THE ANNOUNCEMENT this week of plans to revive religious education in schools could be a turning point in the spiritual life of this country. It could eventually help to slow a decline in religious observance that has lasted for decades. Within 20 years, people may once again be knowledgeable about religion. Religious practice might even begin to increase. But if it does there may also be a historic breakdown in lifetime loyalties to particular beliefs.
Today Christian denominations, in particular, are in crisis. Witness this week's Templeman report suggesting that 14 of the City of London's churches should be mothballed. Most children rarely have a serious encounter with religion: only one in seven attends church services. Their parents have either lapsed or are themselves ignorant, so blocking the passage of religious knowledge between generations. The parlous state of RE mirrors society's gradual forgetting of religion. Poorly qualified teachers struggle with inadequate guidance and school indifference to deliver lessons of a standard that would be intolerable in any other subject.
Yet opinion polls show that most parents want their offspring to understand what they themselves can no longer articulate. For many, schools may be the only way to keep this knowledge alive. This week's initiative is tacit recognition that if RE is not improved, many children will grow up blind to a dimension that has for centuries been a part of daily life, preoccupying and inspiring human society.
Paradoxically, the classroom salvation of mass religion may dramatically alter its practice. In keeping with Britain's multi- faith and partly agnostic culture, the new RE curriculum will explain many beliefs: Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism. Thus, most children will have a very different first experience of organised religion than was once the case. In the past the initial and formative encounter was in the home and just one faith was embraced as the revelation of absolute theological truth. …