Evangelicals seek reassurances from Church of Scotland over religious observance

PAForward Together has asked the Church and Society Council to give an account of its actions at the General Assembly in May

A group for evangelicals in the Church of Scotland has asked for clarification over a controversial partnership with humanists to change the name of religious observance in schools to a 'Time for Reflection'.

'Forward Together' has investigated concerns that the Church of Scotland, in partnership with the Humanist Society Scotland, is promoting the elimination of religious observance in schools across the country.

The most notable criticism has come from the Free Church of Scotland, where minister the Reverend David Robertson has branded the move as "stab-in-the-back" Christianity and a sign of the Church "capitulating to the secularist agenda".

Forward Together said Christians across Scotland had been "dismayed" by media reports suggesting the Church of Scotland was seeking the abolition of religious observance in schools. 

In response to the outcry, the Church of Scotland has insisted that the proposed changes are merely about using clearer and more inclusive terminology to reflect what actually happens during these periods at school.

"The council is simply inviting MSPs to consider a change in the official name for religious observance," the Church of Scotland in a statement.

It also said suggestions that the Church wants to remove religion from schools were "entirely without foundation".

Forward Together acknowledged that the Church and Society Council's submission to the Scottish Parliament's Petitions Committee was made in response to a proposal by the Edinburgh Secularist Society, an organisation it warned was "publicly committed to the removal of all Christian influence in Scottish schools" and which is seeking to change religious observance to 'opt-in' rather than the current 'opt-out' system.

In 2005, government guidelines were changed to require non-denominational schools to address children of all faiths and beliefs during assemblies, not just Christians. They now state that: "It is of central importance that all pupils and staff can participate with integrity in forms of religious observance without compromise to their personal faith."

These times of religious observance encourage pupils to consider themes such as wisdom, compassion and justice and are often inspired by stories of faithful Christians, but some non-Christian parents still choose to withdraw their children from these assemblies.

The Church of Scotland is therefore proposing that these periods are renamed Time for Reflection in order to affirm that the nature of these assemblies has indeed changed. It is hoped that this will encourage more parents to allow their children to join in, rather than choosing to opt-out.

"We understand that the Church and Society Council made this proposal on the basis that the new title might allay the fears of some parents; but that regardless of the name, the content and approach would remain the same," the statement from Forward Together reads.

"We expect all school chaplains to work within existing guidelines, conscious of the privilege of being invited to share in the work of schools in the education, nurture and spiritual development of our children and young people.

"It is essential that Church of Scotland ministers are sensitive to the context of the school into which they have been invited and are respectful towards those of other faiths and none."

Forward Together does, however, urge church ministers to "remain committed to the clear presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ" within this context.

It also expressed the concern that "the Humanist Society Scotland regard this proposal as something more significant than simply a change of name".

The group is awaiting further clarification from the Church and Society Council during the annual General Assembly when it takes place in Edinburgh this May.

"We understand and share the concerns that have been expressed by many people about the Church and Society Council's decision to work with the Humanist Society Scotland on this issue," Forward Together concluded.

"We understand that the intention was to present a united front to the Scottish Parliament's Petitions Committee in opposition to the petition from the Edinburgh Secularist Society.

"However, statements in the original press release gave the impression of a much closer alliance between the Church of Scotland and the Humanist Society Scotland which was misleading and regrettable and has caused considerable offence and concern within the Church.

"We expect that the Church and Society Council will be given the opportunity to account for their actions at the forthcoming General Assembly and that there will be a full debate on all of these issues before any decisions are taken by the Church. We encourage all Christians in Scotland to join us in praying for the Church of Scotland at this time."