Can One Speak of God 

or to God in Education?


John M. Hull

in Frances Young (ed.) Dare We Speak of God in Public? London, Mowbray February 1995, pp. 22-34 ISBN: 0 264 67366 2

In a word one can speak of God but one cannot speak to God, especially on behalf of others. In the classroom one speaks of God; in collective worship the claim is that one speaks to God. The first situation is legitimate but the second is not. It is sometimes said that in theology God can only be addressed: God is the eternal Thou. God cannot be spoken about. In education the opposite is the case. God cannot be addressed but can be spoken of.

Speaking to God in Collective Worship 1944-88

The 1944 Education Act required all pupils in county maintained schools to attend and take part in a daily act of collective worship unless withdrawn by their parents. The withdrawal clause was a unique feature of the provisions for religious education, and it applied both to the classroom teaching and to the collective worship. Thus we see that to some extent the right not to worship was acknowledged. ‘To some extent’, because the right lay with the parents, not with the pupils. The pupils could be withdrawn, but they could not on their own initiative withdraw. Moreover, the fact that withdrawal could be exercised by parents both from collective worship and from classroom religious education suggests that the difference between speaking of God and speaking to God was not recognised. It is also significant that the legislation did not attempt any definition of worship, apart from the adjective ‘collective’. Worship was not to be of a denominational character. It was not to be characterised by the use of any catechism or formulary distinctive of a denomination, and was thus presumed to be rather general in nature. Nothing was said in 1944 about the purpose of collective worship. The Theological element was thus minimised. The law did not even speak of collective worship as being Christian worship.

Thus it was that over the years a variety of interpretations and practices developed. On the one hand, there were school prayers. These generally took the form of a brief ceremony, perhaps of ten minutes' duration, in which there would be a hymn, a reading from the Bible and a prayer. Collective worship, or religious observances as they were previously called, was a simple service of worship addressed to God.

The other tradition took a broader and more imaginative view of the purpose and content of collective worship. Collective worship was more participatory, it often sprang out of work done in the classroom, particularly in primary schools, It involved the use of drama and dance, of debates and of reflections upon current affairs. A whole literature grew up giving examples of such collective worship, and the various magazines and journals used by teachers, especially RE teachers, almost always had a section devoted to what was variously called worship workshop, school assembly file themes for worship and so on. This type of collective worship was often imply known as school assembly, and was regarded as being worshipful in the sense that the values and commitments of school life, and indeed of the community, were explored, affirmed and celebrated, but within a context of diversity rather than unanimity.

I shall refer to the more liturgical tradition as being the narrow or more explicitly theological understanding of collective worship, while the more general approach I will regard as representing a broader understanding of worship. Perhaps we might say that the narrow interpretation focused upon the object of worship, while the broader interpretation focused upon the reality of school life as being a collectivity, i.e. young people and adults gathered together from a variety of religious and, indeed, non-religious backgrounds and persuasions in a broadly worshipful manner. Needless to say, collective worship, whether of the narrow or the broad kind, was sometimes done well and sometimes done poorly or not at all.

The 1988 Education Reform Act

In 1988 the situation changed. The old legislation was carried forward and became Section 6 of the Education Reform Act. A new section was added, Section 7, in which an effort was made to offer a more precise theological definition of the nature and object of collective worship. Collective worship was to be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’, and the acts of collective worship were regarded as being wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character if they reflected the ‘broad traditions of Christian belief’. They were, however, not to be denominational in character. Moreover, not all of the acts of collective worship offered by a school need be of this character. It would be sufficient if in a given school term the majority of the acts of collective worship were wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character. The other acts of collective worship, the minority of such acts, would not fall under Section 7, but under Section 6, the old 1944 section where collective worship was not defined. In considering the ways in which and the extent to which the daily acts of collective worship should fall under the requirement of Section 7, i.e. should be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character, head teachers were to take account of the ages, aptitudes and family backgrounds of their pupils. In all cases, however, the parental right of withdrawal was retained.

It took the schools some time to work out the implications of all this. LEAs produced guidelines, (1) RE advisers, inspectors and lecturers produced booklets interpreting the legislation and offering examples of the various types of assembly which could now be arranged, (2) and other bodies issued reports and guidelines.(3) It became clear that a school could offer an act of collective worship every day of the week which would be wholly of a broadly Christian character. On the other hand, it was also clear that no school was required ever to have an act of collective worship which was wholly of a broadly Christian character, because the law says 'wholly or mainly' of a broadly Christian character. What would collective worship be if it were only ‘mainly of a broadly Christian character’? It quickly became apparent that acts of collective worship could be drawn from more than one religious tradition, and that what came to be called multi-faith worship was permitted by the law every day of the week, provided that on the whole on each day or on a majority of days the mainly Christian character could be demonstrated. Then there were the other days, when Section 6 collective worship could take place. Nothing was said in the law about the content or approach of such acts of collective worship; and thus we could assume that there was no reason why they should not be wholly or mainly of a broadly Muslim or Hindu character, depending upon the character of the school population. Headteachers were advised to keep records in case of disputes or complaints.

However, the keeping of records was no easy business. In order to be demonstrably of a ‘wholly or mainly broadly Christian character’, an act of collective worship was required to reflect the ‘broad traditions of Christian belief’. This expression was unqualified and clearly somewhat ambiguous. The traditions to be followed are not those of Christian worship, since these were presumably almost always denominational and this is expressly forbidden, but would reflect the broad traditions of Christian belief. The traditions are multiple - it is the ‘traditions’ of Christian belief, not the ‘tradition’; and one notes the word ‘tradition’ rather than the ‘doctrines’. Traditions of belief rather than beliefs are what is in mind.

Moreover, the ‘traditions’ are not the specific traditions or the explicit traditions, but the ‘broad traditions’. When you have satisfied yourself what the ‘broad traditions of Christian belief’ might be, you then have to take on board the fact that collective worship has to reflect these. It does not have to contain them or be based upon them, whatever these activities might be, but merely to reflect them.

Interpretations ranged again from the broad to the narrow. The narrow interpretation insisted that collective worship should be quite explicitly based on worship of the Holy Trinity and the doctrines of the early church councils. The broad definition suggested that love was characteristic of Christian belief and that if acts of collective worship expressed love of one’s neighbour then at least one broad tradition of Christian belief was being reflected.

This complexity illustrates the problems which you run into when you try to speak to God in education. Which God are you speaking to? Are there fixed boundaries between the various religious traditions, the ones we call Christian, Muslim and so on, or are the boundaries rather flexible and porous? How are disputes in these areas to be decided, and by whom? What happens to the spirit of mutuality and celebration when one has to begin counting and measuring the degree to which one religion is mainly or wholly reflected, while others are reflected on a minority of days or in a minor way in an individual act of collective worship, or not at all? Is it good or bad for the personal and religious identity of children and young people that it should be done in one way or another?

Speaking to Various Gods

You may think this is complicated, but we have only just started. It was clear in 1988 that even when qualified in the various ways described, collective worship which was wholly or even only mainly of a broadly Christian character would not be appropriate for all schools or for all pupils within those schools. Would there be massive withdrawals? If there were, would it matter? It would certainly be embarrassing if substantial numbers of pupils from Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and other religious traditions were withdrawn, because that would suggest that the provisions of the school for the moral and spiritual development of its pupils were extended to one community but denied to others. A middle way had to be found between simple withdrawal and, on the other hand, general participation in the broadly Christian norm which the law envisaged.

An answer was found in the determination procedure. If a headteacher came to believe that the provisions of Section 7, however qualified and adapted, were still inappropriate for some or all of the pupils in the school, an application could be made to the local SACRE, the Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education, for the requirements of Section 7 to be lifted. When that happened, the SACRE was described as offering a determination to the school. A school could apply for a determination on behalf of any group of its pupils; more than one determination could be applied for.

Moreover, it was recommended that the school should look with sympathy upon the voluntary provision of acts of worship for those pupils who were withdrawn by their parents, whether from the Section 6 worship or the Section 7 worship or, indeed, from the determinated acts of collective worship, since the parental right of withdrawal remained absolute in all circumstances.

The schools thus found themselves in a situation of embarrassing richness. There could be acts of collective worship which were wholly Christian, others which were only mainly Christian, and these could take place on all or only most of the school days. The other acts of collective worship were unspecified and could be anything worshipful. In addition to this, there could be acts of collective worship which were determinated; and finally there could be acts of worship still supervised by the school staff but run by volunteers for pupils who were withdrawn by their parents because the latter were not satisfied with any of the abundant variety available. The whole thing was becoming an administrative and indeed a spiritual nightmare.

The Rise of a Theology of Collective Worship

Sandal Magna First School in Wakefield, Acton High School in London and Crowcroft Park Primary School in Manchester were all subjects of complaint from groups of parents, always of a very conservative outlook, who protested that their children were not receiving Christian worship; or were only receiving it sometimes; or were receiving it mixed up in a sort of hotchpotch with elements from other religions resulting in a confused mishmash.(4) The complaints all failed, and the flexibility and ambiguity of the law became even more obvious. The struggle to persuade the schools to speak to the Christian God seemed to be running into difficulties. To some extent the problem lay in the lack of definitions. The legal branch was advising the Government that without definitions there could not be successful proceedings in court. Moreover, there had been disappointingly few determinations granted. As long as children from different faiths were worshipping together, there could be no purely and wholly Christian character. The Christian character of collective worship could not emerge clearly from a diverse school population. Diversity must be reduced in order to enable Christian unanimity to emerge uncompromised.

The determination procedure, at first merely looked upon as a safety valve or as a way of securing apparent equality for the various religions, now began to take on greater significance. This could be a way of purifying collective worship, of purifying through separating. But first, it would be necessary to make the theological profile of collective worship so sharp that separation would become inevitable.

At this point we reach the new Circular 1/94 issued by the Department for Education on 31 January 1994. Paragraph 50 deals with the aims of collective worship. These are

 to provide the opportunity for pupils to worship God, 

 to consider spiritual and moral issues and to explore their own beliefs;

 to encourage participation and response, whether through active involvement in the          presentation of worship or through listening to and joining in the worship offered; and 

to develop community spirit, promote a common ethos and shared values and reinforce positive attitudes.


Here we see what I have called the narrow and broad strands of interpretation corning together. The broad strand is affirmed through the attempt to promote a common ethos and shared values through participation of an exploratory kind. The more strictly theological interpretation lies in the opening definition: that pupils should be provided with an opportunity to worship God. For the first time in the history of school worship, the object of worship is stated, It is God. This was clearly written by a government which believes that it is not only possible but desirable, indeed mandatory, to speak to God in education. But who or what is God, and when would one know that God was being worshipped?

Paragraph 57 of the Circular turns to the question of ‘the meaning of collective worship’. Now we read worship is not defined in the legislation and in the absence of any such definition it should be taken to have its natural and ordinary meaning. That is, it must in some sense reflect something special or separate from ordinary school activities and it should be concerned with reverence or veneration paid to a divine being or power.

This takes the specific or explicit theological definition a step further. But how is the diversity of commitment and belief to be recognised? The Draft Circular continues

However, worship in schools will necessarily be of a different character from worship amongst a group with beliefs in common. The legislation reflects this difference in referring to 'collective worship' rather than 'corporate worship'. (paragraph 57)

It is thus recognised that the school community does not have ‘beliefs in common’. Now, only in the previous sentence we were told that the natural and ordinary meaning of worship is that ‘reverence or veneration [is] paid to a divine being or power’. If the worshippers share this belief, a belief upon which the possibility of it being worshipped at all is founded, they could be regarded as offering corporate worship. But they do not have beliefs in common, possibly not even the belief in a divine being or power to whom reverence and veneration are to be paid. It is precisely for this reason that the legislation calls the acts of worship collective rather than corporate. In other words, we are dealing with a collectivity of people with various beliefs and outlooks, not with a body or corpus of believers.

The Circular gives and then the Circular takes away. They must have beliefs in common in order to be able to worship, but at the same time it is recognised that they do not have beliefs in common. The whole conception of collective worship as that worship offered by people who do not have beliefs in common is so far from the natural and ordinary meaning of the word ‘worship’ that it is hard to see how in the natural and ordinary meaning such an activity can be called worship at all. From the point of view of the broad tradition of collective worship, that would not matter, since emphasis upon the educational context and a range of diverse beliefs has always been central to that broad interpretation. The Department is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, they insist upon a theological definition of worship which demands unanimity; on the other hand, they assert that they fully recognise that the people gathering together for worship do not have unanimity.

Let us take up the question of the natural and ordinary meaning of the word ‘worship’. The natural and ordinary meaning of the word ‘worship’ surely includes the assumption that the worshippers are of a common mind and are gathered together in a place which for this purpose can be called a place of worship. This would normally be a temple or a church, a mosque or a synagogue. In taking this natural and ordinary meaning of the word, the Department completely fails to recognise the context of the activity within the state school. After all, if we are to impose upon schools the natural and ordinary meaning of the word ‘worship’ then the school itself will by the same natural and ordinary meaning become a place of worship, and children and young people will become theists, active committed believers in a supreme or divine being or power, simply by virtue of having their names placed upon the registration records of the school. State education thus requires a form of religious commitment. At the same time, the Circular insists that ‘this country has a long tradition of religious freedom which should be preserved’ (paragraph 9).

I have referred to school pupils or students as being committed to active theism merely by having their names inscribed upon the registration roles of the school. You may say ‘surely that is a mere formality. Do we need to take it in such an active and positive sense? Surely the pupils are not expected to speak to God?’ The Circular soon gives us the answer. Paragraph 59 says that ‘taking part in collective worship implies more than simply passive attendance. It follows that an act of collective worship should be capable of eliciting a response from pupils.’ But will not some pupils be sceptics, or agnostics or even straightforward atheists? Let us not forget that the legislation applied to all young people in schools, including those aged over 16. Having said that the act of worship should be such as to elicit a response from pupils, the Circular adds ‘even though on a particular occasion some of the pupils may not feel able actively to identify with the act of worship’ (paragraph 59). Can it be said that this expression takes the religious life or the irreligious life of students seriously? There is no recognition of the possibility of genuine and sustained disbelief in God. It is difficult to resist the view that this amounts to a gross intrusion into the privacy, the rights of conscience, and thus of the religious freedom, which includes the freedom to be irreligious, of young people.

Towards a Theology of Christian Collective Worship

So far so good. We have seen the contradictions and complexities which are created when one insists that God is addressed in education. But all this takes place under the descriptions of Section 6 of the ordinary act of worship. We have not yet even begun the attempt to give closer definition to Section 7, the section which requires collective worship to be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’. We come to this under the section of the Circular headed ‘The Character of Collective Worship’. This is important, because up until now we have not encountered anything which would divide Christians from Muslims and Jews. We have only encountered that which would divide believers in God from others. We still have not got the purity of Christian worship. This is to be achieved by the further definition offered at the end of paragraph 63.

Acts of collective worship must 'contain some elements which relate specifically to the traditions of Christian belief and which accord a special status to Jesus Christ' (paragraph 63). We can now see that every headteacher needs to have a certain theological expertise. What are these elements which relate specifically to the traditions of Christian belief? How are these to be decided upon in the case of complaint? Would it not be more helpful if the Department issued a list of such elements for the guidance of headteachers? Such guidance would be particularly helpful in the case of the ‘special status’ to be accorded to Jesus Christ. Is it enough, one wonders, for Jesus to have the status of being a teacher or a prophet? Would that be regarded as being specifically related to Christian belief? Or should the special status accorded to Jesus Christ, Jesus as Messiah, Jesus as Saviour, reflect his status as the incarnate Word of God, the Eternal Logos, the second person of the Trinity, the Son of the Father, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, light from light, God from God? How special does a Christology have to be before an act of worship can be regarded as being wholly of a broadly Christian character for most of the time?

Again, we must consider how active the participation of pupils is to be. We are now told that ‘pupils who do not come from Christian families should be able to join in the daily act of collective worship even though this would, in the main, reflect the broad traditions of Christian belief’ (paragraph 65). The Departmental Circular does not distinguish between pupils who come from secular or humanist homes and those who come from homes committed to Islam, Judaism or one of the other religious traditions. One might suppose that they were from humanist homes or from secular homes, since one would expect pupils from other religious traditions to be catered for by the determination procedure. In any case, it is difficult to see how either category of pupils can really be expected to respond to such acts of specific Christian worship. This country, we are reminded, has a long tradition of religious freedom which should be preserved.

In the light of all this, we can see what happens to the determination procedure. You will remember that this is the device whereby pupils from religions other than Christianity are to be provided with acts of collective worship. Paragraph 68 says that the determination procedure is to be invoked where the normal type of Christian collective worship would be ‘inappropriate’. Behind that innocent little word we find the intention to divide pupils along religious lines. The technique is clear enough: first you raise the profile of worship, confining it to theists. Then you raise the theological profile of Christian worship, excluding those who are not Christians. You thus make it inappropriate for any but Christians to take part, claiming the majority of the population as being at least in principle Christian, hiving the rest off into separate acts of worship.

In order to illustrate the harmful effect which this legislation is having upon schools I will describe briefly a situation known to me in a primary school in one of our large cities. 70 per cent of the boys and girls in the school are Muslims. The remainder are Hindus and Sikhs, with a few children from Christian backgrounds, mostly African British traditions. The chair of the Governing Body is a distinguished Muslim and several of the governors are also Muslim. Recently two or three of these Muslims have raised with the Governing Body a question of conscience to which they are sensitive. Although they do not object to anything which the school is actually doing in collective worship, they point out that it is nevertheless regarded in law as worship which is ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’. This is a problem for them, since technically their children are taking part, actively participating in programmes of worship which the school, if challenged, would have to insist were appropriately to be regarded as wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character. It is not the actual practice of the school to which these Muslims object. If it were the case that their young people were being invited to pray to God the Holy Trinity or to offer prayer through Jesus Christ, this would clearly be objectionable. It is the official or legal status of what is going on that worries them. Now, the obvious solution would be for the school to seek a determination for those Muslim pupils. That would enable them to have worship which was wholly or mainly of a broadly Muslim character. The school is against this, however, because it would be left with a minority of its pupils in the act of collective worship, and it must be assumed that the Sikh and Hindu parents would follow suit, and further requests for determinations would follow. The school would then be divided along religious lines. Since this is a school in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious area which has done a great deal of work in holding the various communities together, it would regard this as a retrograde step. But what can be said to the Muslims? It is easy for those in a position of cultural dominance to pooh- pooh these concerns and to say ‘but it is only the letter of the law to which you object’.

At this point, there is an interesting variation. The school might make application to its local SACRE for a determination which would apply not to any particular group of pupils on the basis of their distinct religious family background but to the entire school, so as to make possible acts of collective worship which would draw upon all the religious traditions represented in the school. The entire school would move back from Section 7 collective worship to Section 6 collective worship. A number of SACREs have accepted this type of determination; others have been less than happy. The proposal would open the door for what is sometimes called multi-faith worship or inter-faith worship, whereas the whole tenor of Section 7 is that worship is to be conducted along separate lines, religion by religion. Brenda Watson points out that

a major criticism of the legislation. . . is that it assumes that worship must come under the umbrella of one or other religious tradition - however broadly this is understood - that all worship must be either Christian or Jewish or Muslim, and so on. It is this 'package' aspect of worship which is the real bone of contention dividing people into separate camps. (5)

Once the principle of whole-school determinations was widely accepted, it is difficult to see that much would remain in practice of Section 7 collective worship. Let us imagine a primary school in which there are 600 children from Christian family backgrounds and two or three Muslim children. The same arguments apply in principle as in the situation where 70 per cent of the pupils are Muslim. Either the two or three Muslim children are to be placed in an invidious position in which they are formally regarded as Christian worshippers, or the Christian children are to lose their right (as some would see it) to a distinctive act of Christian worship. Either way, the school and its community are almost sure to be plunged into controversy. However, if a whole-school determination lifted the requirement for broadly Christian collective worship, the school could continue with its all-embracing practice, to which no one objects. As to the right of the pupils from Christian family backgrounds to an act of distinctively Christian worship, this right should be exercised in a Christian place of worship. The school itself should not be regarded as such a place, and when Christians insist upon that right being exercised on the premises of the county school, they are engaged in a policy which is not truly Christian in spirit; if the law appears to support such a divisive policy, we must conclude that the law is inappropriate.

Paragraph 71 of Circular 1/94 says that in any arrangements to be made ‘for a determination in relation to the whole school. . . care should be taken to safeguard the interests of any parents of children for whom broadly Christian collective worship would be appropriate’. Why so? Because the assumption and indeed the requirement of the law is that the Christian God is to be addressed. The Christian God is to have normative status. It is expected that the majority of pupils will find this appropriate. It is only non-Christian minorities or majorities who are to be catered for under the determination procedure. The needs of the Christian majority or minority are to be catered for under the normal arrangements of Section 7 collective worship. We also note that the Secretary of State has the power to intervene in the determination procedures of a local SACRE, and to prevent or overthrow a determination decision which he feels to be inappropriate (paragraph 81). Given the general character of the current Government, there is little doubt that the Education Secretary would consider it inappropriate if the legal intention to establish a more or less pure and consistent Christian worship alongside (if necessary and appropriate) a more or less pure and consistent worship in accordance with the beliefs of other religions were overthrown or evaded by a widespread use of the determination procedure.

That the collective worship requirements envisage prayer not only to God but to the Christian God, the Muslim God, the Hindu God and so on separately is borne out by the Government interpretation of the content of the agreed syllabuses. The legislation quite simply and rather vaguely requires that any new agreed syllabuses ‘shall reflect the fact that the 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’ (Education Reform Act 1988, s. 8.3). Instead of acknowledging that this process of reflecting and taking account of could be represented in a wide range of syllabuses, as has in fact been the case for many years, the Government insists upon a sharp separation between the first and second parts of the sentence, demanding that agreed syllabuses should follow this structure, thus creating a situation in which religious education is to consist of nothing but the study of religions one by one in separate compartments. This interpretation has the advantage, from the Government's point of view, of preventing any speech about God which might imply that God is not confined within a specific religious tradition. There is to be no treatment of the religions of the world as if they were embarked upon a common enterprise, or were part of a single spiritual vocation of humanity, or were a response to the one lord over all who is rich unto all who call upon him or her. The second advantage is that, once this separation is insisted upon, it is possible to argue that children will be confused if they are involved in speech about more than, let us say, two or three Gods, and thus the preponderance of Christianity can be ensured. Comparison and measurement become possible. A ‘balanced’ religious education curriculum can be required. It is as if God were confined to the cultural, spiritual and religious traditions of human beings such that God could only be addressed in Hebrew or Arabic or Punjabi. Every time he is spoken of, the language is to be noted and the time is to be measured.

We see, then, that the Government policy on God-talk is consistent. One can speak both about God and to God, but preferably, and if possible always, to the separate God of each religious tradition, and normally and mainly to the Christian God. My own view is that in religious education there can and should be speech about God both within each separate religious tradition and as being a reality beyond the limits of anyone religious tradition or of all of them put together. God is great. God is that greater than which nothing can be conceived. ‘Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain thee, how much less this house [religion, tradition, curriculum, act of worship] which I have built!’ (1 Kings 8.27). Your God is too small.

On the other hand, one may not speak to God on behalf of others. Not only is this impudent; it is an affront to the spiritual rights of children. God may be addressed in collective worship, but only in the spirit of reciprocal witness. You may share your faith with me in the sense that you may witness to your faith. You may not assume that your faith is my faith. What we must seek in collective worship is not an inclusive hegemony nor an exclusive multiplicity, but an inclusive diversity. This demands a low theological definition and an acceptance of the broad tradition of collective worship. If that can be achieved, we will find that we dare speak of God in education, since all our speech, whether of God or to God, will be in God’s presence.


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