Church schools have a duty to be distinctive and offer parents and pupils real choice, says headteacher Alun Ebenezer


As a headteacher, I read the latest guidance from the Church of England on singing hymns in assembly with interest. Collective worship, it says, should inspire pupils to “become courageous advocates of causes”. But it seems that the CofE is no longer a courageous advocate of even its own cause.

In schools built upon the Christian faith, surely the aim is that the young people who attend these schools are exposed to the foundational cause of the Church, and that this cause runs courageously through everything they do – whether that is in science labs, PHSCE (Personal Health, Social and Citizenship Education), on the sports field or in assemblies. What you wouldn’t expect courageous advocates of the cause to say is: ’please avoid singing hymns that include explicit Christian rhetoric’.

Honest praise

I do agree that expecting young people to sing strong confessional lyrics which may not fit with their own beliefs is not right - or honest. Hymns should be explicitly Christian, and proclaim what Christians believe are the glorious truths about God and his word, but they should not encourage pupils and staff to sing things that are not their experience. If A.W Tozer was right when he said: “Christians don’t tell lies, they just go to church and sing them”, then we certainly should not insist those who are not Christians do the same. Our school chaplain takes this into careful consideration when choosing hymns for assemblies at The Fulham Boys School.

Too many CofE schools are in serious breach of the trade description act

But in writing this latest piece of guidance, it seems that the Church of England is less concerned with authentic worship than with avoiding offence and chasing after inclusivity at all costs. The CofE needs to be who they are - and if they really believe it, to strongly advocate it. Church schools should be places where everyone is welcome but that are, nonetheless, distinctively Christian.

Education should provide choice and, if I choose to go to a CofE school, I should know what I am getting and expect to get it - including singing hymns with ”explicit Christian rhetoric”. They should not brainwash, indoctrinate or exclude, but they should do what they say on the tin. Too many Church of England schools are seriously in breach of the trade description act!

Pandering to populism

One of the unique aspects of Christianity is that it welcomes intellectual challenge and does not fear debate. In schools built on the Christian faith, that faith should be proclaimed, with pupils and staff encouraged to think, question, disagree, reject or accept it.

 The Church should give people real Christianity not “inclusive”, “moderate” or “sensible” Christianity

The real danger is that the CofE is abandoning the faith and, rather than being courageous advocates of the cause, is now actually damaging it. Even atheists such as Matthew Parish believe the Church should give people real Christianity not, as he puts it, “inclusive, moderate or sensible Christianity which is inching its way up a philosophical cul-de-sac.” The church’s purpose is not to reconcile their beliefs to the modern age, fit in at any cost and not cause anyone the mildest offence - so please stop pandering to populism and be faithful to your God. 

Different and Distinctive

The world must think that the Church’s message can’t be up to much if it spends all its time insipidly trying to dumb down its own message. Why would they be interested, or think it has anything to offer them? As Dr Martyn Lloyd Jones said: “it is when the Church is different, distinctive and true to itself it is at its most attractive to the world.” More importantly, it is actually our duty - and what the Church will be held accountable for on judgement day.

The one thing The Fulham Boys School has missed more than anything else during lockdown is singing in assemblies. But, in June, we will once again be belting out ‘How great thou art’, ‘Oh to see the dawn’, ‘Be thou my vision’, and other great hymns with “explicit Christian rhetoric” as we courageously advocate the faith our school is built upon.