Some Thoughts on Education and the Christian Faith

The sixteenth century and after

In the 16th century Martin Luther said, “there is no work more worthy of pope or emperor than a thorough reform of the universities … I would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme. Every institution that does not unceasingly pursue the study of God’s word becomes corrupt.”

In the 17th century the Puritan John Milton, the author of the hugely influential tractate Of Education (and so a Father of modern English education), said, “the reforming of education … be one of the greatest and noblest designs that can be brought on, and for the want thereof the nation perishes.” He then went on to explain his philosophy: “The end of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection.” But this was not just to prepare students for heaven. Like a good Christian humanist he married the Bible to the best of the Greek and Roman classical educational traditions. For he wanted: “a complete and generous education … which fits a man to perform justly, skilfully and magnanimously all the offices both private and public, of peace and war”.

In the 18th century John Wesley wrote approvingly in his Journal of the new Sunday school movement that followed the evangelical revival, with its schools teaching not only the Bible but other subjects as well: “I find these schools springing up wherever I go.”

In the 19th century King George III commended new Christian schools saying, “It is my wish that every poor child in my dominions shall be taught to read the Bible.” Also in the 19th century Wilberforce along with attacking slavery was promoting the cause of universal Christian education in Parliament. It was said, he set out to do “within the church and near the throne what Wesley had accomplished in the meeting room and amongst the multitude.”

The twentieth century

In the 20th century in Britain, as the Second World War was drawing to a close, the 1944 Education Act was truly “education for all”; but it maintained the partnership of “Christianity and State” which had existed since Henry VIII and Edward VI had founded their schools and that was renewed with an Education Act of 1870. So when Lord Selbourne introduced in the House of Lords the 1944 Bill defending its Christian ethos and with Hitler still undefeated, he said: “The real enemy is naked materialistic paganism which has reared its head in Europe to a height unknown for a 1,000 years which threatens Christianity today and with it our civilization, our homes and our people ... Anglo-Saxon democracy would perish without the Christian ethic and unless we are brought up to be a God-fearing Christian nation, all our vaunted progress in other directions will crumble into dust.”

But then came the 1960s. In the UK there was, amongst young people especially, a social and cultural revolution that led to a reversal of many Christian standards and values. New attitudes to crime, children, the family, sex and marriage, as well as to class, race and religion were generated. Some of these changes were neutral, some were welcome, but too many were most unwelcome. Those that have led to the erosion of the Christian faith and ethics have had quite disastrous effects. On the one hand, in terms of sexual morals and the breakdown of marriage, damaged children have been a result; and on the other hand, in terms of greed and corruption, the current financial emergencies are a result. Nevertheless, at the end of the 60s many schools were still standing firm on not conceding their Christian ethos. Newcastle schools were standing firm when I arrived in Jesmond in 1973. The previous year (1972) there was a new Newcastle Agreed Syllabus of Religious Education, the senior section of which was copied from the Northamptonshire Education Committee’s Syllabus. Of course, it included teaching about other religions. But it first listed its “Aims”. They were as follows:

1) To help the pupils towards an understanding of the Christian Faith in Jesus Christ as “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14.6), and to provide a basis from which they may move toward the belief that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing they may have life through his name” (John 20.31).

2) To enable pupils to discover how the Christian Faith has been practised in the past, and how it is to be practised today by relating the individual’s life in the community etc. to Christ’s standards of life and work.

3) To enable pupils to appreciate the nature and mission of the Christian Church and its role in relation to the Kingdom of God.

4) To encourage an understanding of the Bible as the Word of God “bearing witness, from the beginning to the end, of the truth about God and man, and man’s destiny as God has made it known in history” (J.S.Whale).

5) To draw attention to the literary value of the versions of the Bible and its cultural influences.

But, then, in the 80s things changed – radically. Suddenly schools had to face attempts to institutionalise new extremisms. First, there emerged the extremism of those aggressively promoting post-modern philosophies of relativism and unrestrained sexual individualism. Then there was a new Muslim extremism emerging that employed public violence. This followed the return in 1979 of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran. The result was a loss of Christian nerve. A number of people were passively (and irrationally) promoting multi-faithism, while the theologically liberal leadership of the Protestant churches, including the Church of England, seemed incapable of any response. That was when the (then) Bishop of Durham was denying the virginal conception of Jesus and doubting his empty tomb while others were noisily wanting the Church to validate homosexual relationships.

The Swann Report

The dam broke with a Government Report, the Swann Report of 1985. Produced by a committee set up to enquire “into the Education of Children from Ethnic Minority Groups”, it sounded innocent but was in fact dynamite. 700 pages long it was read by few, except those wanting quotes for their new “multi-faith” agendas. It concluded that there were three approaches to religion in schools: one, “the Confessional” or Dogmatic Approach whose aim is “intellectual and cultic indoctrination” (a quite unfair pejorative description); two, the Anti-dogmatic Approach which sees religion as part of the history syllabus; and, three, (the favourite of the committee) the “Phenomenological” or Undogmatic Approach, where the aim is “the promotion of understanding. It uses the tools of scholarship in order to enter into an emphatic (sic!) experience of the faith of individuals and groups. It does not seek to promote any one religious viewpoint but it recognizes that the study of religion must transcend the merely informative.” The committee wanted this third (and rather incoherent) approach adopted in our schools for the sake of “ethnic minorities” (the non-Christian percentage of whom were representing at most 5% of the population). Many schools complied. However, in the 1988 Education Reform Act the embryonic Christian Institute, working with Lady Cox and the (then) Bishop of London, helped get the current Christian clauses passed that insist on school collective worship that is to be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” and that religious education is to “reflect the fact that the religious traditions in Great Britain are in the main Christian, while taking account of the teachings and practices of the other principal religions represented in Great Britain” (of course, there were freedoms for various opt outs).

This was “ambulance” action at best. But at least it allowed, and allows, strong head teachers to take a school in a Christian direction. If it is not so taken, it, of course, is not neutral. To treat all religions as the same apart from “experience” is to teach a positive belief. But to initiate impressionable children into such a belief that ignores truth values, is nothing less than intellectual child-abuse. For the child is brought up to think it wrong to ask questions regarding the truth or error of religious teaching. It does not matter what the teaching at home is. Because of the hours spent in the school environment and with other anti-Christian propositions regularly expressed, the child is going to find it hard not to assume these propositions are correct. Conviction, even when you know others are wrong, requires social support (cf the Asch Conformity Experiment). Has not the time come, then, for parents, led by Christian parents, to challenge the State educational monopoly that leads to what has been called, “captive children”? We should thank the State for assisting the Church in the middle of the 19th century and then, in partnership, through to the middle of the 20th century, for enabling education for all. But we should remind politicians that the State in the Western educational tradition was not seen as a mechanism for Governments unilaterally to mould children. That is totalitarian. The Biblical aspect of that Western tradition has seen parents as essential in the educational process. For it is not “children” alone who have to be considered, but “children in the family” as the family is essential for a child’s education.


These and other reasons surely mean we need a Clayton Academy to help pioneer a new phase of Christian Education, committed to excellence and accessible to all wanting it. So we thank the current Government for the possibility of Christian Free Schools and increasing parent choice.

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