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Abolishing the Collective Act of Worship

Abolishing the Collective Act of Worship

The debate about the role of religion in schools is a fractious one, and often creates more heat than light. Therefore I’m really pleased to see the Westminster Faith Debates, led by Linda Woodhead and Charles Clarke, publish a thoughtful series of recommendations around the intersection of religion and belief and education.

These recommendations are wide ranging and include nationalising the religious education syllabus to bring it into line with other subjects and ensuring “religious instruction…does not take place within the school day”. The recommendation that has sparked the most headlines, however, is the suggestion that the statutory requirement for times of Collective Worship should be abolished. 

Currently, all maintained schools, whether community schools or schools of a religious character schools, must provide “daily collective worship” which is “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”. However, large numbers of them fail to do so - for instance, a 2011 ComRes poll suggests only 28% of pupils were attending daily worship.

Woodhead and Clarke recommend that given the increasing religious pluralism of the population and the failure of schools or indeed OFSTED to enforce this legal requirement, it should be dropped and instead the form and character of school assemblies should be left to school governors. Every school would be required to set out their statement and strategy for promoting Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education on which they would be inspected, with “school community assemblies” as an important part of that strategy.

There are various possible Christian responses to this. One is the defensive approach, seeing this as simply the next step in the ongoing erosion of our Christian heritage. Christian collective worship should stay because we are a Christian nation. Many Christians would reject this, aware as they are of changing demographics and how unhelpful it is when Christians claim influence by “right”.

There is, however, a more nuanced and realistic version of this that would defend Christian collective worship in schools because of its potential positive impact. There is something powerful about the collective. The things we do together, and do repeatedly, form us. The American Professor of Philosophy James K. A. Smith has set out this argument most strongly in his book Desiring the Kingdom. He discusses “cultural liturgies”- the things we in 21st century society do together again and again, and how they shape us. Going shopping, attending regular sports events, or simply all sitting down to watch X-Factor on a Saturday night, leave their mark on us, he thinks, in ways that teaching and rational engagement with ideas do not. A school assembly, done day after day, communicates what the school values, what it thinks a good life is, and therefore has great formative power. Given that some values, some ideas, will come through, why shouldn’t these be Christian? Although few people are regularly attending church in this country, our national identity and the ethics we hold dear are fundamentally rooted in Christianity after all.

I have some sympathy for this perspective. The most irritating misunderstanding in the often irritating debate around “faith schools” is the idea that everything that is not education with a religious character is neutral education. Helpfully, Woodhead and Clarke acknowledge this:

“We think that it would be helpful if all faith schools which offer religious formation state this clearly, and take care to inform prospective parents and pupils about the nature of this formation (e.g. not just ‘Christian’, but ‘evangelical Christian’, ‘liberal Catholic’, ‘traditionalist Catholic’, ‘broad CofE’, ‘Orthodox Judaism’ etc.) We think it would also be desirable if non-faith schools were equally clear and self-conscious about the sort of formation they offer (e.g. ‘liberal humanist’, ‘secular egalitarian’).” (p.34)

There is a place for a Christian defence of collective worship which makes this point about the impossibility of neutrality, and suggests that if a school is to provide a “Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education” then a Christian framework might be a pretty good one (and likely popular with even non-Christian parents). Certainly assemblies in general, as a space for developing the ethos of the school and focusing on the formation of the person, not just the information imparted to them, are precious. Although the authors acknowledge this, the recommendations, which leave the choice of whether and how the school holds assemblies up to the local governors, risk that time being subsumed into more lessons. If the RE curriculum is so important that it needs nationalising to bring it into line with other subjects, is there not the implication that assemblies (whether of a Christian character or not) are less important and therefore can be localised?

All these would be reasonable reasons to question the recommendation to abolish the statutory requirement for a Collective Act of Worship. I, however, think the authors are right. It is the word “worship” which finally leads me to this conclusion. If worship is anything, it is freely given. Worship, in its very nature cannot be coerced, cajoled or demanded. When “Collective Worship” is done to tick a box it seems inevitable that it will be done badly. I’d rather children encounter Christianity for the first time from people who are committed, passionate and able to communicate it rather than be inoculated against it through hours of half-hearted homilies and dirgy hymns.

Christian-based assemblies will not die out if the statutory requirement for them is removed. Many schools will still choose to retain the “wholly or mainly Christian” element, and some will continue to do it excellently. But worship, real worship, is the beating heart of the life of the church, and something we should invite people into, not legislate for.


Elizabeth Oldfield is the Director of Theos | @TheosElizabeth



Posted 15 June 2015

Religion, Prayer


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