23 DECEMBER 1972, Page 14


Christianity in the schools

Edward Norman

It is now about a year since a complaint that a modern hymn book in use at a London comprehensive school expressed ' left-wing ' bias was crushingly dismissed by the authorities. The incident was not as minor as it might seem, for the hymnal concerned is now quite widely used in schools, and the calculations upon which it was introduced to the children in the first place appear more commonplace than ever. The book is called New Life and is published by the Galliard Press. Its editor is the London Secretary of the Christian Education Movement. Some of the hymns are familiar, but many others dwell upon the contemporary interests of race, war, the costs of defence, the inequalities of society, and a variety of what are thought of as social injustices. Some children, for example, must start the school day by singing: Polaris subs, atomic bombs; Germ research in progress. That's the way the money goes What price the homeless?

Or perhaps this:

Christ the Lord has gone to heaven, One day He'll be coming back, sir. In this house He will be welcome, But we hope he won't be black, sir.

In fact these hymns are just an

expression of the romanticised radicalism of a section of middle-class opinion. They concentrate upon the issues which disturb the consciences of some contemporary reformers. They are contrived and folksy. " The words," in the discernment of the editor of New Life, "should be meaningful,

relevant and capable of being understood by schoolchildren." It is, perhaps, just possible that a number of middle-class children might have elicited enough from their parents to imagine what some of these allusive hymns are about, but most children will have to have the words explained to them by their teachers. It is then that the real filters of political prejudice will begin to operate in the schools. How many of our teachers, for example, are going to explain that devotional songs about too much being spent on defence budgets are merely expressing an ephemeral polemicism?

Most, unhappily, like the authorities who sustained the book, will rationalise their emotions and announce that the hymns have a self-evident morality. So it was with the recent admission by the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company that the Company was "basically left-wing." When pressed, he modified this into saying that they had "a social conscience." New Life indicates that this sort of absurdity is being introduced to children in the schools. They are to be left with the impression that only those whose sense of social responsibility reveals itself in the common vocabulary of the contemporary Left are authentic in their sensitivity to the needs of humanity. It is an untruth.

A number of the hymns in this collection are merely tasteless. Some more recently published selections are similar. A new hymn book entitled Youth Praise Workshop 72 sponsored by the Church Pastoral Aid Society, for example, contains a Christmas hymn about a policeman who arrests the Virgin Mary on the streets of Bethlehem in the supposition that she is, in the words of the hymn, "on the game." One wonders how the teachers will explain that to the children. New Life at least, has a hidden capitalistic purpose: the lyrics are all copyright — including, astonishingly, the Lord's Prayer. Some of the authors of these pieces, (though not, it is hoped, the Author of this last one) have rather let the cat out of the bag by taking part in a Christmas holiday conference, organised by the Student Christian Movement this January, called 'The Seeds of Liberation.' The purpose of this gathering is not disguised. "For most Christians, the last decade has been dominated by questions of politics," runs the advertisement sent out to the universities and schools. "It's pretty sae to say that the debate in principle is over and for a great number of Christians a new spiritual home has been found in the (extra-parliamentary) political community." They do, however, go on to admit that "we cannot live by Marx alone," and only one Anglican bishop is taking part in the proceedings.

Although it may be possible for some to rationalise their political intentions by interpreting their propaganda as just an expression of an agreed universal morality there can be no doubt that the entire enterprise demonstrates once again the widening gap between middle-class radicalism and the ordinary assumptions of working-class people — people who, in general, look to the schools to furnish their children with the simple foundations of the recognisable Christianity they themselves received. However infrequently the people may give institutional expression to this deposit of belief it is evidently what they wish for their children.

For most, perhaps, Christianity is equated with ' decency '; but it is an ethic — still the one that least divides society —which is related to a heavenly world of aspirations, transcending in some inarticulate manner the passing sensations of life on earth. Those now inhabiting the secularised world of middle-class radicalism who doubt this had better go back to the people to refresh their memories. It is only a few years since an opinion poll revealed that over 90 per cent of the parents in England wanted Christian instruction to be retained in the state schools. Educational theorists at the time discounted this on the grounds that if the parents didn't go to church themselves their opinions were not worth considering in this matter. It was a crude thing to have done, which did immense injustice to the aspirations of ordinary people. Men should always be judged not by what they are, but by what they are trying to become — and this is especially important when considering what they hope their children will become.

The whole issue now has some urgency. The will to give sound Christian instruction in the schools is being eroded by teachers who themselves lack a taste for it, regarding the scripture lessons as either the fag-end of the timetable or else (for the new establishment) an exercise in social impropriety. These last suppose that in this 'pluralistic' society of competing groups with differing moral beliefs it is illiberal and unfair to give Christianity a preference. If they would talk to workingclass people, they would find little support for the leading premises of pluralism. It is a middle-class concept. The will to preserve the essentials of Christian teaching in the schools is dying among churchmen too. Some reflect the contemporary prejudices of the intellectuals, and some others are now so conscious of a sectarian self-identification that they regard religion as 'too sacred to be left to the judgement of those less capable than themselves. It is a sad situation.

In many schools today morning assembly begins with readings from the great moral exemplars of the age — like Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or J. F. Kennedy — rather than with Bible readings; ' religious ' instruction is often all about social questions. And then there are the New Life hymns. Whose instincts are being catered for in all this? Is it the children and their parents, or is it those given to the obsessional prejudices of current intellectual fashion?

There are at present those in Church and State who wish to see Christianity removed from the schools altogether. It is to be replaced by general teaching about religion: all the world religions, in fact. A

total relativism. Regardless of the residual convictions of their parents, children are to be encouraged to shop around and

"think for themselves." But no child really ' thinks for himself,' and this sort of

apparent relativism is in the end just a

device by groups with very determined beliefs to get these across to the children in the manner which least draws public attention to the changes involved. Those who really do believe in their values, as Christians have always known, are not liable to treat them as a sort of luxury hypothesis which you may lay before the untutored judgement of the young.

Edward Norman is the Dean of Peterhouse,