I’m collecting the essays day by day in big batches from a post office in central London. By the end of this month, when the deadline arrives, there will be hundreds and hundreds of them, and I’ve already made arrangements, as I do every year, for a team of judges to meet at a venue in the country to read through them all and start the process that will produce a group of winners.
What is all this about? It is the Schools Bible Project, sponsored by an ecumenical Christian group that brings together representatives of the mainstream Christian denominations in Britain. In 2010, the Project marked its 21st year, and it’s going strong and looks set to have a good future.
The Project is designed as a service to schools. Pupils are invited to study six incidents from the New Testament and then to choose one and write about it as if they had actually been present. The very first Project was called simply, “I was there!” It has been the essential theme ever since. This year, there was a particular focus to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Pupils may choose to use this version of the Bible for the Project if they wish, although they may also choose a more modern translation.
Pupils of different faiths — and none — take part in the Project. The winners come to London for a prize-giving ceremony, usually at the House of Lords, where our trustee Baroness Cox gives out the prizes and commemorative certificates. The winners get cash prizes for their schools, as well as Bibles and other book prizes for themselves. They come with their families and teachers, and we all have tea and a special cake, photographs and a general celebration.
The idea behind the Schools Bible Project is not to convert pupils to Christianity. It is simply a matter of good education and common sense. It is impossible to understand Britain’s history, traditions, and common life without a grasp of what Christianity is all about. All sorts of things — from the names of our towns and cities, to pub signs, nursery rhymes, jokes, and everyday language — are rooted in a culture that owes its origins to the Christian Faith, which was brought to Britain when we were a province of the Roman Empire, and brought again when the pagan Angles and Saxons arrived and were converted in their turn.
Christianity is not excluded from schools in Britain. On the contrary: Religious education is meant to be part of the curriculum in every school, and aspects of the Christian faith are meant to be taught alongside the other major world religions.
We need to be more realistic and confident about the role of Christianity in schools. For centuries, the only education offered in Britain outside of individual families was offered through the Church. Today, Catholic and Church of England schools are hugely popular. They receive public funding because they fulfill a public service and are always over-subscribed. But Christianity also has a role — albeit a quite different one — in ordinary state schools. Pupils have a right to know about Christianity, and a right to have it taught well.
Opposition to the teaching of Christianity in schools does not come from those committed to other faiths. Jewish, Islamic, and Hindu spokesmen do not oppose it; they are much more likely to be concerned about some of the crude materials being foisted on children in schools under the guise of “sex education.” They seek an understanding of the role that religious faith plays in human existence, and a recognition of the importance of respecting it.
If we truly respect religious freedom, we must respect religion. Young people in modern Britain have a right to be given the chance to grasp something of the spiritual heritage of the nation in which they are living. They can learn to be tolerant if they understand that spiritual truths do matter. In this anniversary year of the King James Bible, the beauty and poetry of its language is something that should be allowed to enrich their minds and lift their hearts.
What about Catholic schools? Their popularity in modern Britain is of great significance. Parents like them because they appear to offer things that have been neglected or downplayed in education generally over recent years: traditions, a specific sense of purpose and direction, a sense of spiritual heritage. They still have prayers, celebrations for the traditional feasts of the Christian year, links with the local and wider Church. In fact, their very popularity has produced tensions in recent years: How to make fair and just decisions on which children to admit? On what basis should this be done? It has become a cliché to note that non-practicing Catholics start to attend Mass and get involved in local parish life when they want to get their children into a popular and over-subscribed local Catholic school. A priest’s signature and some evidence of regular Mass attendance is a standard requirement for entrance.
But Catholic schools have their passionate critics: The National Secular Society is infuriated by the fact that they receive public funds. Others argue that Catholic schools are divisive and urge that they should be forced to take a quota of non-Catholic pupils — a policy that would lead to a ridiculous situation where the children of practicing Catholic families would be denied places in favor of children whose parents were indifferent or antagonistic to the faith.
Overall, the picture is one that should give Christians heart. The popularity of Catholic schools suggests that, in general, the Church is seen to be offering something of quality in education. Not all are good, of course: We have all known of Catholic schools where the religious instruction is poor or confused, or where there are forms of sex education that are not in accordance with the Church’s teaching. And even in a good school a child can be unhappy, or parents can find that his specific needs are not met, or there can be appalling behavior or bullying.
But we need to grasp the principle that the Church’s position in the common life of a country like Britain is such that Church-based schools have a right to a place in the community. They contribute to the common good. And they thus send out a message that should be heeded: Christianity and education have a bond that should not be severed.
Pope John Paul II said “The Church proposes; she does not impose.” When he went from country to country on his great missionary journeys, crowds flocked to greet him; the whole nation was caught up in the drama of the visit. The Christian message has a place in the public square, and the school system is entitled to reflect that reality. Children have a right to be taught the best of our heritage, and to know about the great spiritual things that have inspired generations.
Image: Reuters/Tony Gentile