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The Future of Religious Education in the UK: A One Day Conference in Manchester

By John Coss

John reports on a recent conference hosted by the National Unitarian Fellowship

Professor Linda Woodhead

I attended this conference on 7th October 2023 at Cross Street Chapel, Manchester, in response to an invitation which the organisers sent to Humanists UK, who in turn passed it on to Greater Manchester Humanists. Only one session actually addressed the future of Religious Education in the UK – a talk by Professor Linda Woodhead, Head of Theology and Religious Studies at King's College, London on "Teaching ethics, religion and morals in a post church age". However, the other sessions were not without interest from a humanist perspective.

There were just over twenty participants, of whom I was the only humanist. I was warmly welcomed, especially by the organisers. There was some Unitarian devotion at the beginning and end of the day: of course I did not participate. An amusing aspect of a small group exercise was that I learned that one of the participants was a retired Unitarian minister who had lost his faith, and had met Guy Otten, a leading Manchester humanist, at a Northern Atheists meeting!

From "Religious Education" to "Beliefs, Ethics and Values"

In her talk, Professor Woodhead discussed the development of compulsory religious education in England (and later made brief reference to the somewhat different position in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). She advocated a range of changes to bring it more into line with current conditions, in particular the range of beliefs now held, and even wondered if we should follow those countries where religion is not part of the state education system. She thought the subject should be renamed “Beliefs, Ethics and Values”, and a nationally-agreed curriculum should replace the present local determination of the syllabus, but with local flexibility when teaching it to reflect local circumstances, and with a continuing role for Standing Advisory Councils for Religious Education. She advocated including humanism, and stressed the desirability of children being aware of the range of beliefs and worldviews of their friends. I think she was mostly drawing on the ideas in A New Settlement Revised: Religion and Belief in Schools (2018) which she co-authored with former Education Secretary Charles Clarke. Humanists UK welcomed much of this report when it was published. Two recommendations in the Report that Humanists UK opposed related to collective worship and faith schools.

Learning from Unitarians

Another session of interest was an introduction to the National Unitarian Fellowship. This was founded in 1944 to provide fellowship to Unitarians who are unable or choose not to attend a Unitarian chapel. It “promotes fellowship and community between people who value a free and positive approach to spirituality and religion”. Its stated aims are “in the first place to be an online and postal community for Unitarians and secondly to offer a place where individuals can explore their own spirituality in a convenient setting”. There are no face to face meetings (with the obvious exception of occasional events such as this conference). It could be worth exploring whether some aspects of the Fellowship could be adopted by humanists.

There was also a presentation about the Unitarian College, located in Manchester, which is “a national College that will provide training, education and development for all Unitarians, including Ministry Students, Lay Leaders, Adults and Young People”. There is an analogy here with Humanists UK's provision of training for humanist celebrants and pastoral support, courses on humanism and dialogue training. This, too, is a model for humanists to consider.

Note on Unitarianism and Universalism and their connection with humanism

Unitarianism is a religious denomination with Christian roots which emphasises the oneness and unity of God, in contrast to Catholic and Protestant Trinitarianism. Unitarianism has evolved to be more inclusive, often embracing a broad range of religious and philosophical ideas. Universalism is the belief that all human beings will eventually be reconciled with the divine or be saved, regardless of their religious or ethical beliefs. Unitarianism and Universalism have combined in the US to become Unitarian Universalism – the UUs. Many UU congregations are virtually humanist in belief and practice. Although they originate from different historical sources—Unitarianism having roots in liberal Christianity and humanism being non-theistic—they share common goals of fostering human dignity, ethical behaviour, and social responsibility. Therefore, it's not uncommon to find humanists attending Unitarian Universalist churches in the US or collaborating on social justice initiatives. According to the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches, the umbrella organization for Unitarians in the UK, there are over 170 congregations and fellowships in England, Wales, and Scotland. The membership within these congregations can vary widely, from small gatherings to larger communities.

Further reading

2018 Report by Clarke and Woodhead is here: A New Settlement Revised: Religion and Belief in Schools

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