Education Matters: Geoff Barton says David Cameron’s defence of Christianity should be welcomed, not scorned

Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury. Geoff Barton, headteacher at King Edward VI Upper School in Bury.

Geoff Barton
Wednesday, May 21, 2014
6:52 AM

I see that God has been back in the news.

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The Young Atheist's HandbookThe Young Atheist's Handbook

First there was the Prime Minister’s Easter message saying that Britain “should be more confident about our status as a Christian country”. Then, just a week later, there was the free gift sent to all school libraries by the British Humanist Society. They sent us all a copy of The Young Atheists’ Handbook.

Both events have provoked an almighty row. Or perhaps that should be an Almighty row.

David Cameron has previously been a bit cagey about his religious views. He once said that his faith “was a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”.

Many of us were shocked by this remark – especially those of us who have heard how dire Magic FM is. Listening to it is an undoubted case of the bland leading the bland.

But this Easter the Prime Minister’s religious antenna seems to have been switched to digital. He didn’t just wish a grateful nation happy Easter. Instead he talked of Jesus Christ as our saviour and urged the British people to be “frankly more evangelical” about faith.

It’s a sign of the twitchiness that some in politics and the media have about religion that a Prime Minister talking of faith at Easter should stoke any level of controversy.

Because in talking about Britain’s Christian heritage, David Cameron wasn’t – as some critics claimed – undermining other religions. He wasn’t being divisive as some mischievous pundits carped. He wasn’t deliberately letting our hard-won social cohesion unravel.

He was simply saying what we might expect the leader of our country to say.

Most mornings at 6 o’clock, to clear my mind and set myself up psychologically for the day ahead, I jump on my bike and take a ride around the lanes of the patch of Suffolk where I live. As dawn lifts, I see hedgerows, I hear birds, I share a brief “hello” with occasional joggers and dog-walkers. And I see churches.

Heading from Pakenham I cycle past St Mary’s, proudly atop a small hill, its graves battered by centuries of easterly winds, then across to the quietly grander St Peter’s on the edge of Thurston. Next there’s the beautiful round tower of All Saints, Beyton, then along via the breathtaking view from St Andrew’s Tostock and back via the three churches in Norton.

These buildings are part of our landscape, providing an inescapable visual reminder of an age when the village church was at the social and spiritual heart of every community. They were a visible symbol of faith.

For some people, they may now be no more than that, perhaps visited occasionally when the cycle of family weddings, baptisms or funerals occurs.

But because they may go unnoticed, these churches aren’t irrelevant.

Our school is a Church of England comprehensive. That identity is important to us because we want all young people, whatever their backgrounds, whatever the beliefs of their parents, to have an understanding of the importance of faith in this world of giddying change and uncertainty.

We want them to know about Christian traditions. We also want them to explore other religions and cultures. We want them to understand why some people champion atheism. We want them to understand the way religious belief has defined us as human beings, why it continues to rage like a fire of controversy, why it comforts some, why it matters to many.

The shyness of some politicians – and of some senior clergy – in talking about faith continues to surprise me. Christianity is interwoven into the national fabric of our society, of how we are organised and how we do things.

And if we believe that education is partly about the older generation passing on its knowledge and values to the next, then it’s surely unthinkable that we wouldn’t see the need to explore faith explicitly, confidently, proudly, so that young people can make up their own minds about who they are, who they want to be, and what they believe.

That’s why I welcome the Prime Minister’s Easter message. It’s also why I welcome our copy of the Young Atheists’ Handbook (which I enjoyed very much).

Both events are a sign of a more grown-up view of religion. They are a recognition that, whatever our own beliefs, even if we are atheist, religion is unignorable in our society. It continues to matter.

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