attempts are made to marginalise the other religions, to reduce their presence on the curriculum to a minimum and to cut back their influence wherever this can be done consistently with the requirements of public decorum. Finally, when one moves from the national to the local level, and from the very public statements to the more private communications, images of other religions emerge which are hostile.

These four elements are part of a consistent pattern in spite of the prima facie contradiction between the first and the fourth elements. The diplomatic words of the more sophisticated people, intended for public consumption, are inconsistent with the words intended for a more restricted audience, but the actions of both groups are consistent.

On the assumption that we may take the first point for granted, that one expects members of parliament to be diplo­matic and that lords and baronesses will be courteous and moder­ate in their language, we can pass to the second point immedi­ately. Nothing is more consistent in the theology of Christian education which we are considering than the rejection of the claim that common material may be found between Christianity and other religions, and that this common or similar material can be appropriately presented to children as part of their reli­gious education. ‘Christianity is submerged in a welter of shal­low dabblings in a variety of other religions, resulting in a confusing kaleidoscope of images of faiths doing justice to none.’30 Reviewing these 1988 debates three years later, Colin Hart says ‘there was a widespread acceptance that children should learn about the world’s non-Christian religions but great anxiety about certain modern teaching practices which blurred the distinctions between faiths and so ultimately destroyed the integrity and coherence of all faiths’.31 He continues: ‘during the debates on the Education Reform Bill, evidence was brought to light which showed that RE had often degenerated into a mish­mash of world faiths, either by the sheer number of faiths taught, or by the use of teaching approaches which attempted to teach many religions through common themes’ .32 The problem with this approach is that ‘children see one religion as the same as any other. Combining different faiths within a contrived framework of themes tends to result in syncretism. Everything is true. Thematic teaching can also be used as a vehicle for a secular treatment of religion where all faiths are seen as false or irrelevant.’33

Caroline Cox thought that religious education was being taught ‘in a thematic, multifaith approach which adopted certain themes taking them out of context in ways which trivialised the complexities and coherence of major religions and did justice to none’.34

This is not the place to introduce a discussion into the advantages and disadvantages of topical or thematic teaching across a number of religions. Our present concern is only with materials from which we can reasonably infer the theology which informs this approach to Christian education. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the rejection of thematic teaching is so sharp, is expressed in such a range of forceful metaphors, usually suggesting ill-assorted or disgusting mixture of foods, that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that behind the rejection of themes there lies a deep repugnance towards any contact with another faith. I have analysed this elsewhere.35

            This conclusion is supported by the next step in the outworking of this theology, which is the marginalization of other world religions. There is to be contact with them, and thus the integrity of all faiths is to be respected, but at the same time they are to occupy a smaller place in the curriculum. There is a curious inconsistency about this argument. When it is a question of thematic teaching, we are warned against the superficiality of the treatment which each religion will thus receive. When the thematic argument is over and the marginalization debate begins, the other faiths are quickly consigned to as little as ten per cent of the curriculum.36 the thought that this might be another way of leading towards a superficial treatment of them does not then arise.

            The mixture of courtesy, marginalization and special pleading often found in this rhetoric is typified in the question which Viscount Brentford asked Blatch in the House of Lords about the model syllabuses which had just been publishes for consultation: ‘does my noble friend agree that while no other faiths should be treated as in any way second class, it is confusion for some young people when they are taught about too many different religions at the same time?’37 Michael Alison had already spoken to the House of Commons about ‘the general campaign to ensure that religious education syllabuses are brought properly up to date under the auspices of the 1988 Act and that mainly Christian means that most syllabuses will have features of the Christian religion that are properly taught, which means that there should room for only one, or at the very most only two, other world religion or religions’.38

            The marginalisation is to affect not only the content but the people as well. Colin Hart and John Burn had demanded in 1988 that Committee A of the agreed syllabus conference should consist of representatives of the other Christian denominations only. This would completely exclude representatives of non-Christian faiths from the consultative process.39 Three years later he seems to have rather reluctantly conceded that there will inevitably be some representation from the other world faiths, but he comments ‘it is up to the LEA to decide on which non-Christian faiths, if any, ought to be represented. The object of an agreed syllabus conference is not to seek the lowest common denominator of belief amongst faiths, this approach has been tried over the past fifteen years and has led to very thin syllabuses without any real content.’40

            We now seek to interpret these policies in the light of the underlying attitudes as sound in the statements intended for a more selective audience. I am not suggesting that the individuals or groups named so far would necessarily share the following attitudes. This is a study of the general outlook of an alliance of interests. Nevertheless, it is clear that the views we will now present are part of that alliance and that the actions of the alliance as a whole are consistent with these views.

            Let us take as an example the ‘New Recommended Systematic Religious Education Syllabus for State Schools’ published in August of 1992 by Hendon CARE Voice and sent to every Local Education Authority in England and Wales. ‘There are many religions one can choose to major on and teach about from a plethora of nations. However, the mandatory religion to be respected in current national legislation is Christianity in line with British heritage. Judaism, Islam, Hindu cultures and all other pagan religions taught have been a matter of personal choice and preference depending on who has been going to do the teaching.’41 These latter are to be taught ‘only upon parental request’. To give a flavour of the syllabus, it is sufficient to note that under Christianity we have ‘God’s exhortations revealed via Christianity’ whereas under the other religions we find ‘pagan God/culture expectations’. ‘It is not wise’, the Hendon group tells us, ‘to include many pagan cultures. That can only damage and confuse standards.’

A couple of years ago there was a fuss in a Hampshire school when several parents withdrew their children from a celebration of the Hindu Diwali Festival. A number of Christian newspapers and magazines commented on this affair, which rumbled on for several weeks. The comments are placed in the context of the new legislation about religious education and are seen as a consistent part of the campaign. ‘Islam and Hinduism are both deceptions, but very different from one another. Followers of Allah make no secret that they are waging a holy war against infidels on behalf of Allah at both national and international level, and their militancy is plain to see. The adherents of Hindu­ism, on the other hand, are associated with all that is peaceable, gentle and inoffensive ... but for Christians the dangers of Hinduism are just as great as from Islam.’42 One of the parents had written to the headteacher saying ‘we were unhappy that the class had been taught yoga. Each yoga posture is an act of worship to a Hindu god (demon worship).’ The author of the article continues ‘in all cults and religions there are underlying spiritual realities and involvement in them at any level even just for fun brings us into contact with them. Not for nothing does scripture lay such stress upon avoiding them, for they are a snare to us.’

Another Christian magazine confronts rather bluntly the ques­tion of equal opportunities for Muslim and Christian parents, granted the greater opportunities for parental involvement which the current legislation encourages. Under the heading ‘Parents and Politics’ we read ‘recent legislation gives parents and gover­nors unprecedented opportunities to set the tone of our schools. But what if a majority of parents are active Muslims and agitate for the school to be run on Islamic lines? What if, for that matter, a majority are Christian and seek to have the school run on Christian lines? The former is undesirable, we conclude. The latter is not. What this serves to underline is that we are all engaged in a battle to shape society . . .’43

The Christian magazine Prophecy Today published a letter from one J. D. Noble which attacks the idea that the revelation of the Koran through Mohammed can be from God. The argument concludes ‘it is clear therefore that Islam does not and cannot originate in the true God, and can, therefore, only have one other source. It has been called Satan’s cleverest invention.’44

 This letter is not an oddity but fully consistent with the editorial policy of this Christian journal. In the previous volume, the editor Dr Clifford Hill had described the mounting tension, as he perceived it, between the ancient forces of Babylon now present in Islam, and the Christian West. The ancient ‘principality’ of evil


has taken on an aggressively spiritual character since the advent of Islam. It was no accident that Mohammed was born in the heartland of the ancient empire of Assyria and Babylon. There is a demonic force of evil that pervades much of the middle east area which is closely associated with Islam ... that spirit has deceived and enslaved millions of people throughout the world. Even some Christians have been deceived, saying that we all worship the same God, whether we call him Allah or the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. That is a lie. The difference is as great as the difference between darkness and light, as between deception and truth ...’45


This is part of a tirade against Saddam Hussein in connection with the Gulf War.

Such illustrations could be continued ad nauseam but enough is enough. As already indicated, I am not claiming that every group, let alone every individual representing the theology of Christian education which I am discussing, would share the views I have just been quoting. I sincerely hope and believe that they would not. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this kind of thinking, sometimes rather crudely expressed and sometimes concealed behind fine and courteous words, runs through a good deal of the network we are examining.46

Either the Holy Spirit of God is at work in other religions or not. If the Holy Spirit is at work, then the context of thematic work becomes the sphere of the Spirit of God and it would be possible to study such themes without taking the material out of context and without becoming trivial. Rather than a ‘confusing kaleidoscope’ we would have an education into the ways of God’s Spirit. On the other hand, if the Spirit of God is not at work in other religions, and granted that the other religions are in a significant sense spiritual, there can be but one conclusion. The spirit at work in them is not the Spirit of God. This is the theological logic implied in the public discourse and stated quite baldly in the private discourse.


Theology and Space: the Geographicalisation o f Faith

... Many noble Lords wished to ensure that young people learned at least the essential elements of the Christian faith as part of our spiritual heritage and as a basis for understanding its contribution to our country’s history, culture and social institutions.’47

A section of the press is always ready to support this nationalisa­tion of the Christian faith. Commenting on the Diwali controversy in the Hampshire school to which reference was made above, Linda Lee Potter writing in the Daily Mail said:


if mothers and fathers don’t increasingly state their fears, many of the traditional customs in our school are going to disappear, to be replaced by strange and foreign ones, which would be both sad and wrong. The simple lessons we learn at primary school about Christianity provide powerful memories which stay with us all our lives. It is not bigoted or racist to want to retain the well tried and tested values of our own religion and culture. Five year olds should not be muddled and confused with indoctrination about the faiths of far away lands.48


Lord Brentford contrasted this country with Saudi Arabia. ‘If I was living ... in Saudi Arabia, a Moslem country, and my children were being educated in that country, I would expect them to be taught the facts of the Moslem faith at school.’ However, in Britain ‘the amount of teaching should reflect the proportion of the population, so that, say, eighty per cent to ninety per cent of the teaching should be Christian’.49

As Hendon CARE Voice put it, the many religions represent ‘a plethora of nations’. Christianity however is ‘in line with British heritage’.

This sense of sacred space, of the ‘occupation’ by good or evil of a territory, may be as wide as a continent (a private letter received speaks of other religions having their own ‘God-given continents’), or it may be confined to ‘these Islands’ or ‘our country’. It may even become localised to a town or a particular building. Christians wanted to influence a school in Nottingham: ‘two friends of the school walked around the perimeter early one morning. They prayed for the source of the unpleasantness to be removed. Within a few days something came to light in the school which shortly resulted in that prayer being answered in a clear-cut and dramatic way.50 ‘Evil, the report continues, can be bound or unbound by prayer as indicated by a text from Psalm 125: ‘the sceptre of the wicked shall not remain over the land allotted to the righteous’.

The source of the evil or wickedness is not identified specifi­cally, apart from one ambiguous reference to a teacher having to deal with ‘a very hurt and disturbed child’. The article is steeped in vagueness, innuendo and fear, but its most striking feature is the idea that physical space may be occupied by one power or another. When the members of the Iona community walk around the Island of Iona, as they do nearly every Wednesday, everyone understands that this is a symbolic action. The perambulation of the two friends in Nottingham was not considered to be symbolic. It was a literal act of geographical purging.


Sacred Continuity: the Coordination o f Space and Time


I respect the diligence with which both the Muslims and the Jewish people recognise the importance of training their young in the tenets of their faith. If we go to a Muslim country, we do not find the people apologising for putting their own faith forward in the schools. We are a Christian land; it is our heritage. I believe that we have a responsibility to see that tomorrow’s world in these Islands enjoys the same heritage that we ourselves received.51


Baroness Strange had an even more vivid sense of the co-ordina­tion of time and space. ‘We remain, as we have been since the days of St Augustine, angels, or at least a Christian country. This Christian tradition and majority must therefore be represented by a lion’s share of any religious education taught in our schools. There are mice and rats gnawing away at the poor lion’s share ... ‘ The Baroness then describes how she took a party of Indian ladies around the House of Lords. They were ‘much impressed with the large paintings representing the virtues of the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table ... Dominating them all, religion, with Sir Gallahad and his company beholding a vision of the Holy Grail. Let us all keep that vision in our hearts and try to pass it on to those who will be the future and, one day, the past of our country.’52

This concentration of space and time around the continuity of certain numinous or mystical symbols is a powerful combination. It is one of the most consistent and striking features of the theology of Christian education which we are considering. All groups, whether religiously committed or motivated rather by political and cultural factors, share in this ideal. It is a key element in the creation of a total identity. It leads directly into another feature of the theology, its interest in predominance and power.

The claim for Christian predominance is always implicit and often stated in the illustrations which have already been offered. The lion must have its share. The mice and the rats have a share which is fair and appropriate for them. There is no disrespect towards them. But they are mice and rats, not a lion. I have commented elsewhere on the significance of this theological con­vergence upon purity, power and heritage .53


The Occult World

A striking feature of this theology of Christian education is the objectivisation of the spiritual world. As indicated above, there is virtually no recognition of the symbolic nature of religious lan­guage in this literature. Rather, we find a rigid reification in which the Christian life is seen in terms of a quasi-physical plurality of forces. Some of these are good but many are evil. They can be controlled by a variety of techniques, many of which are themselves of a physical nature.54 It is not surprising that this world is rather an alarming one, and the literature is studded with reference to fears and concerns, anxieties and worries which these Christians feel.

Monica Hill offers an interesting and well-informed article about the history and recent developments in the Sunday School movement under the heading ‘Decline and Fall’. Hill concludes ,the Holy Spirit is alerting us to the significance of this generation of children. If they are not reached for Christ they will be possessed by the enemy. What are the churches doing to meet the challenge of the times?’55 Children are like geographical spaces. They can be full or empty. When empty, alternative powers or forces possess them. These spiritual realities go in and out of them.

The same Christian magazine reports on a conference which took place in March 1990 in the House of Lords sponsored by Baroness Caroline Cox. The report is written by the editor of the magazine, Dr Clifford Hill, who also played a prominent part in the meeting. Dr Hill explained that because the present generation of children is special to God ‘it is also a target of great importance to demonic powers, and we see their work everywhere …’ A prophetic word from the Lord had been received regarding all this and the purpose of the meeting was to assess and possibly confirm the authenticity of this divine message. ‘Baroness Cox, summarizing the meeting, recognized the validity of the prophecy.’ we are engaged upon a spiritual warfare and Christians called to battle against the occult, the teaching of the new age spirituality and other spiritual alternatives to Christianity which are being thrust upon our children. ‘Christians need to become aware of satanic strategies. Television is a powerful tool in the enemy’s hands.’56

            The co-ordination of space and time, together with the literal character of the spiritual world focused upon fear of the occult, come to a characteristic climax in the language of battle. The military metaphor, if it is a metaphor, runs through this theology like a crimson slash. We are involved in a conflict with hostile powers, both human and spiritual. The enemy is closing in. time is running out. We must arm ourselves for the fight.



It is clear that the theology outlined in this study has the features of what I have elsewhere described as religionism, namely, the form taken by religion when tribalistic or exclusive forms of personal or collective identity are maintained,57 especially through negative images of other religions. Further work is in progress and it is intended to extend the critique offered here by calling upon faith development theory, psycho-social identity theory, the study of false consciousness and contributions from religious studies and Christian theology.



1. Clyde Chitty, Towards a New Education System: the victory of the new right, London: Falmer Press, 1989.

2. Colin Alves, ‘Just a Matter of Words? The religious education debate in the House of Lords’, British journal of Religious Education, 13, 3, 1991, pp. 168-174 and john M. Hull, Mishmash: religious education in multicultural Britain, a study in metaphor, Derby: CEM, 1991, pp. 16-22.

3. Edwin Cox and Josephine M. Cairns, Reforming Religious Education: the religious clauses of the 1988 Education Reform Act, London: Kogan Page, 1989. Terence Copley, Worship, Worries and Winners: worship in the secondary school after the 1988 Act, London: National Society, 1989. John M. Hull, The Act Unpacked: the meaning of the 1988 Education Reform Act for religious education, Derby: CEM, 1989.

4. John Burn and Colin Hart, The Crisis in Religious Education, Harrow: Educational Research Trust, 1988, reviewed by Duncan Raynor in British Journal of Religious Education, 11, z, 1989, PP. 51-52, and Robert Jackson, ‘The Misrepresentation of Religious Education’, in Mal Leicester and Monica Taylor (eds.), Ethics, Ethnicity and Education, London: Kogan Page, 1992.

5. Roger Howarth, ‘The Impact of the Education Reform Act on New Agreed Syllabuses of Religious Education’, British Journal of Religious Education, 13, 3, 1991, pp. 162-167.

6. Legal Opinion obtained by the Secretary of State for Education dated 12 June 19go, Section 9.5.

7. Department of Education and Science letter to Chief Education Offic­ers, 18 March 1991.

8. National Curriculum Council, Analysis of Agreed Syllabuses for Religious Education, York, 1993­.

9. While the Christians in the House of Lords sought to gain support by emphasising that some representatives of other religions were not op­posed to the Christianising legislation, time to reflect soon brought about expressions of serious reservations, e.g. Shaikh Abdul Mabud, ‘A Muslim Response to the Education Reform Act 1988’, British Journal of Religious Education, 14, 2, 1992, pp. 88-98.

1o. Letter signed by thirty members of the General Synod of the Church of England published in The Times, 1o April 1993.

11. Hansard, House of Lords, 27 April 1993 (col. 324, 1o May 1993 (col. 1148).

12. For an analysis and criticism of the Draft Circular see my unpub­lished paper, The Fundamental Distinction: a review o f DFE Draft Circular X/94 Religious Education and Collective Worship 11th October 1993, October 1993, available from the School of Education, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT. Although the Draft Circular no longer has any official status, it remains a document of some importance since it indicates the theological thinking of the Department for Education at a significant time in its development.

13. All the major daily national newspapers reported this controversy during the period from Sunday 3 to Wednesday 6 July 1994

14. Colin Hart, Religious Education: from acts to action, Newcastle upon Tyne: CATS Trust, 1991.

15. J. D. C. Harte, ‘The Religious Dimension of the Education Reform Act 1988’, Ecclesiastical Law journal, 5, 1989, PP- 32-53 and ‘Worship and Religious Education Under the Education Reform Act 1988 - A Lawyer’s View’, British Journal o f Religious Education, 13, 3, 1991, PP­152-161.

16. Baroness Cox, Hansard, House of Lords, 17 June 1992 (col. 252).

17. Department for Education Circular 1/94, Religious Education and Collective Worship, para. 7.

18. DFE Circular 1 / 94, para. 50.

19. DFE Circular 1/94, para. 57.

20. DFE Circular 1 / 94, para. 63.

21. Metro News (Birmingham), 5 May 1994, P.

22. Hansard, House of Lords, 17 June 1992 (col. 25 1).

23. Hansard, House of Lords, 17 June 1992 (Col. 254).

25. School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, Religious Education: Model Syllabuses, London: SCAA, July 1994.

26. Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: an essay in American reli­gious sociology, New York: Doubleday, 1960.

27. Hansard, House of Lords, 14 February 1994 (col. 6).

28. Hansard, House of Lords, 15 February 1994 (Col. 93).

29. Hansard, House of Lords, z7 April 1993 (col. 254)­.

30- Caroline Cox, Foreword to Burn and Hart, The Crisis in Religious Education.

31. Hart, Religious Education, p. 1.

32. Hart, Religious Education, p. 9.

33. Hart, Religious Education, p. 10.

34. Hansard, House of Lords, 17 June 1993 (Col. 251).

35. Hull, Mishmash.

36. Viscount Brentford, Hansard, House of Lords, 17 June 1992 (col. 264).

37. Hansard, House of Lords, 14/ 15 February 1994 (Col. 5).

38. Hansard, House of Commons, 9 November 1992 (col. 657).

39. Burn and Hart, The Crisis in Religious Education, p. 29.

40. Hart, Religious Education, p. 31.

41. The New Recommended Agreed Systematic Religious Education Syllabus for State Schools 1992. Circulated with a covering letter from Hendon CARE (Christian Action Realized in Education) Voice in August 1992.

42. Prophecy Today, 8, 4, 1992, PP- 24 ff.

43. Restoration, The Magazine of the Restoration Church, January/ February 1991, p.11.

44. Prophecy Today, 8, 3, 1992.

45- Prophecy Today, 7, 2, 1991, p. 5­.

46. I must apologise to any Muslims and, indeed, to any people of goodwill, that I have brought the above passages out of the obscurity they deserve into the light of this academic critique. I understand my Muslim colleague who said to me recently ‘please forgive me, John, because I know you are one, but every time someone on a committee tells me he or she is a Christian, I want to run a mile’.

47. Baroness Cox, Hansard, House of Lords, 17 June 1992 (col. 251).

48. Quoted in Prophecy Today, 8, 4, 1992, p. 24­

49. Hansard, House of Lords, 17 June 1992 (col. 264

50. CENS (Christian Education in Nottingham Schools), Telling the Next Generation, Issue z, Autumn Term 1990. CENS is similar to the local Christian groups referred to approvingly by Caroline Cox in the House of Lords. See note 16 above. For the theological background of the practice of territorial exorcism, see Tom White, The Believer’s Guide to Spiritual Warfare, Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1991 and The Believer’s Guide to Breaking Strongholds, Eastbourne: Kingsway, 1994.

51. Viscount Tonypandy, Hansard, House of Lords, 17 June 1992 (col. 267).

52. Baroness Strange, Hansard, House of Lords, 17 June 1992 (cols. 268-269).

53. John M. Hull, ‘The Theology of the Department for Education’, Educational Review, 47, 3, 1995, PP. 243-53­.

54. The CENS reports (note 5o above) reports an acoustic technique in addition to the spatial perambulation. The prayer and praise of children nullifies the ‘power of the Enemy’ if occurring simultaneously. This reminds one of the medieval belief that the sound of the bells drove demons away from the area around a cathedral or church.

55. Prophecy Today, 6, 1, 1990, p. 11.

56. Prophecy Today, 6, 3, 1990, pp. 16-17. Belief in the occult world is characteristic of the people in the groups I am discussing whose motiva­tion is specifically theological. I am not suggesting that people associated with this movement whose motivation is more cultural or political would share this occult belief. However, this is a study of the theology of this tendency in Christian education. Moreover, it is clear that leading political activists in the movement are prepared to accept association with believers in the occult powers.

57. ‘The Transmission of Religious Prejudice’ (Editorial), British Journal o f Religious Education, 14, z, 199z, pp. 69-72; ‘Religionism and Religious Education’, in Ciaran O Maolain (ed.), Religion and Conflict, Armagh: Caradoc, 1995; ‘Religious Education and the Conflict of Values in Modern Europe’, in Aasulv Lande and Werner Ustorf (eds.), Conference Proceedings of NIME Seminar June 1994, Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1995, PP. 155-174; The Holy Trinity and Christian Education in a Pluralist World, London: National Society/Church House Publishing, 1995.