Assembly, Celebration and Worship: Worship is where the child is

The 1944 Education Act defined RE as comprising teaching (RI) and assembling (Collective Act of Worship). Forty and more years on, the tendency is to disassociate RE from any school assembly for worship because the latter is anti-educational. Whereas, it is said, education requires critical thinking and openness, worship has a more exclusive focus in confessing a particular faith. It is far more appropriate therefore to take up worship in the classroom as an element for study within the teaching of RE. Donít pray in school. Instead, strive for boys and girls to understand what it means to worship and pray.

But how? Meeting recently with a group of secondary headteachers I was told by one that it was useless to introduce first year pupils to Hindu and Muslim. festivals because the primary schools have left them ignorant of even Christian festivals. Instead, she said, we must concentrate on the Christian ones so the children would have a point of reference from which to move later on to other faiths. This is a beguiling argument but actually self defeating. For it seeks to explain the unknown in terms of the equally unknown. Prayer and worship, like festivals, may actually entail quite strange language and experience for many children. For in their own family traditions overt religious activity and belonging may scarcely occur. Where then to begin?

The answer in part at least depends on the understanding of religion and worship that we as teachers are working with. If they are perceived as entirely discreet and discontinuous from all other human activity and experience then there will be little prospect of finding related or analogous elements in the everyday lives of children. Being Christian or Muslim means going to the church or mosque; worship is hymn singing or the rituals of Friday prayer. Such definition is evidently accurate, but actually inadequate. If that is the major emphasis, it is questionable what appreciation will be acquired by boys and girls who from home are unaccustomed to such activities. For the purposes of conveying the personal significance of being religious or worshipful, rather, more is needed.

A common example of this failure to connect occurs in primary school text books that speak baldly in less than half a page of the Aztec practice of worshipping the sun. They may even add that human sacrifice was offered to this object of devotion. And then they shift their attention to Aztec pyramids or gold; religion and worship have had their passing reference and attention now properly turns to other things. What is missed in all this is any attempt to explain or explore what might have moved Aztec Indians to focus so much attention on the sun and to be prepared to make gifts of human life itself. But then again if religion and worship are eccentric activities no one need be surprised by bizarre extremities. They can be remarked as such; teachers and taught may express momentary fascination but that will be an end to them in all their strange religiosity. Real living experience is of a different order; that, instead, we can take for granted.

Yet it is commonplace to hear from anthropologists and social psychologists alike that religion and worship are pervasive in human experience ó expressed in myth, ritual and community buildings. Transculturally from tribe to differentiated technological society the human context is shot through with stories and gestures that express dependence and gratitude, regret and praise, and even silent wondering. Though these may sometimes be labelled as religious, often they are not, but sing instead the plain song of humanity, plumbing heights and depths as these unnamed are stumbled on.

It is in this territory that a teacher may choose to dwell in the interests of opening up the genuine glimmer and glow of worship. If so the strategy used may be no less systematic or structured than one that begins with the overt liturgical form of synagogue or gurdwara. For these are ingredients recognisably recurrent across the range of that which is basically human or religious.

We might begin with wishing and hoping. Although estimates of it may differ from one tradition to another, this is common across religion in the form of petitionary prayer. But it is also common to children or adults who might hope against hope that things could be other than they are. Doing the pools, crossing fingers, or pleading before God, have a common core of desire that circumstances might change, and usually for the better. Time would be well spent exploring different ways boys and girls express their hopes, the various forms that the hopes take in terms of desired outcomes, and by what power and force, or intervention, fulfilment might be achieved. It is likely that there would be no shortage of examples from a class.

"Iíve got a lucky cornish pixie at home. If you put it on it gets good luck and when you take it off you donít get any good luck at all . . . I wear it on Sundays, because I always, I never get told off on Sundays if I wear it" (7-year-old girl).

When my mum was young, about 12 to 16 and she see a piece of coal she used to hack it out and wrap it in a hanky and put it in her pocket, it always came lucky to her. She still does it now sometimes, she always keeps an old hanky. And it really works? Yes, I think so (12-year-old boy).

Equally some ranking of hopes according to their greater or lesser worthiness might be tried out. Groups within a class might be encouraged to engage in a classification activity (e.g. self-serving/other serving, material/illuminative) before then going on to weigh their respective significance. Against the background of such activity a direct approach to specific examples of petitionary prayer might become more intelligible than otherwise would have been the case.

A second theme for preliminary exploration might be that of being sorry. Expressions of regret for whatís been done or not done occur within family, between friends, or more occasionally in public life. Examples of each might be described by members of a class in pairs, perhaps orally at first, and later elaborated in letter form. Implicit in such statements will be a sense of individual responsibility for particular actions. Having begun with the experience of regret, it would be appropriate to move on to consider typical responses by the person(s) wronged. Some of these might be more punishing, others more accepting, but again, by pooling examples, a basis in common experience can be arrived at. Building on this base rather more should now emerge from direct reference to specific prayers that express comparable sentiments, as also from reference to any verbal and dramatic expressions of forgiveness that follow. By such means as these fundamental distinctions like that between accepting a person but rejecting certain actions can be exposed, and acts of penitence, individual or collective, better understood.

Being thankful is another theme that would repay this kind of attention. To whom are children commonly thankful and for what? What is the difference between polite thank you and thanks that come from the bottom of someoneís heart? Much thankfulness quite appropriately goes on without any reference to anyone other than the friend/relative/professional peer concerned. Yet there is a deeper sense of thankfulness that can sometimes go beyond the persons immediately involved. This is illustrated by the following extract from a conversation with an eleven-year-old boy who is basically confused about the outward forms of religion and yet perceptive of some deeper meaning within:

Whatís inside a church? A cross . . . I know a church near where we live which has got a bronze statue of the Mona Lisa about five foot tall and a little Jesus hanging on the top. Why has it got a statue of the Mona Lisa? The mother of Joseph who was the father of God. . . have you ever been inside a church? yes. Iíve been to a wedding, and once me, my mum and my friend went in a church and we prayed. Why did you do that? We just prayed because weíre thankful for what weíve got . . . Iíve got a little dog called Santa and it kept on messing on the carpets and my brother came out of the bathroom and put his foot straight in it. Mum was going to take him to be put down ó she had to sign a form and she couldnít do it so she brought him back home and weíve still got him. Iím thankful for that.

An example such as this could relevantly lead on to a consideration of specific songs/hymns/prayers that have been generated by religious believers. Again, the language of a specific hymn or prayer of thanks will often deserve close inspection; so, too, the different forms that individual and collective acts of gratitude might take. A celebration or festival within a family, nation or separate faith community may itself be intended, in part at least, as an act of general thanksgiving. Gifts too may be motivated by a sense of thankful appreciation of another or others.

Praising and cheering, being still and wondering, are some of the other recurrent ingredients of worship. They too deserve to be explored from the everyday human end as well as by reference to explicit religion. Running throughout all the themes however will be the open question of to whom the thanks, the praise, the penitence or the pleading is addressed. Much of the time they will quite simply involve the individual in relation to self or other(s). But within any one of those relationships, there may also be a religious ingredient which sets that humanity in italics as extra special and pointing beyond its own immediately given form.

This pointing beyond, or transcendent quality, is central to worship proper. Thus talk of God, gods, or another world, is now called directly into play. Here too the same investigatory approach which moves from the experience of boys and girls to references that are beyond them is both appropriate and necesary if the question of religious claim to truth is not to be completely dodged. It has been suggested that a variety of classification work is appropriate to arrive at an understanding of the forms of prayer and worship. Equally important would be some analysis of the qualities of transcendence in whatsoever form it is found or affirmed. Thus the God who is believed to be welcoming of human sacrifice may be very different from the God who is healing hospital for humankind; rather closer to a Nazi nationalist cause that is stubbornly indifferent to the wholesale gifts of follow- ersí lives its policies take for granted.

Take the sun: what are its qualities? It generates warmth and light. It is reliable, even predictable. Yet, it is high up and beyond reach; it is outside human control and gives its benefits to poor and rich alike. Without the sun there would be no life, but with it there is also drought and burning.

Take an oak tree. Like the sun itís not of my making. It is strong and bears fruit but it is also vulnerable to disease, fire, old age and the human axe. Itís been known to give shelter and shade. Its roots reach down under our feet but its branches reach way up higher than ten of the tallest humans. It began to grow decades, even centuries, before us and may well continue long after we die. As a tree it is obvious for all to see, but it also bridges into unknown worlds.

Take a nurse: what qualities here? Physical warmth and shelter; bringing light, nourishment and healing potions according to human need. Not just aloof, standing over and beyond, but patient and approaching close and expressing personal care and interest. The nurse is other than you or I but yet somehow nearer to us than tree or sun can ever be. The very nearness in time and space that makes the human closeness possible also restricts the outreach and coverage of nursesí care.

The sun, the tree of life and the healerís companion are all images that have recurred in the religious experience of mankind, as expressions of the immanence and/or transcendence of God. But so too are mountain, river, thunder; manufacturer, destroyer, rescuer; child, wise one and clown. Without first exploring in relation to their own experience the personal thoughts and feelings associated with each, children will have difficulty making any sense of the evocation of god-ness that is variously represented by them. Transcendence with a capital T may not be coterminous with transcendence but the one is apprehended in its correspondence with, as well as its distinction from, the other.

There is in other words a very important activity of moral, humanity-testing scrutiny to be begun with boys and girls if they are ever to fathom for themselves the different doubts and affirmations which move men and women to worship so doggedly in such diversity. Acts of worship in this sense are still central to RE!


The 1988 Education Reform Act leaves no doubt that Worship should be seen as central. There shall be worship every school day, in every school for all pupils up to the age of eighteen. This seems strange for a society which would struggle to find even 1% of adults engaging in public worship every week day. It could have been stranger. Lord Thorneycroft, with all the authority of his former Party Chairmanship, sought a normative prescription of worship comparable to that in his parish church on a Sunday. He was defeated, but the more general prescription stands. There are some other specifications, too. Timing and composition are now more flexible than in 1944: no longer necessarily the whole school together, nor at the beginning of every day, but may be sectionally and at times to suit the school. Whereas previously not defined, now the worship must be wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian nature. Legal interpretation reveals a greater flexibility here than first impression. Mainly means at least half; the content of the rest is left undetermined. The majority category is of a broadly Christian nature. That is, not denominationally specific. It is collective (i.e. assembled together), not corporate (i.e. not presuming equal degrees of participation and belief).

Like the rest of the curriculum, it must be sensitive to age, aptitude and family background; no license here for any empty liturgical routine. And as a fail-save there is the conscience clause, withdrawal rights, for pupils and teachers, plus a facility for sectional majorities of another faith in a particular school to apply for a waiver from the broadly Christian rubric. Schools will understandably look to their LEA SACREs for procedural guidance and examples of good practice, but the law will oblige them to give more attention to worship than previously most have done. In so attending, colleagues may themselves find value in approaching worship where the children are and arising from within the deeper concerns of school and community.

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