The Blessings of Secularity: Religious Education in England and Wales


John M. Hull

Journal of Religious Education [Australian Catholic University] vol. 51 no. 3, 2003, pp. 51-58



A significant difference between religious education in Germany and England is the relationship between the religious communities, especially the churches, and the school subject. It would not be appropriate for me, as the only non-German participant in this consultation, to discuss the merits and demerits of the Hamburg approach, nor do I wish to be interpreted as suggesting that the way religious education is conducted in England and Wales is either better or worse. It is different, and I hope that consideration of that difference will have some insights to offer.

First, reference will be made to five ways in which religious education in England and Wales is secular. Second, the problem of creating a theology of the secular will be discussed. The third section will discuss some of the limits of secularity and the final part will raise the question about the prophetic status of the secular.


Part I: The Secularity of Religious Education in England and Wales


The Secularity of the Religious Education Teaching Profession

The first blessing of secularity to which I will refer is the rise of a mature and independent religious education profession. Until 1870 almost all schools in England and Wales were church schools and in the parishes of the Church of England where there was a church school the school-teacher was appointed by the parish priest. The rise of an independent teaching profession dates from the 1870 Forster Education Act when local School Boards were established. However, the religious education taught in the Board schools, and in the schools of the Local Education Authorities established in 1904, continued to be inspected by priests and ministers of the church. It was not until the 1944 Education Act that inspection of religious education was placed in the hands of the ordinary government school inspection service. Thus setting the religious education teacher free from clerical supervision (Braley, 1945; Murphy, 1971).

Today, religious education teachers in England and Wales are members of the teaching profession. In the primary schools they are, in fact, the normal classroom teachers, since every classroom teacher is responsible for the teaching of religion to the class, and in the secondary schools religious education is usually taught by a specialist who will normally be a graduate in theology or religious studies. These graduates are selected by the university schools and departments of education where they are trained in the same way as other graduates. The criteria for the selection of secondary school religious education specialist teachers are the same as for the selection of the other secondary school subjects: academic qualifications and personal aptitude. The presence or absence of personal religious commitment on the part of university students seeking entrance into teacher-training programmes is not a relevant criterion for admission or rejection. To some extent, this is required by the secular charters of many of the universities where the student teachers are trained. The charter of the University of Birmingham, for example, declares that the University is to be secular in the sense that no-one is to be offered or denied employment or a place on a course as a student because of the religious faith of the applicant, or absence thereof. It would not be possible, within the requirements of this charter, to train Roman Catholic teachers specifically for the Roman Catholic Schools. Of course, the trained teachers are free to obtain teaching posts in any kind of school; it is the faith requirement for admission which is inadmissible.

Many primary school teachers are trained in colleges of education which are owned by, or have a strong link with, one or other of the churches, but even in these there is generally no faith requirement for admission. The Catholic colleges, for example, retain their Catholic ethos through their chaplaincy provisions, certain emphases in the curriculum and through the network of associations which attract Catholic students to these colleges. There is seldom, if ever, a faith requirement and in fact the range of beliefs even in these denominational colleges is wide and growing wider.

This does not mean that the faith of the student teacher is not relevant to his or her vocation to teach but this relevance usually remains at the private or individual level. For example, a Humanist will have to work out his or her rationale and motivation for wanting to teach religion, and a Christian might have to develop a rationale for the teaching of world religions.

The result of this process of secularisation is that there are in modern Britain two equally well-qualified theological professions – the ministry or priesthood and the religious education specialist teacher. It is the different relationship between the professional and the content matter with which he or she deals, which constitutes the difference between the two professions. A minister who did not believe in what he or she was preaching would be considered to be a hypocrite but a theology graduate who is a religious education specialist teacher is not expected to believe in the truth of the religions covered in the curriculum which he or she teaches, nor would it be logically possible for this to be so, since the curriculum consists in a wide range of world religions and sometimes their secular alternatives. I have known a number of secondary specialists who have regarded it as a delightful compliment when a school-leaver has said to them on the last day "I enjoyed my RE lessons but I could never work out what you yourself really believed!" By way of contrast, I cannot imagine that a minister or priest would regard it as a charming tribute to his or her professional expertise if after a year of preaching and praying a parishioner were to remark that he had no idea if the minister was a believer or not.

In recent decades the secularity of the religious education teaching body has matured considerably. As more and more teachers have high academic qualifications and as the professional literature has multiplied, professional assumptions based upon government requirements have matured (Copley, 1997), and are supported by a number of independent professional organisations. There is no doubt that the confidence of pupils in the objectivity and integrity of their religious education teachers has been strengthened since pupils have increasingly realised that the teacher is there to help them to think clearly about religions and about their own values and should not advocate his or her own personal commitment. In other words, the teacher can be relied upon to be fair, and to give as much professional support to the pupil who is moving toward atheism as toward the one who is moving in the direction of increased faith.

The secularity of the profession is thus the cornerstone of the rationale for the existence of religious education as a required subject in the state schools of a multi-cultural democracy. Religious education is not particularly intended for children from religious homes; after all, the vast majority of children in England and Wales have little or no connection with religion. Religious education in England and Wales is offered to all children, regardless of their faith or lack of it, who are gathered into a common classroom, their ordinary class, and are taught an educational curriculum by any teacher well-trained and of good will, regardless of the teacher’s faith or lack of it.

The Relations with the Religious Communities

The second blessing of secularity that I will mention lies in the relationship between religious education and the religious communities. To put it rather bluntly, whereas the religious communities used to be the sponsors of religious education they have become the objects of religious study. The religious communities have reacted to this change with varying degrees of understanding and appreciation. They have had to realise that from the point of view of the school they comprise wonderful collections of learning resources. However, the idea that a religion has something to offer to those who do not belong to it is difficult for some religious groups to grasp. Broadly speaking, religions deal in salvation but the school is concerned with education. Gradually religious groups in Britain have realised this distinction, and today a wide range of education resource centres are provided by religious bodies, many of whom are now producing videos and other teaching aids which are intended to offer information to the pupil and do not seek to proselytise.

Of course, these relationships are not without their difficulties. The government-led tendency in recent years to regard the curriculum as made up of discrete studies of various religions has led to a rather uneasy competition between the religions for curriculum time. Under the conservative governments from 1988-1997 this competitive feeling was accentuated by a greater emphasis upon Christianity which made the other religions feel nervous. From time to time there will be a protest from a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian that their respective faith is not well represented on the curriculum, or that there are mistakes in certain text books.

One of the few areas where the religious communities still have real authority over religious education is in the Agreed Syllabus Conference, which each local education authority is required to convene in order to generate the religious education syllabus for the schools in its area. This body consists of four committees, two of which (in England) represent the religions. One of these is a group representing the Church of England, which as the established church of England has a special place in the creation of the local syllabuses. In Wales, where there is no established church this group does not exist.

From a legal point of view, this means that the Church of England in England has a veto on the local agreed syllabus, since each of the four committees must vote to accept the syllabus created by its various working parties. This might be thought of as a vestige of ecclesiastical control no longer compatible with the autonomy of the religious education profession. On the other hand, if the Church of England interpreted its role as supporting the religious education of all the children in England, and did not see its influence as being a sort of pressure group for the Christian faith, let alone the Church of England itself, the relationship would be more of an advisory or supportive nature. To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a case where the Church of England committee has used its vote to block a new agreed syllabus.

Another possible example of church and religious influence lies in the fact that there is a second committee on the Agreed Syllabus Conference which represents religions, and this is the other religions and denominations committee. This means other than the Church of England. This committee may be quite large, consisting not only of representatives of the various Christian churches but other world religions. These are selected on the basis of their local strength. However, although they differ widely, they all have a single vote in their role as this particular committee. Whether this committee can be considered a vestige of religious control is a matter of opinion. If the representatives thought it was their task to get as large a share of the syllabus as possible, and to make sure that the syllabus was correct, according to the views of the religion in question, it might be thought of as religious control. However, usually the people in this committee think of their task as to assist in the compilation of the most appropriate syllabus for the children in their schools. In other words, their presence is an educational collaboration rather than a form of control. The fact that they all have but a single vote diminishes the control of each of them, and tends to produce a climate of discussion and co-operation. As in the case of the Church of England committee, I have never heard of a situation where the other religions committee used its vote to stop a new syllabus.

To some extent, religious education in England and Wales is always swinging back and forth between the influence of the religions and that of the educators. There were several years after the passing of the 1988 ERA (Education Reform Act) when the religious communities’ influence increased significantly. This was because the new Act required that the local syllabuses should ‘reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian whilst taking account of the teachings and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain’ (ERA 8.3). This was interpreted as meaning that the syllabuses would contain teaching about several religions, each presented in separate blocks. This in turn meant that the government curriculum bodies and the local authorities looked to the religious communities for help in correctly describing their faith and practice. The so called Model Syllabuses, published by the then School Curriculum and Assessment Authority in 1994 were drawn up by committees, each made up of specialists in one religion. Thus there was a group of Buddhists who made the recommendations for the Buddhist part of the syllabuses and so on. This gave the impression that the purpose of religious education was to present as accurate a picture as possible of the actual beliefs and practices of the religions, and tended to suggest that the ultimate curriculum authorities were the religions not the locally agreed syllabuses. This took place at a time when the authority of the teachers was being diminished in any case, as the content of each subject of the National Curriculum had become the responsibility of the government.

However, it is probably true to say that the tide has turned and that at present the most important influences and innovations are coming from the educators, with new methods of teaching and new teaching materials coming from various university-based religious education projects (Grimmitt 2000). One of the persistent problems facing a secular religious education is the continued difficulty which many politicians appear to have in realising the strictly educational character of the subject. There is still an assumption in these quarters, often supported by the press and media, that religious education is really only for religious children, and that the church should somehow be in charge of it. On the other hand, the increasingly diverse nature of English society encourages the concept of multi-cultural and inter-faith dialogue as being a significant public interest, and this tends to divert authority away from the Christian churches towards the diverse communities themselves.

The Secularity of the Curriculum

There was a time in the past of English and Welsh religious education when the religions were studied in a religious way. Gradually this gave way to the idea that one should study religions in a secular way. The religious education of which we speak does not take place in theological colleges but in the ordinary schools, not for the devotional enlightenment of religious children, but for all children.

This change was very largely brought about by the increasing pluralism of the schools and the curriculum. From the 1920s until the early 1960s an attempt was made to Christianise the schools and the children through a religious education, which was really a Christian education, in which the various Protestant churches, brought closer together by the ecumenical movement, co-operated in the creation of an agreed syllabus of religious education. In other words, they reached an agreement as to the truth which they held in common, and taught it for the deepening of faith.

However, by the later 1960s, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs were being invited by the local education authorities to become members of the agreed syllabus conferences, and this gradually changed the nature of the curriculum task. Within less than ten years, the Christian syllabuses had evolved into the world religion syllabuses, taught for the deepening of understanding and not for the deepening of faith. This in turn created a methodological crisis, since the Christian religious education had been taught as a branch of practical theology, or as a kind of instruction, and no special methodological problem arose, apart from the growing question about pupil motivation. The question of how world religions were to be taught received many theoretical replies throughout the 1970s and until today. These included an existentialist approach (Smith 1969), an approach which included religious education within the humanities in integrated studies (Birnie 1972), a life-themes approach (Goldman 1965), and above all the introduction of the phenomenological study of religion (Smart 1968) and the ethnographic approach (Jackson 1997), and many others. There is no doubt that this methodological literature is one of the most significant achievements of British religious education.

Today this discussion is as lively as ever, with new proposals coming forward, some emphasising the life-world of the child (Erricker 1998, 2000), others laying stress upon the theological literacy of the pupil (Wright 1993, 1999). Other approaches draw inspiration from recent developments in neo-Vygotskian theory and constructive epistemology (Grimmitt 2000a).

The main point I want to emphasise about these curriculum and methodological developments is that we are dealing with a secular branch of educational study, secular in the sense that the process is not under the control of the church or of any religious community, except in so far as the communities provide resources, and guarantee authenticity, and secular in the sense that the objectives of the teaching are concerned with the general human and educational progress of the child. The situation is admittedly rather paradoxical in that the content of this secular discipline is the sacred, the actual content of religion and religions, the feelings actions and thoughts of religious people.

The Secularity of the Aims and Objectives of Religious Education

I have already referred to the way in which the older devotional and faith-nurturing approach passed away as the new secular, multi-faith approach dawned. This involved a transformation of the purposes of teaching religion to children in the county schools. This in turn gave rise to philosophical problems about the nature of indoctrination, and whether, since they are necessarily controversial, religious beliefs could be taught in a non-indoctrinatory way (Astley 1994). Some responses laid emphasis on the emotional content of religion and the nature of education as being an education into, or concerning these characteristic religious emotions (Wilson 1971); others laid stress on the purely cognitive aspects of learning (Attfield 1976) This tended to retreat before the growing interest in the spiritual development of the child, a feature of religious education discussion over the past ten or fifteen years (Best 1996, 2000) In general, it can be said that the purposes of religious education in county schools are now usually agreed as making a contribution to the spiritual, moral, personal, social and cultural development of the child. In these respects, religious education is not unique, since the 1988 ERA requires all school subjects to think of themselves in this way, but it is certainly claimed that religious education is the flag ship of spiritual and moral development, and in a rapidly developing multi-cultural and inter-faith society, the central importance of religious education in the area of social and cultural understanding cannot be denied.

It is probably true to say that no subject of the curriculum has subjected its inner nature and function to examination so deeply and so consistently as religious education.

Collective Worship

The final example which I will discuss is the vexed question of collective worship in schools. At first sight, the existence of this requirement for a compulsory act of collective worship to take place every school day argues against the secularity thesis. Worship is a religious act, involving belief in a divine being to whom adoration is addressed.

I have long taken the view that collective worship is not consistent with the education objectives of religious education in the class room (Hull 1975), and I share the disquiet felt by many religious educators at the way the government department has continued to refer to ‘Religious Education and Collective Worship’, as if these were a single part of school life sharing the same objectives. In fact, they are quite different, and in certain circumstances, the difference can become an outright incompatibility.

However, I will make a few observations about the situation regarding collective worship. The fact that the legislation is riddled with reservations and qualifications bears witness to the difficulty of trying to make such arrangements in a situation which has become so very pluralistic and secular. The ceremony itself is described as collective worship, not as corporate worship. And this distinction is generally regarded as indicating that the people, both pupils and staff, gathered together for worship, do not represent a unified body of religious believers, but a collectivity of various points of view. This concession makes the act of worship highly ambiguous, because the question about who or what is being worshipped must become opaque.

The legislation attempts various concessions to this plurality (Education Reform Act 1988, section 1.7). The collective worship must be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’, yet not only is this required on only a majority of the school days, but the equivocation of the expression ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly’ has caused endless discussion. Moreover, a school with groups of pupils from religious backgrounds who are not Christian can request a lifting of the requirement for Christian collective worship, and if such a request were made on behalf of the entire school, the requirement for Christian worship would be lifted altogether.

I also note that the acts of collective worship are to take place in the school and not in a place of religious worship, and that participation in the worship is on the basis of registration of the pupil on the roll of the school, not on the basis of religious faith.

So we see that there are several anomalies in the law and in the conduct of collective worship, which indicate how uneasily it sits in the present school system. Like many others, I advocate an arrangement in which the schools would be required to offer, and pupils to attend, an assembly the main purpose of which would be to promote the spiritual and moral development of the school.

Part II: The Theological Problems of Secularity

It is sometimes claimed that the approach to religious education in England and Wales lacks theological depth. My own view is that this comment itself lacks theological depth. Theology is not only concerned with theological things, and there is no reason to think that just because religious education has been shorn of its explicit theological purpose that it therefore lacks theological interest and depth. The theological problems of a secular religious education are similar in principle to any theology of the secular. If we can theologise about art, which in its intention and output may have little or no connection with religion, then we can theologise about religious education, the question being made more subtle by the fact that unlike secular art, secular religious education always has a religious content, and this includes even a theological content. We find that in this way the theological problem of secular religious education is a problem about secular theology. This refers to a theology which no longer serves the needs of the religious community but is at the service of the secular world, of the secular school.

Of course, modern art can manage perfectly well without theologians writing about it. It just does its own thing, more or less regardless of the theological interpretations. The theological interpretations of art are legitimate, but they do not confer legitimacy on art, which is governed by its own conventions. The same is true of the theology of religious education. It is a perfectly legitimate activity, and may add depth and richness to religious education, but religious education would get on with its job even if Christians did not theologise about it.

It should also be made clear that a Christian theology of religious education has no greater claim over the subject nor does it possess a privileged proximity to it than the attempts of any other religion to offer a rationale of religious education from its own point of view. An Islamic philosophy of religious education would deserve the same consideration as a Christian theology.

I do not intend to begin a description of various actual and possible Christian theologies of secular religious education. I affirm the character of religious education as being a discipline within the sphere of educational studies, and as having its own sociology, psychology, learning problems, curriculum issues, just like other school or educational subjects. It is this secularity, which theology recognises, which sets the subject free from ecclesiastical assumptions, free from partisan and proselytising suspicions, and presents religious education as a legitimate heir of the European enlightenment, being both critical of religion and yet offering a continued dialogue with it.

Part III: The Limits of Secularity

There can be no doubt, on the whole, that religious education in England and Wales has gained great benefit from its secular character. Nevertheless, there are some disadvantages, and I will comment briefly upon some of these.

The emergence of religious education as a secular discipline has undoubtedly distanced it from theology. In Germany most religious education academics have appointments in the pedagogical seminary of their university as well as in the appropriate theological department, whether Protestant or Catholic. In England, however, academic religious educators are located in schools and departments of education. The fact that they work alongside other educators is one of the blessings of secularity but it is only when a theologically-minded religious educator has close links with the theological department that there is likely to be much dialogue with theologians. Perhaps it is this institutional separation which has encouraged the belief that religious education in Britain is theologically superficial, a belief which I have tried to refute in the previous section.

One consequence of this separation can be seen in the fact that only a few theologians contribute to the discussions about religious education. For example, if you look at the contents of the predecessors of the British Journal of Religious EducationLearning for Living (1961-1978) and Religion in Education (1934-1961) you will find that in the 1930s right through to the late 1950s biblical scholars and systematic theologians were contributing articles describing current developments in their subject for the benefit of religious education teachers. However, since the early 1970s and more decidedly from the 1980s the journal has been preoccupied with religious education research reports, studies in the philosophy and psychology of the subject and various theoretical debates. Of course, this does indicate the emergence of religious education as a discipline with its own parameters, but the loss of interest from theologians is a pity. There have been a few notable exceptions but these have usually been specialists in religious studies and the philosophy of religion. I am thinking of Ninian Smart and John Hick.

Another unfortunate consequence of the growing independence of the subject has been a weakening of interest and concern from the mainstream churches. The Roman Catholic Church has always given priority to its own extensive system of voluntary-aided schools, and the Church of England seems to be going the same way. The recent discussions about the creation of new faith-based schools, a policy which now receives government support, has tended to focus Anglican attention upon the expansion of its own voluntary-aided schools and there has been a corresponding decline in concern for the religious education of the 85% of the secondary school children who are not in voluntary-aided schools.

The Christian Education Movement was founded in 1964 as the arm of the churches in education and the major denominations are represented on its governing body. However, successive General Secretaries have remarked that it is difficult to persuade the churches that what takes place in county school religious education is really their business. Perhaps we must accept that the churches will naturally support those enterprises for which they have direct responsibility and that a religious education which struggled for its independence must now stand politically as well as educationally on its own two feet. Of course, there have been many priests and ministers who as individuals have given their teaching skills and their administrative gifts wholeheartedly to religious education.

Part IV: The Prophetic Role of the Secular

Religious education is not only committed to the critical examination of religion; it also presents religion and religions as offering a critique of social and personal values. Where else can we find in Europe today an institution with such a convincing claim to be regarded as an heir of the European Enlightenment? It combines the critique of religion with religion as critique.

There is much concern in modern Europe for a deeper understanding between the religions of the world, and it is often pointed out that this dialogue is most effective when it is conducted in the context of a partnership which seeks some social objective other than the mere conduct of the dialogue itself. For example, it was in the shared partnership of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa that Christian, Muslim and Hindu were drawn closest to each other. In the religious education classrooms of England and Wales, the major world faiths exercise a partnership which involves a better understanding of each other but is not carried out for the sake of such understanding. Rather, the religions have become partners in the attempt to contribute to the spirituality and the moral growth of children and young people. Where else can we find such a place, where the religions presented through the skill and knowledge of a professionally trained teacher encounter not only each other but the secularised lives of young people? After all, if the religions of Europe are to survive in any significant sense and to influence the development of society and policy in Europe it will not be because they understand each other better but because generations of young people have found in the study of religion an opportunity for the criticism and perhaps the adoption of spiritual and moral lives.

These young people, however, are not merely secular, in the sense that religious education is secular. Rather, they are domesticated into the values of the money-mad society. The occasions when there is a momentary pause in the pressure of monetary values are few and far between. It is still true that the secular religious education classroom is one such occasion.

Can the prophetic voice of such a religious education be regarded as a Christian voice? It is certainly capable of Christian interpretation and it needs Christian support. At the same time the prophetic voice of religious education must also and equally be considered as a Muslim voice, a Jewish voice and a Humanist voice.

Is Jesus Christ then no longer Lord of all? Perhaps not, but religious education may still encounter him as servant of all, and the one who secularised the principal religious institution of Israel by claiming that the Sabbath was for people and that people were not for the Sabbath may still be met, often unrecognised in the classrooms and corridors of our comprehensive schools. Is it not possible that even religious education may be amongst the prophets?