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Bishop Curry’s Royal Wedding Sermon Shows What We Need From RE

Bishop Curry’s Royal Wedding Sermon Shows What We Need From RE

Religious Education is facing major challenges. The Commission on RE will make recommendations about how to improve the subject later this year. We’ve asked a range of RE professionals and researchers to set out what they think RE might look like five years in the future. In Part 8 in our series on the future of RE, Linda Woodhead explores the importance of RE and what we need from it 04/07/2018

In  Part 1, Simon Perfect outlines the main challenges facing RE today.

I loved Harry and Meghan’s wedding, but I wasn’t so keen on Michael Curry’s sermon. I don’t agree with his theology, and I thought it went on too long.

When I said this on social media it generated a storm of protest – churchgoing Christians were particularly enraged, and some accused me of ignorance or hostility to the black Pentecostal tradition (not true).

A few days later I was at a select gathering of Anglicans looking at the future direction of the Church of England, where the lead bishop exulted in the fact that The Sun had printed Curry’s sermon in full to cut out and keep. This, he said, showed what was possible – I think he was hoping for a religious revival.

Now, thanks to a ComRes poll commissioned by Theos, we can understand better how the sermon was received.

It shows a clear divide between churchgoing Christians (about 1 in 20 of the population and falling) who loved it, and those who say they have ‘no religion’ (about half the population and growing) who were unmoved. Neither wild horses nor a lively sermon would get the ‘nones’ to church.

Good RE supplies the tools to understand all this.

It explains the diversity of every religion, so people understand the difference between Pentecostalism and the Church of England – and why Michael Curry has a foot in both. It explains how religion and politics are entangled, and in this case how religion, race and imperialism are part of the context. And it interprets how and why Britain is shifting from having a Christian majority to having a ‘no religion’ majority, allowing people to see their own commitments reflected in the wider cultural context.

RE also informs critical debate about the content of Curry’s sermon. It helps people to identify its central values of self–sacrificial, Christ–like love; to understand where they derive from historically; and to articulate their agreement or disagreement, clarifying their own commitments in the process.

The best RE in schools today does these things, but the picture is patchy. Even where RE is well–resourced and supported by the headteacher, it is burdened by outdated legislation and other impediments.

Although RE is compulsory at every stage of school, it differs from other subjects in having no nationally–agreed curriculum, and allowing parents to opt their children out of lessons and study trips. There is no justification for these outdated impediments, and they have taken their toll by making RE seem somehow different from other subjects and not as serious.

What’s urgently needed is a reform of the law that undergirds RE in schools – a law unchanged since 1944. Charles Clarke and I set out a series of clear recommendations about how to do that in our pamphlet A New Settlement: Religion and Belief in Schools. First published in 2015, this is being reissued in a revised form in July 2018 to take account of the extensive consultation we have had since.

RE has always evolved with the wider landscape of religions and beliefs. It shifted from being confessional Christian ‘Religious Instruction’ in the 1940s to more multi–faith ‘Religious Education’ in the 1970s, and now it’s changing again – in line with what’s happened to the subject in universities.

As fewer people in Britain identify neatly with a ‘world religion’ (if ever they did), the subject has broadened to consider the inner diversity of religious traditions, as well as the beliefs and values of those who do not identify with any such tradition, but are not necessarily secular.

RE is entering a new and exciting phase. It’s now the task now of politicians and other interested parties to put the subject on a stronger educational and legislative footing – so that when we watch something like the Royal Wedding we can better understand both ourselves and others.

The revised edition of the report A New Settlement, by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead, will be launched in the House of Commons on 17th July, 4–6pm.


 Image by Wikimedia Commons available under this Creative Commons Licence

Prof. Linda Woodhead

Prof. Linda Woodhead

Linda Woodhead MBE is a British academic specialising in the religious studies and sociology of religion. She is best known for her work on religious change since the 1980s, and for initiating public debates about faith. 

Watch, listen to or read more from Prof. Linda Woodhead

Posted 3 July 2018

Education, Religious Education


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