School assemblies and the sound of silence?

(Photo: Unsplash/La-Rel Easter)

Should non-denominational schools be prevented from offering an act of worship which has until now been the law in this country? And should these schools even be taken to court by offended parents?

When I was young, most non-Christians at schools were Jewish, and it was normally accepted that we should be exempt from acts of worship around the figure of Jesus. However, even outside the assembly hall (I was thankfully allowed to practise the piano during these first 20 minutes of the school day), the well-known hymn tunes, often stemming from Methodist and Victorian times, didn't fail to have their impact: "All things bright and beautiful"; "we plough the field and scatter" ; "G-d be in my heart and in my understanding."

In those more innocent, and maybe naïve times, what harm could there be in those words?

And all this unconscious imbibing of a very English type of gentle 'otherness' has even come in very useful throughout my life. For instance, when I was living in Israel a few years ago and invited to set up a music department at a church school in Jaffa, the head teacher (himself a staunch evangelical Christian) asked me to bear in mind that half of the Arab children attending were Muslim and, therefore, could we avoid all mention of Jesus in morning services, please.

Most of the other pupils were either Christian Arabs or the children of embassy staff keen on what they thought would be a Christian education delivered in English. And all the teachers, bar the Head, were Jewish, with education qualifications from the UK.

Not easy then – especially as the school assembly was taken jointly by me on the piano and the Palestinian Christian pastor from the nearby town of Ramle. So I chose hymns from my childhood that I wasn't supposed to have imbibed, while my Palestinian colleague, always conferring with me beforehand, generally spoke about Jesus, especially as a fisher of men, given (as he often pointed out to the pupils) that Jaffa was a port, with the sea around the corner.

I thought that this Palestinian Anglican pastor was a most impressive contributor from an educational point of view. Nor did I feel that the Muslim pupils would miss out through this type of assembly, or be offended at all. After all, the sea and fishermen were a part of their everyday lives – maybe even some of their parents, though most were rich business people, judging from their clothes and general demeanor.

Moreover, the teacher wasn't telling them to believe in Jesus in a theological way, merely pointing out that he had lived and worked in Israel, in an area not too far away - up north to be precise - and that they could visit that area of Galilee for their holidays whenever they wanted.

The Israeli Ministry of Education, which fully funded this school as it does all other Christian, Druze and Muslim schools in the State of Israel, didn't seem to mind either, and were pleased that I was contributing English culture to that school with its links to the British Embassy in Tel Aviv.

The school parents were also thrilled, especially with the Nativity play staged at the end of the year, in which I chose the son of the Nigerian ambassador to be one of the three kings, since at the age of 11 or 12 he was already over 6 foot tall. And being black he hadn't been accepted by the majority of the Arab children of whichever religion. Even the British Consul General (who later moved to Zambia) became a good friend. So win win all round.

As readers of this website will know, in the USA, church and state are divided and majority consensus is that no act of worship should be included in school life. But in the UK, given the original Church contribution to our education system and the fact that the Church of England is the established Church of the land, with more than half of the Anglican bishops being automatically invited to sit in the House of Lords, for instance, the situation is very different and it is therefore now critical to give it all a rethink.

Because, as anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear is now aware, despite the official role of the Church of England in our political lives, in practice, militant secularism and Islam have increased – and are taking the place of Christianity in our social discourse, especially in the school system. People are now even being prosecuted or deprived of their livelihoods for publically espousing mainstream Christian opinions and values, which are themselves often based in Jewish teachings.

In addition to the downplaying of Jewish and Christian teaching and lifestyles in general society, school pupils are now being taught to believe in, or at least to accept, and certainly to imbibe (by force if necessary) values and life-styles which are not parallel to their own values and life-styles, but often run counter to them.

READ MORE: 10-year-old Christians excluded from school after objecting to LGBT school assignment

The excuse given for this type of educational brainwashing is ostensibly to prevent the scourge of bullying by Christians and Jews of 'others'. But actually the bullies are not the Christians and Jews affected by these government rulings, but the Department for Education and their raring-to-go rotweilers, otherwise known as Ofsted.

What then is the role of school worship in contemporary secular society where so many discordant voices are clamouring to be heard?

Clearly, enacting the crucifixion in a school assembly is not acceptable to many, and when tried locally has caused much unnecessary distress to parents and children, even in a Christian context.

But on the other hand, people don't seem to appreciate the important role of the transcendent in all our lives. Because have we really thought through what happens when the transcendent disappears from our lives? Do we really want to replace a liberal education with the Gradgrind of Dickens' time? Are science and technology the only things that matter in life?

Or should we also aim to reach the transcendent and recognize, as the great medieval Jewish thinker and Bible scholar, Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1164) did in two key aphorisms that although it is true that "we mortals are but mere dust in comparison with the great G-d who created us all", nevertheless, "the angel between us and our G-d is our brain."

In other words, we have to recognize that there is a 'beyond' and that it is up to us to embark on that adventure of discovery. As that other great Jewish scholar, Rabbi Tarfon, stated before the Roman Emperor Constantine politicized Christianity: "It is not for us to finish the work, but we are obliged to give it a go." 

After conferring with friends in the Church, a compromise solution that is above all for the good of the child could look something like this: the first few moments of every school day would be silence (introduced by a gong if necessary), followed by thinking and meditating on a power greater than ourselves.

Children should be encouraged to ponder on the suggestion that whatever we do in life and wherever we go, we live in the midst of that uncanny, inscrutable presence, in whatever form it appears to us.

We should be taught to appreciate, as I did with 2-year olds in noisy Jaffa, that sound of silence which some call G-d. Although children are noisy beings, it is not impossible to get them to listen for five or ten minutes every day, if this is done in the right way.

And older children should also learn that this ineffable presence who appears to us to be silent is in fact with us every moment of every day of our lives; cares about us when others don't; and is even there with us when everything appears to be going pear-shaped. And even if we don't believe in Him, He believes in every single one of us, in good times and in bad. It may well be 'sexist' to call Him 'Him', but as classical and medieval Jewish thinkers also stated, religion cannot avoid speaking 'in the language of man', or if you prefer, 'in human and humane language'. And without this partnership with G-d, there is no future for humanity.

There are two further points maybe worth pondering: an act of Christian worship in a school that is now run by a Christian Trust is actually a legal requirement. Therefore, rather than taking the school to court, which is objectionable on many counts, and maybe even be counter-productive, surely it would be better to take a leaf out of the Jewish book, and start one's own assembly.

John Gray's book on atheism might be a good place to start as a 'set text' – maybe the equivalent of the Bible for some (don't all shout at once). Because actually we who are religious can learn a great deal from the 'atheist' approach, just as atheists can in fact (if they only opened their eyes and ears) learn a huge amount from religion.

But what really impressed me was a senior Anglican priest who a couple of days ago told me about the approach taken by his daughter, who teaches English and French in a London church school attended by a variety of religions and creeds, who now volunteers to conduct Christian prayers with those who would voluntarily like to attend, in addition to (but not instead of) the official assembly. This teacher has borne in mind that not everyone attending church schools necessarily believes in Jesus.

I think that this is a very mature way for the Church of this country to go. The idea that Jews would take a Church school to court for teaching about Christianity at assembly, even though, pardon my frankness, Christianity has not always been a very pleasant experience for the Jewish communities of this world, is simply ridiculous.

Far better to opt out if necessary and set up parallel and/or extra and separate assemblies for Jews, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus and non-believers of every description, with maybe a coming together one day a week to discuss in assembly what we all have in common.

But I will leave you with one thought: Isn't it interesting that we are allowed to opt out of religious assemblies on grounds of conscience, but are soon going to be forced by law to attend classes on relationship education which, as I've argued before, are potentially really harmful to a whole generation of children of all religions and none.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education and gained 1st prize as 'teacher of the year', and received a government bursary from Tony Blair's government for 'excellence in teaching.'