It’s an oft-forgotten fact that seems at odds with Britain’s claims of religious freedom: Since the inception of the 1944 Education Act, all publicly-funded primary schools across Britain are required to hold a daily act of collective worship that is “broadly Christian in nature.”
Collective Christian worship in public schools has been a longstanding concern among British secularists and children’s rights organizations, even drawing a few high profile lawsuits and a UN recommendation to repeal the mandate. While the law is often ignored by public schools, government officials announced in 2021 that they would indeed investigate allegations that the mandate was being violated.
But recent Census data on the country’s changing religious demographics, plus a new landmark government-funded report, demands a renewed reconsideration of the law’s place in a modern U.K.
“The Church of England knows it’s fighting a losing battle against the decline of Christianity in the U.K.,” says Megan Manson, an advocate for secular values at the National Secular Society.
“Forcing Christian worship in schools helps to legitimise its place in public life by normalizing it from the moment a British citizen starts school. There’s a vague hope that compelling schools to hold daily acts of collective worship may slow Christianity’s decline by encouraging children to become Christians.”
“The Church of England knows it’s fighting a losing battle against the decline of Christianity in the U.K. Forcing Christian worship in schools helps to legitimise its place in public life.”
Late last year, data from the nation’s newest census revealed that England is no longer a Christian-majority country, with less than 50% of Britons now identifying as Christian. According to the 2021 census results, only 7.5 million people in England and Wales identify as Christian – 5.5 million fewer than 2011, when the last census took place. The number of practising Christians regularly attending church in the U.K. has also decreased to 5%.
“Each successive generation is somewhat less religious than the one before,” says demographer and sociologist of religion David Voas. “This is a phenomenon that’s been observed at least in the Western world since the late 19th century…[but] the church is still very active in all sorts of spheres of public life, with education being the most obvious of them.”
Should that be the case? Britain’s growing pool of secularist and non-Christian voices say such data demands the government rethink the longstanding relationship between the church and state, particularly when it comes to education.
So, too, does Britain’s outgoing government faith engagement advisor Colin Bloom, former head of Conservative Christian Fellowship group, which helped put religion at the forefront of the party’s agenda.
Nearly four years in the making, Bloom’s new 165-page state-funded report “Does Government Do God?” examines how the government can better engage and deal with faith groups in the U.K. Outlining deep public concerns relating to religious radicalization and child abuse, the report urged greater government oversight over unregistered and unregulated faith-based schools — including “out-of-school settings” such as Jewish yeshivas, Islamic madrassas and Sunday schools.
Bloom’s views largely reflect those of his boss, Michael Gove, head of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. Following the so-called Trojan Horse affair, Gove, who was education secretary when the scandal erupted, was outspoken about the need to prevent British madrasas – Islamic educational institutions – from spreading religious extremism and have all schools promote so-called “British values.” The 2013 Trojan Horse affair was a national scandal that set off when the Birmingham City Council received an anonymous letter – believed to be correspondence between Muslims plotting to take over local schools and run them with strict Islamic laws.
The letter was debunked as a fake, but allegations made as a result led to emergency inspections from Ofsted, the U.K.’s regulatory agency for education, of 21 Islamic schools. Several schools saw their ratings drop from outstanding to inadequate, and about 15 teachers faced disciplinary action (which was dismissed in all but one case).
The main concern about these schools: They had become “too Islamic” – that they had crossed the boundary of compulsory religious education. But in an education system that is not secular, such as Britain’s, where is that boundary?
Indeed, when former Prime Minister David Cameron wanted to clamp down on Islamic madrasas, he only stopped when Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby warned that doing so would make running Sunday schools harder.
About 25% of primary schools in Britain are Church of England schools. If the government increases its scrutiny of Islamic, Jewish and other independent religious schools, then it is only fair that the government apply the same standards and scrutiny to Christian schools.
If the government increases its scrutiny of Islamic, Jewish and other independent religious schools, then it is only fair that the government apply the same standards and scrutiny to Christian schools.
With Christianity no longer a majority, it seems especially important to turn our attention toward disentangling Christianity from public schooling – rather than targeting the country’s growing population of Muslims and other religious minorities.
Despite being a democracy, the U.K. is the only Western nation where collective ‘Christian’ prayer at school is a legal requirement. Mandating that children collectively pray in a “Christian” manner, experts say, will inevitably lead to inequality and discrimination against children who hold different religious beliefs.
“All state-funded schools should be inclusive places where children and families from all faith and belief backgrounds are treated equally,” Manson says. “If collective worship laws exist, this can never be realized. That’s why they need to be repealed urgently.”
Advocates of church-state separation believe that the mandate violates every child’s right to free thought, conscience and religion, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In fact, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly called upon the U.K. to “repeal legal provisions for compulsory attendance at collective worship in publicly funded schools.”
Just a few weeks ago, at the coronation of King Charles, the monarch was anointed with holy oil and swore an oath to “maintain the Protestant Reformed religion established by law and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof.”
But King Charles, in attempting to reflect the religious diversity of Britain, has also suggested he seeks to be a defender of all faiths. In an interview explaining this view, he described his desire to ensure inclusion of other people’s faiths and reflect their freedom to worship in this country.
This inclusion and freedom should be clear in all aspects of society – starting with morning assemblies at Britain’s public schools.