Parents who do not want their children to be taught Christianity will still be able to withdraw them from RE lessons and assemblies.
Schools have paid too little attention in the past to their pupils' spiritual, moral and cultural education, the draft circular from the Department for Education says.
It follows criticism from ministers and from pressure groups who feared that multi-culturalism was being allowed to erode the teaching of Christianity. At present, local committees are responsible for drawing up RE syllabuses.
Reports from Her Majesty's Inspectors of schools suggest that in a third of primary schools RE teaching is confined to assemblies. In two-thirds of primary schools the work is considered poor. Standards are higher in secondary schools.
A survey by the National Curriculum Council this year found that none of the country's local syllabuses for RE met the requirements of the law. The document spells out the requirements of the 1993 Education Act, which says both RE and daily worship in schools must be predominantly Christian.
Pupils must receive a grounding in the country's Christian heritage as well as some knowledge of other principal religions, it says. In many schools, too little time is spent on RE, and what is provided is of too low a quality.
John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, has ordered national model syllabuses in RE. Schools will be expected to adopt one of these, but will be allowed to take into account the different religions of their pupils.
Church groups welcomed the new guidelines yesterday, but teachers' unions criticised them for failing to take the multi-cultural nature of many schools into account.
The Rev Dr Stephen Orchard, director of the Christian Education Movement, said: 'People may have queries about particular details, but it seems to me that this government has done more in practical terms to push RE along than anyone has for some years.'
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said the rules would lead to more parents withdrawing children. 'Local communities have worked together to achieve locally agreed syllabuses which are appropriate to their areas. People feel involved with and responsible for these agreements, and now they are being set aside in the interests of Mr Patten's views.'
Ibrahim Hewitt, assistant director of the Muslim Educational Trust, said most Muslims would prefer their children to be educated in Islam first and in other religions afterwards. 'An enforcement like this restricts flexibility, but it is probably going to be ignored rather than followed.'