I was fortunate enough to attend a recent Westminster Faith Debate event held in Birmingham exploring the state of Religious Education in the UK. Unlike previous debates the RE for Real event also incorporated a consultation with a number of local schools sending students and teachers working at GCSE and A-Level, as well as researchers and practitioners directly engaged in this area. As an outsider my comments are made from a position of relative ignorance, but as a school governor and taker of weekly school assemblies, I offer these reflections as a contribution to the debate.
In the morning session we were asked to address the following questions:
1. What knowledge, understanding and experience of religion do you need in the real world of today?
2. What is the most important and effective part of teaching and learning in RE for you?
3. What needs to change in the formal RE curriculum and the way that religion is handled in the rest of school life?
This session was imaginative, participatory and yielded many interesting insights and ideas, especially from the young people. In the afternoon the focus shifted with the facilitators of each group becoming panel members, and addressing both the questions raised during the morning and others from the audience. So what conclusions did I reach at the end of it all?
What I think I heard seems to stem from the historical position of RE within the wider educational process, in that it continues to live in the shadow of the original confessional nature of the subject. So even though such a motivation can no longer be openly espoused in our multi-faith and no-faith pluralist and diverse culture, what then follows appears to be the attempt to establish an alternative rationale in basically defensive mode. The result is an unresolved tension between the confessional, the political and the academic in which the latter seems to come off worst. Hence as I listened to the accounts of RE teachers complaining that this area is under-resourced, both in terms of teacher training and actual school time, it seemed to me that there is a fairly obvious explanation for this, i.e. it is still seen as a Cinderella subject because so few people have attempted to justify the rigorous study of religion in its own right, as being as important and legitimate as the others in the curriculum.
The reasons I heard given for studying RE were basically second-order and instrumental – which is not to deny that these are valid and important – e.g. it will enable skilled intercultural navigation in a pluralist context; it will offer an entry point into the cultural history of the nation; and, from the young people themselves, it provides a safe space within which they can debate and explore matters of personal and ethical importance. The main rationale for studying religion appears to be so that young people can learn the values of tolerance and respect for others, and society can avoid the worst impacts of inter-faith conflict. The agenda has moved from a confessional one to one that is primarily politically driven and motivated. What has fallen through the cracks is the question of whether religion(s) are worthy of serious academic study in their own right. If they are not – and this is surely the issue to be addressed – then it is hardly surprising that it remains an under-resourced Cinderella subject.
I note, by contrast, the level of discussion in a recent book from the USA Civility, Religious Pluralism and Education edited by Biondi and Fiala (Routledge, 2014). Now I know that the obvious riposte will be that theirs is a very different starting point, in that, amongst other things, RE is not a compulsory subject, and that they have a different history in terms of faith engagement in education. Thus it is easy to say “if I were you I wouldn’t have started from here” but much harder to operationalize. Nevertheless it does appear easier in that context to address questions of rigorous academic content. To mention only a few of the ideas that emerge from the book: there is a caution about over-reacting to specific “pinch points” or controversies – so the Trojan Horse affair in the UK has perhaps already led to such over-reactions in the UK; there is the development of the concept of a robust pluralism, one which goes well beyond “mere” tolerance and respect of the other; then also a focus upon the study of “lived religion” which understands that one must attend to not only the explicit doctrines and practices espoused by religious institutions and their leaders, but also to what “ordinary” followers practice in the context of their daily lives.
So, although I acknowledge that there is clearly much good practice and a high level of skill and commitment amongst RE practitioners in the UK, as evidenced by the Birmingham consultation, and that there is a legitimate call for better resourcing and a higher profile for the subject area, it does seem to me that the public debate needs to shift towards an academic legitimation in order to avoid becoming simply the handmaid of social and political concerns. In order for religion to be taken seriously in the curriculum, there surely needs to be the serious study of lived religion(s) and a move away from the “candy floss” faith referred to by one of the later contributors. Hopefully this latest consultation will encourage such a deepening of the public debate.
Revd Dr John Reader,
Associate Research Fellow, William Temple Foundation.
Revd. Dr. John Reader is a parish priest, theological educator and practical theologian with over 30 years experience in rural ministry. He is a Senior Tutor in Christian Rural and Environmental Studies at Ripon College, Cuddesdon. He is a board member of the Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust, and is both interested and involved in current educational developments and the role of RE in community relations. John’s publications include books on local theology, reconstructing Practical Theology, and theological reflection for human flourishing. He is Associate Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation.