But one thing accepted by everyone - except a few nonconformists and freethinkers and socialists - was that all schools should have religious worship and religious instruction, and it was assumed that this should be Christian. Adults could no longer be forced to worship, but schoolchildren could.
However, one of the sharpest points at issue was the general problem that people do not agree about religion, even in a Christian country, and the particular problem that people do not approve of their children being exposed to alien religious propaganda, especially in an educational institution.
This difficulty was resolved by a double compromise - the religion in the new schools which supplemented the church schools should not be "distinctive of any particular denomination", and there should be a "conscience clause" allowing parents to withdrawchildren even from worship or instruction. The system we now have reflects this century-old compromise - which is considered to be so desirable that the law requires all schools to enforce it, and yet so objectionable that the law also recognises the right of pupils to be withdrawn from it.
The many objections to this system have recently become embarrassingly obvious. A new problem is that an increasing number of people follow non-Christian religions, especially where there are large Asian communities. An older and bigger problem is that an increasing number of people in Britain have no religion - about one third, according to the latest surveys.
It is not so easy to arrange for non-religious worship, even if there can be such a thing. Some progressive educationists - including many humanists involved in education - have responded by interpreting "worship" in a non-religious sense, according to its original meaning of "worthship" (the recognition of worth or worthiness): but this usage is obsolete, and etymological casuistry is unworthy of such a serious issue. The fact is that the standard meaning of worship is "reverence or veneration paid to a being or power regarded as supernatural or divine", as recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary and recognised in courts of law.
An educational problem is that more and more teachers and educationists doubt whether religious worship is a proper school activity, any more than political meetings would be. It is true most parents are said to want school worship, and most media commentators say they want it, too. Yet how many go to church themselves, or send their children, or practise religion at home? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that school religion is prescribed as the opium of the pupils.
A religious problem is that even many believers are uncertain about school worship. Sincere Christians are in the uncomfortable position that compulsory worship is a self-contradiction. When religious leaders say school worship devalues true worship, they deserve to be listened to more than usual. It has been said that school worship damages religion itself, and cynical unbelievers have welcomed it accordingly, but this is not a serious response.
The final problem is what kind of society this is. Britain was a Christian country for more than 1,000 years, but it is not any more, and school worship can neither keep nor make it so. The most Christian part of the UK is Northern Ireland, where religious education has been a factor in the polarisation of communities.
Several Christian countries have secular education, and the United States, which is far more Christian than we are, has a constitutional ban on religion in state schools. We are told that school worship is part of our heritage, but a more important part is the freedom of religion we have enjoyed for three centuries - and that includes freedom from religion. The place for worship is not school but church, synagogue, mosque, temple and home.
There is no problem about what schools should have instead of worship. Regular meetings of all the members of any institution are a good thing and school assemblies can do many things: celebrate the corporate identity of the school and the shared values of the community, display the abilities and achievements of the pupils, present songs and plays and readings. There is no need for the law here and no place for supernatural belief. Schools should concentrate on what unites us, not what divides us.
If a national education system were being established now, there would be no worship in schools - though there would be proper education about religion and morality, as about everything else. We cannot go back to the beginning, but we can go forward in asensible way.
The writer is managing director of the Rationalist Press Association.Reuse content