A bit less religon please, we’re religious

In yesterday’s Times (paywall), Sarah Tor made the following comments regarding hymns in church schools:

As a Muslim who attended a Christian school, I say it is a mistake to tell Church of England institutions to avoid hymns that contain preachy lyrics in order to ensure inclusivity for all.

I love belting out a good hymn. Tell me to “light up the fire and let the flame burn” and I’ll open the door and let Jesus return. Ask me to “go tell it on the mountain” and I’ll go over the hills and everywhere to say that Jesus Christ is born. I’d make way for the king of kings and, heck, I’d even ask Jesus to shine and fill this land with the Father’s glory. Not once in all my primary school life did I feel excluded while singing these songs because I knew that I was at a Christian school and Jesus was probably going to be a hot topic. It didn’t matter to me and it didn’t matter to my parents that we were singing those songs. If it had mattered, I wouldn’t have been at that school.

And that’s the point. There’s no need to avoid preachy hymns because if a parent — be they atheist or of a different religion — sends their child to a CofE school, they should be aware that they’ll be exposed to Christianity. Besides, singing hymns doesn’t automatically make someone a Christian; it doesn’t even have to mean that that person believes in God. To me, they are just words to music and they can carry some lovely memories. Thank the Lord I learnt them.

The key point is that, if a parent sends their child to a CofE school, they expect (or should expect) that their child will be exposed to Anglican Christianity and probably made to engage with it to some degree. The argument works in reverse too. Those who send their children to state schools expect that their children will be exposed to state orthodoxy. There may be less scope for choice for those without money nor an organisation the size of the CofE to setup their own schools in accordance with their own beliefs (it is little wonder there aren’t many FIEC or Grace Baptist schools). But, in theory, they could set up their own schools if they wish. But the point remains, if you send your children to a state school, you expect them to be taught according to state orthodoxy just like those who opt for CofE schools expect to hear Anglicanism.

None of that should be very surprising to us. Nor should it be that surprising that lots of people send their children to schools that aren’t teaching in line with their deeply held beliefs. It isn’t that those beliefs don’t matter to them, or the contrary foundations from which the school teaches are irrelevant, they just aren’t the ultimate factor in deciding where to send your children. So, lots of non-Anglicans gladly send their children to CofE schools. Lots of Christians gladly send their children to secular state schools. I’ve known Christians send their children to Jewish faith schools and other such places that don’t naturally accord with their beliefs. Lots of Muslims, Hindus, Jews and others gladly send their children to all these too. There are all sorts of reasons why and as many reasons offered as to how to deal with the different teachings they will engage. But it happens all the time without much fuss.

So far, so unsurprising. So why comment on this at all? Specifically because of who it was making the calls to tone down the Anglicanism in CofE schools. It wasn’t, as you might well imagine, the National Secular Society or Humanists UK or some such. It wasn’t even the government who ocassionally decide views they don’t like are being propagated a bit too far and wide and try to rein it in. Nor was it OfSTED who particularly enjoy doing that. No, the cause of consternation over Anglicanism being taught in faith schools was the Church of England themselves.

This is, in microcosm, something of the issue with the Church of England. One gets the impression that they are more embarrassed about their own religion than anyone else. Better tone down the hymns, seem a bit less preachy and try to put the mockers on anything too Anglican-sounding was coming from the Church of England apropos of nothing. It seems to be the fear of causing offence that hasn’t been caused that leads them to apologise for doing exactly what everybody thought they were signing up to them doing in the first place.

But this isn’t a unique problem for the Church of England. It seems to be a peculiarly liberal problem. For fear of appearing to actually believe anything in particular, they create objections of their own imaginings and then desperately seek to fend them off even though nobody has actually made them. For fear of potentially offending someone, they make sure they don’t come across too strong and tone down everything they believe – to the point of neutering it altogether – making everybody wonder, in the end, what actually is the difference between what they believe and the state school down the road? Ditto as that same logic infects their churches.

If you are the sort of person who sends their children a church school and begins to get offended when that church school begins to say the kind of things one might hear in a church, there are really only two possibilities. Either you are complete cretin for not expecting it or you are a vexatious type who, knowing exactly what to expect, were merely waiting for the opportunity to kick off about it. In either case, it is hard to take you or your complaint seriously; the Bible does have something to say about the value of engaging with such people.

Just as it is with church schools, I can’t help thinking it goes with our churches. In the end, is it credible to kowtow and pander to either the vexatious or the stupid? Those who have decided the answer to that question is ‘yes’ have found themselves essentially neutered and doing the equivalent of the CofE schools flapping about for fear that, as a religious organisation, they might end up looking a bit too religious in eyes of those who make plain that they hate religion in all its forms. In a bid to please, or at least not offend, those whose only goal is to see your complete and utter eradication, more and more compromise is made. But in the end, such moves do not safeguard your church or school and instead simply grant those seeking to shut you down, or make you utterly ineffective, or get you to adopt their views, their wish.

Those who object to faith schools need not go to them. Those who object to churches, mosques or synagogues need not go to them either. Trying to make ourselves palatable to those who don’t want to come specifically because of what we are is a fools errand. The only way to attract them is to change what you are into something more appealing to them. The best we can hope for in doing that is to become a poor copy of something they already prefer. But in so following that path, we may look a lot more like something they prefer (even if a poor imitation of it), we will stop looking anything like what we are supposed to be.

As Jesus said:

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt should lose its taste, how can it be made salty? It’s no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city situated on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket, but rather on a lampstand, and it gives light for all who are in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”