The syllabus on religious education, which since 1944 had been the only compulsory subject in British schools, was to be stiffened. But ministers were also concerned that daily worship had been allowed to slip out of school assemblies, as creeping secularism and increasing numbers of pupils from non-Christian faiths had destroyed something in school life.
"It is because such an act of worship can perform an important function in binding together members of a school and helping to develop their sense of community that we make collective worship a statutory requirement," said the government minister Baroness Hooper, when the measure was debated in the House of Lords.
But since 1988 the decline has continued. School inspectors report that 40 per cent of schools are failing to fulfil their statutory requirements. Surveys among head teachers indicate that as many as 80 per cent are unwilling to conduct a formal act of worship.
Now even the Archbishop of York is suggesting that daily religious observance should be abandoned lest perfunctory worship, conducted by teachers who do not themselves necessarily believe, turns children off religion. "Poor school worship can actually have an anti-religious effect," he said this week. "It would probably be an advantage to have less school worship, but of a better quality."
Perhaps even more surprisingly the Evangelical Alliance, which speaks on behalf of more than a million of the nation's most theologically conservative churchgoers, yesterday backed his proposal. It has called for the frequency of school worship to be reduced to twice a week and said that parents should have to opt in rather than out of school services.
Ironically, the decline has been promoted by the very legislation designed to arrest it, according to John Hull, the professor of religious education at the University of Birmingham, who edits the British Journal of Religious Education.
"Spirituality in schools is being throttled by a theological noose fashioned by civil servants," he says. The problem arises from the insistence in Section 7 of the 1988 Act that school worship should be "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character".
The process of theological definition invited by that phrase - what exactly is allowed within "wholly", "mainly" and "broadly" - ineluctably materialised with questions from various Christian denominations as well as from the Jewish Board of Deputies andMuslim and Sikh groups. Education officials gave a series of answers that led them steadily into deeper water. The result has been what Hull calls a "hopeless muddle", which ordinary heads and boards of governors are not equipped to disentangle.
The muddle was exacerbated by the attentions of the last education secretary, John Patten. Ignoring Denis Healey's first rule of politics - when in a hole, stop digging - he set out to clarify the situation with a document known as Circular 1/94. Worship, it said, could include non-Christian elements. "It must, however, contain some elements which relate specifically to the traditions of Christian belief and which accord a special status to Jesus Christ."
Every clarification begged another. The special status of Jesus - as part of the triune godhead of Father, Son and Holy Ghost - swiftly brought the debate to the two most fundamental doctrines of Christianity: the Incarnation and the Trinity. Muslims andJews objected. They could accept Jesus as a teacher or prophet but not as a begotten son of God.
And, religious groups asked Patten and his theologically-floundering civil servants, if the Christian God was being worshipped only most of the time, what was the nature of the God being worshipped when the assembly was not "mainly Christian"?
"It has led to an endless series of theological distinctions which has reached medieval proportions,'' says Hull. Reference began to be made to the old Reformation joke about disputations on the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.
Small wonder that most teachers decided simply to let the whole matter lapse. The National Association of Head Teachers, which has campaigned for a change in the law, surveyed its members last year: 79 per cent of heads thought government expectations unrealistic.
"Headteachers don't like to be in a position of law-breaking," says Arthur de Caux, the association's assistant secretary. "Most of our members would be happy to hold assemblies dealing with moral affairs and most feel it is important that religious education should be on the timetable to enable young people to understand what it means to be a practising religious person. But they regard this law as both impractical and educationally undesirable."
John Hull's solution is to repeal Section 7 and replace the requirement for an act of collective worship with one of collective spirituality that draws on the common aspects of all faiths. The Archbishop of York and the Evangelical Alliance would prefer to see less frequent but more authentic worship sessions.
But these solutions are not without their detractors. A number of Tory MPs insist that Christian worship is essential to building an understanding of British culture. How can today's children understand Milton without a detailed knowledge of Chris- tianity, they ask. And to ask how many children read Milton anyway these days does nothing to satisfy the objections of those who complain about the shifting moral relativism of much contemporary thought. For that, they argue, worship, and not simply study ofcomparative religion, is essential.
Those, such as the Archbishop of York, who argue for quality rather than quantity, are living in a fool's paradise according to Colin Hart, the director of the Evangelical Christian Institute, which may not represent the huge numbers affiliated to the Evangelical Alliance but makes up for the fact through its voluble spokesmen. "He is naive to assume that reducing the number of days on which religious assembly is required will lead to an overall increase in school worship," he says. "It won't - it will lead to its near elimination."
To date, the political impetus remains with such voices. John Major has insisted he had no plans to alter the law. Privately cabinet ministers insist the line will not change.
In response the Evangelical Alliance has written to the Prime Minister offering to provide ministers or lay people to conduct acts of worship in schools where head teachers are reluctant to do so. But in the end the church feels that will not be the answer.
In the coming weeks the Churches Joint Education Policy Committee, which has representatives from all denominations, is to meet the education secretary, Gillian Shephard, to press for change. "An inflexible law that no one adheres to, will," says Keith Ewing of the Alliance, "like the Sunday trading law, eventually be abolished."Reuse content