3rd year: MA (Religious Studies)
“Should we pray together?” A study of interfaith worship in schools
The question of interfaith worship began to be seriously discussed about fifty years ago. Ethnic groups have been present in Britain since at least the 1870s, when the East India company began to employ Muslim seamen from Yemen as a result of the opening of the Suez Canal. However, the 1944 Education Act does not seem to refer to any religion other than Christianity . In the 1950s, high employment produced by the need for post war reconstruction caused problems in filling the least desirable jobs. The British government therefore began recruitment campaigns in the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, Cyprus, Kenya and Uganda. The new immigrants were placed almost entirely in industrial cities most of which were to be hard hit by unemployment at the end of the post war boom. The 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act gave preference to professionals and dependants over unskilled lone males. By the late sixties therefore many inner city boroughs were facing questions of how best to provide an education for a significant number of children with a home culture perceived as very different to the school culture, and a religious background that was not Christian or Jewish . A part of this was the problem of school worship, which up until then had been explicitly Christian.
The debate on education was fed by the wider discussions taking place on “race”. During the fifties the most popular official stance was that of “assimilation” . It was argued that black people were inferior to white people and that their only possible means of self-improvement was to try to acquire “white” norms and values and perceptions, meanwhile accepting their place at the bottom of the socio-economic class system. By the sixties, when ethnic minority children were beginning to enter education in significant numbers, some shift in official attitude can be detected, with a move towards an “integrationist” approach, where the presence of ethnic minority people was acknowledged and there was talk of greater mutual understanding of culture . A 1977 Green Paper by the Department of Education and Science acknowledged that education needed to change:
1.11 the education appropriate to our imperial past cannot meet the needs of modern Britain.
However, Brandt and Muir argue that the effect of these ideas was to minimise disruption to the fabric of white, Protestant society, with the actual image presented being of the failure of black and Asian people, by now increasingly of British nationality, to integrate themselves into society. Thus in many ways this was not much of a progression from the fifties assimilationist stance.
The current move towards interfaith prayer may be seen as part of a trend towards cultural pluralism. This might be defined as the situation where the presence and legitimacy of a range of differentiated cultures is recognised, and where they interact according to a model in which the state is seen as a negotiator. Emphasis is on similarity rather than difference. The 1985 Swann Report, Education for All, included in their passage on “The Concept of Pluralism”:
We consider that a multi-racial society such as ours would in fact function most effectively and harmoniously on the basis of pluralism which enables, expects and encourages members of all ethnic groups, both minority and majority, to participate fully in shaping the society as a whole within a framework of commonly accepted values, practises and procedures .whilst also allowing, and, where necessary, assisting the ethnic minority communities in maintaining their distinct ethnic identity within this common framework (p5)
Three criticisms are discussed at length in the 1988 Brandt and Muir article, that most relevant to interfaith prayer in schools is that the state is not a neutral arbitrator in matters of race and religion, as cultural pluralists hold, but is biased in favour of white Protestant ideology. Thus in state schools all teachers are required to pay some attention to Christian ideas in their teaching, and it is nearly impossible for members of non Christian religions to get funding for their schools . In wider society Anglican clergy sit in the House of Lords and the Christian religion is the only one protected in law from insult . While the ideas behind interfaith worship cannot be divorced from the cultural pluralist perspective, interfaith dialogue has also been influential, not least in legitimising the idea of different faiths praying together. For example Islam has been recognised by the Vatican Council as sharing some features of Christianity , and other Christians such as John Nicol Farquhar promoted Christian understanding of Hinduism, while Ram Mohan Roy of the Brahma Samaj movement and Swami Vivikananda of the Ramakrishna movement have both produced Hindu doctrines which are open to Christianity. However, it is important not to confuse dialogue with equivalency. Although two groups may be able to share ideas about their gods, this does not mean that they can worship them together.
Even among adult congregations, interfaith worship has been regarded as problematic. To worship different gods in a single act requires that the way in which both the deity and the religious act is regarded is quite similar. Prayer (or meditation) is fundamental to most religions. However, it is regarded in very different ways by different groups. To the Protestant Christian, prayer is largely a confessional-devotional action, to the Jew a communal devotion act, to the Muslim a ritual-devotional act, to the Buddhist a contemplative act. For the first three groups, prayer would certainly be expected to be a part of any act of worship, but it is difficult to see how all three types of prayer could be performed simultaneously.
The often superior financial and social position of Christian Protestant groups needs to be recognised when considering interfaith worship. Anglican churches, as propagators of the state religion, have state-funded churches, provide most religious schooling in England and Wales, and Anglican clergy vote in the House of Lords. They are therefore likely to be in a better position to instigate (and so organise) interfaith acts of worship, and appear to have a larger congregation to bring to events. However, any act of interfaith worship organised by religious leaders is very different to acts of interfaith worship in schools. This is for two reasons: firstly, worship in schools involves children, who are cognitively less developed than adults, and second, the structure of a school environment makes it both more difficult for children to opt out of religious acts which they feel uncomfortable with, and more difficult for teachers to provide balanced interfaith worship.
There has relatively little research into children’s religious development; however, it does seem likely that primary school children often accept the religion presented to them with few questions, with doubt, where it does emerge, beginning at some point in late childhood. Further, while Piaget’s stages theory has been heavily criticised, there does seem to be evidence that younger children find it difficult to reason conceptually. Thus, for children, “interfaith worship” will often be accepted rather than considered, while adults have a better ability to consider the merits of different religious standpoints .
This cognitive disadvantage is compounded by the school environment. Opinions vary on the function of schools, and especially the significance of the “hidden curriculum” with regards to class, gender and “race”; however, there is general agreement that schools are expected to socialise children . Teachers in schools are trained to be able to influence children’s behaviour so that they will learn and not disrupt the class. Interfaith worship in schools is not equivalent to interfaith worship between congregations for practical reasons. Firstly, because most school environments are predominantly white and of a Protestant mindset, reflected in the teaching staff . Even where ethnic minority and non Christian staff are employed, they are not especially likely to have the inclination or perhaps even the ability to organise part of an act of interfaith worship, any more than a random white teacher could be expected to. In a secondary school older pupils might be able to assist; parents might also be willing to help out but this cannot be relied on. The problem of representing all faiths and denominations is especially important in a school. In inner London schools, for example, fifty or more religious faiths (including denominations) may be present in a school, and difficult questions will be faced, for example about whether a single representative from an Islamic group is acceptable when three branches of Islam are present in the school. Another limitation is time. School assemblies are seldom longer than half an hour, including time for announcements; they are often less. One option for adult groups organising interfaith worship is to take a “pick and choose” approach, where different “activities” are offered. Thus both Islamic and Christian style prayers could be held, with people choosing what to participate in. Aside from the question of whether this is really interfaith worship, or simply simultaneous worship, time restraints make this option difficult for school, perhaps impossible.
Given that children are generally strongly pressurised into attending assembly, teachers, and ultimately the government, would seem to have a moral obligation to solve these problems as best they, so that if assemblies are to include an act of worship, no child feels excluded from this.
When considering questions of relevance to ethnic minority communities it is important to be aware of the issues faced by them. Britain has a strong history of colonialism, imperialism and slavery, which has fed into current racist ideas. At no point in the last fifty years have elected politicians unequivocally accepted ethnic minorities. In 1968 Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech called for even stricter immigration controls and repatriation. On 30th January 1978 Margaret Thatcher said, during a World In Action television interview, “People are really afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.” In April 2000 both the Labour and Conservative parties received official warnings from the Commission for Racial Equality for their inflammatory remarks about (mostly non-white) asylum seekers. Schools operate within wider society, and it cannot be helpful that most have few ethnic minority staff. Due to the lack of influence of ethnic minority groups at staff level and above in most schools, as well as time and curriculum constraints, it is unlikely that those schools in need of it will be able to produce a genuinely interfaith assembly. There is a significant risk of “interfaith worship” being rather Christian worship with either references to other religions put in, or explicit references to Christianity taken out. “Prayer” will thus be the confessional style of prayer practised by Christians, but perhaps one invented for the school rather than being from the Bible, and while a sermon is read, it may reflect on general spiritual matters than a part of the Bible. However, this is a Christian style service, not an interfaith one.
If interfaith assemblies are then more reflective of integrationist and assimilationist ideas then the answer might seem to be that no, children cannot pray together in school. Schools are, to a greater or lesser degree, bastions of Christian and white privilege and so worship will perhaps never be truly interfaith, only, to a greater or lesser extent, Christian. Even in schools with a minority of white children this may still be the case as the school structure will have been established to provide a Christian-based education, in line with the law, and the children in the school will be receiving the white Protestant orientated National Curriculum. Yet how legitimate is it to concede that a truly interfaith assembly is difficult, and continue to ignore the religious needs of non-Christian pupils? In addition, even if it is impossible to have a truly interfaith assembly then the rights of non Christian children to be have their religions and cultures represented, and the benefits to Christian children in learning about other religions (it is to be assumed that by the time the average non Christian child finishes their education in a state school they will be familiar with the Christian religion). It may be that the only truly fair solution is to remove all responsibility for religion from the school, at least in its educational capacity. In their free time, older pupils may choose to engage in interfaith worship, perhaps with the assistance of members of staff, or the wider community might become involved, using the school and pupils as a base. This would free children from the hegemony of the Protestant state as far as possible, while allowing them to experiment with their religious ideas. Even in this situation racism and pro-Christianity would not be eliminated but they would not be sanctioned by the school, which is the main danger of “interfaith” worship in a school environment in an ex-imperial power.