I write as your constituent to ask your support for Petition 1487, Religious Observance in Schools, which seeks to replace the present “opt-out” system for Religious Observance (RO) with “opt-in”. The petition and responses are at http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/gettinginvolved/petitions/religiousobservance, and the Petitions Committee will be holding its second hearing on November 12. We believe that the proposed change will end serious problems with the present system, lead to improvements in communication between home and school about the nature of RO, and help RO fulfil its aim of celebrating shared values.
The present system presumes agreement with the school’s practice of RO. Not all school handbooks even fulfil the legal requirement to state that opt-out from RO is available. Children who opt out are not properly catered for, and are made to feel exceptional, while there are examples of schools putting pressure on parents to reverse their decision, or even on occasion denying that the right to opt out exists in their school. The proposed change to opt-in would prevent such wrongs.
At present, while RO is intended to be a celebration of universal community values, it is often in practice dominated by one particular worldview, generally, in so-called non-denominational schools, Protestantism. This at a time when the number of Scots having no religious affiliation exceeds a third, and is greater than that of the Church of Scotland, the most numerous denomination.
The practice of RO varies enormously from school to school, and recent events at Kirktonholme Primary, where to parents’ dismay, creationist and anti-scientific books were distributed during RO, show how far it is at times from achieving its ideals. Such abuses would be most unlikely under the improved school-home communication that would result from opt-in.
Finally, we believe that the proposed change will reinvigorate RO by leading to general discussion of its nature and purpose, discussion that in our present diverse society is essential for its long-term survival.
I have written here and here in favour of Edinburgh Secular Society’s petition to remove the requirement for Scottish councils to accept unelected church nominees church nominees on their Education Committees (you can see and sign the petition here; details of existing nominees are here). Why such a requirement exists at all is a question for legal historians, but I note that there is a parallel requirement in England, and that the relevant legislation for Scotland (here) is pre-devolution. I suspect all this is a hangover from the merging of church and public schooling in the 19th and early 20th century.
The Rev. Ian Galloway, Convener of the Church of Scotland Church and Society Council, claimed on BC Scotland Newsnight that the petition would deprive Education Committees of valuable input. Not true, your Reverence.
The arguments against the requirement are obvious. Most Scots (most English, for that matter) don’t even know about it (I didn’t myself until recently), and would be as dismayed about it as I am. It is not a trivial matter, since the religious representatives actually hold the balance of power in 19 of Scotland’s 32 Council Education Committees, a situation likely to continue in the current fluid state of Scottish politics. The religious representatives cannot but have a dual loyalty; to their duty as citizens, and to their duty as representatives of one particular worldview, and of an organisation with material and political interests of its own. It provides a kind of dual representation to those who happen to belong to one of the favoured religious groups, since they can present their case to their ecclesiastical representative, as well as to their elected councillor. Finally, and most seriously, it is an affront to democracy, and to the principle that Government should represent the interests of the people, rather than those of particular organisations or pressure groups.
But no one gives up power without a struggle, and we can already see the lines on which the religious establishment will oppose this change. The representatives of religion, we are already being told, have a special caring concern for the spiritual development of the young. They bring a special perspective to bear. They give generously of their time. They proffer the benefits of their wisdom and experience. Finally, it would be an infringement of religious freedom to debar them from contributing in this way, and yet another example of what they would have us believe to be an emerging anti-religious intolerance.
None of these arguments will stand up for inspection. Firstly, and most importantly, there is no suggestion that anyone be debarred from anything. Legislation gives councils broad powers to co-opt members to committees, if they so choose, and indeed it is customary to have teachers and parents represented on Education Committees. In exactly the same way, councils would remain free to invite church representatives to join them on these committees if they wished to do so. Indeed any such invitees would be in a stronger moral position than those mandated under present legislation. They would be there because councillors had chosen them, and those councillors themselves are answerable to their electorates, rather than to some external authority. Their religious positions cannot be assumed to automatically bestow on them any particular kind of wisdom or virtue, and it is all too easy to point to instances where the representatives of religion have shown neither. In this context, scandal aside, I would draw attention to the open conflict between the Bishops Council, which controls sex education in Catholic denominational schools, and bodies concerned about the quality of such education, including the educational arm of the National Health Service. I would also point out that several church nominees espouse Young Earth creationism, in direct contravention of Scottish Government policy, the curriculum, and indeed the whole of established science. Whether these representatives are donating their time, or whether they regard committee membership as part of their professional ecclesiastic duties, is a minor matter, although it does again raised the question of dual loyalties. If they bring a special perspective to bear, the same could be said of nurses, social workers, policemen, or drug dealers. There is nothing intolerant about questioning religious privilege, and indeed many sincere believers regard such privilege as corrupting to Church and State alike.
For the reasons given in my second paragraph here, I would argue that the existence of unelected church representation would be unacceptable, even in a nation of believers. In a Scotland where over one third of the population, and an actual majority of the young, reject all religious affiliation, it is inexcusable.
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As I explained in my last post, a pre-devolution law requires three unelected church representatives as full voting members of every Council Education Committee in Scotland, and I strongly urge my friends to support the Edinburgh Secular Society petition ( to read and, if you agree, sign, click here) to change this. I recently discovered that the law also requires Diocesan representation in England, from Church of England and the Catholic Church. I suspect that the reason for having three representatives in Scotland is the fractious history of Scottish Presbyterianism.
The Rev. David Fraser’s church quotes experts 99.9% sure that they have found Noah’s Ark (this, from his Church’s web site, is just a scale model). The Rev. David Fraser sits,unelected, on Clackmannanshire’s Education Committee
Anyway, there we are, stuck (as the law stands) with three representatives of religion, whether anyone wants them or no. One chosen by (not just from) the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and one chosen to represent local religious belief. Holding the balance of power in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 councils. This despite the fact that more than a third of all Scots no longer identify with any religion, and 65% of young Scots identify themselves as non-religious.
So what are the implications for my own chief concern, the teaching of science? In the summer of 2015, the Scottish Secular Society use Freedom of Information requests to obtain a full list of these church appointees, and how they obtained their positions. At least ten of of them give particular reason for concern.
David Fraser, Baptist, Clackmannanshire, nominated himself when asked to consult with the District’s Baptists. He represents Alva Baptist Church, which links to Answers in Genesis on its website, while David Fraser himself hails from Metro Calvary Santa Monica. This church believes in the special creation of Adam and Eve as characters in history, and a literal historical Fall that left their descendants “corrupted in every aspect of their being”. I’m not sure I like the idea of my children’s education being directed, in part, by someone who thinks they are corrupted in every aspect of their being. And, that of the 150,000 people who will die today, the vast majority are entering Hell. However, there is some good news; they think they’ve found Noah’s Ark. Perhaps the Rev. David Fraser will make sure this discovery makes it into the syllabus of his Council’s schools.
John Jackson, East Dunbartonshire, represents Kirkintilloch Baptist Church, whose web site says almost nothing about the church’s beliefs. This does not bode well, although the list of sermon topics shows a commendable concern for social justice.
Falkirk Council gives us Michael Rollo, of Larbert Pentecostal Church, an affiliate of the modestly named “Assemblies of God”, whose beliefs include biblical infallibility, bodily resurrection, and “the everlasting conscious punishment of all whose names are not written in the book of life”. Charming. The Rev. Rollo owes his position to the fact that the Church of first choice, Episcopalian, failed to answer requests to nominate.
In Fife, we have Mr Alastair Crockett, from Cupar Baptist Church, whose statement of beliefs refers to the divine inspiration of the Bible, but does not mention infallibility. Promising, and I am aware that “Baptist” is, like “Evangelical”, a broad term including many whose attitude towards science is exemplary. As always, the devil (if I may so put it) is in the details. Regarding the Rev Graeme Clark, Central Baptist Church, Paisley (Renfrewshire) I can say even less, since his church seems to have lost its website.
No such ambiguity attaches to Mark Fraser, Assistant Pastor/Youth Minister, of The Bridge Church, Irvine (North Ayrshire), sole respondent to a newspaper advertisement, which maintains that “[t]he one who physically dies in his sins without Christ is hopelessly and eternally lost in the lake of fire and therefore, has no further opportunity of hearing the Gospel or for repentance. The lake of fire is literal.” It also believes in divine healing through the laying on of hands. So now we know. He believes that anyone who disagrees with him, including a clear majority of the children whose education he is influencing, is going to suffer eternal torment, and serve them right.
The Rev. David Donaldson, of Greenock Elim Pentecostal Church, also obtained his position in response to a newspaper advertisement. He received his training at the International Christian College in Glasgow, now replaced by the Scottish School of Christian Mission, and his Church’s beliefs include the literary infallibility of the Bible, a historical Fall, the universal sinfulness of all men since that Fall, rendering man subject to God’s wrath and condemnation, and the eternal conscious punishment of the wicked.
In South Lanarkshire, we have yet another sole respondent to a newspaper advertisement, Dr Nagy Iskander, of Westwoodhill Evangelical Church. This name will be familiar to my habitual readers for his direct association with Answers in Genesis, his presence (until last August) on the chaplaincy team of Calderglen High, and his commitment to the view that evolution and creationism are equally untestable, and should therefore be discussed evenhandedly. By all accounts, including those of his intellectual opponents, Dr Iskander is a thoroughly nice guy, and if (I’m not sure) he thinks I’m gong to burn in Hell forever, I am confident that he deeply regrets the fact, unlike some.
And finally, the Western Isles. Here the Church of Scotland is represented by the Moderator of the Presbytery of Lewis, currently threatening to secede over the ordination of gay ministers. We have the Free Church of Scotland, committed to biblical infallibility. There is a Catholic representative, although on my reading of the law there doesn’t really need to be one here. And then we have the Free Presbyterian Church, which regards all other churches as having fallen away in either doctrine or practice, maintains “that the Bible is the Word of God, inspired and infallible, from beginning to end” and that “[t]he duty of the civil magistrate is to protect the Church of God”, and devotes a page on its website to explaining why Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas.
All of the above, remember, sit and vote on committees designing educational policy for all the children in their area, believers and unbelievers alike, whether anyone else wants them there, or not.
Original post October 2013, updated October 2016. The petition to remove these unelected clergy is live for signature and comment, by Scots and others, here until November 16 2016.
By pre-devolution law, three unelected church representatives sit as full voting members of every Council Education Committee in Scotland. Edinburgh Secular Society is petitioning the Scottish Parliament to change this. I strongly urge my friends, especially my Scottish friends, to support this petition (link here; if you live in Scotland, take care to say so). This petition is supported by the Scottish Secular Society, the Humanist Society of Scotland, and the National Secular Society.
According to AnswersInGenesis. Dr Nagy iskander, shown here with his wife Nashwa who shares his mission, “teaches the books of the Bible in government schools as part of the official religious education curriculum,” and is “One of Europe’s most active creationists.” Dr Iskander is an unelected religious representative on South Lanarkshire Council Education Committee.
A pre-devolution law forces every local authority in Scotland Education Committee to co-opt three representatives of religion, whether they want to or no. One of these must be nominated by the Church of Scotland, one by the Catholic Church, and one chosen to represent local religious belief. This third representative is typically chosen from respondents to newspaper advertisements, making it very easy for Councillors who support a particular religious viewpoint to tip off their favourite denominations. The representatives of religion, although completely unelected and (apart from their parent Church) unmandated, have the vote on what is always the largest and most important of all council committees, and, according to the Church of Scotland itself, hold the balance of power in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 councils. This despite the fact that more than a third of all Scots no longer identify with any religion. That last number almost certainly under-represents the proportion of the non-religious among parents of school children, to say nothing of the children themselves when old enough to form their own opinions, since 65% of young Scots identify themselves as non-religious.
These religious representatives bring more to council meetings than the benefit of their wisdom. They will, by definition, bring a certain view of what kind of place the world is. They will, by profession, regard religion itself as a highly important aspect of life, otherwise they would not have chosen to devote their own lives to it. So when it comes to deciding how much importance to give Religious Observance, or how much time and effort the school should put into maintaining its chaplaincy team, they will have their own biased point of view. They will also have their own special interests, based on those of their Church, affecting such issues as the locating of schools, and whether or not new schools should be denominational.
Edinburgh Secular Society has published data (full details here) on the identities of the religious representatives in every Scottish council. In some cases, the identities of the religious representatives give particular reason for anxiety. My own specific concern is with the teaching of science, and the brute fact that some versions of religion flatly reject the facts of the antiquity of the Earth, and of evolution of living things from a common ancestor. Scientifically, this means rejecting the whole of earth science, astronomy and cosmology, and large areas of physics, chemistry, and even ancient history. Philosophically, it means elevating one particular highly questionable interpretation of one particular, also highly questionable, text above all other kinds of evidence.
So what does the membership of the education committees tell us? On this score, at least, the Catholic Church representatives should give little cause for concern, since the Vatican accepts the historic fact of evolution. Concerning the Church of Scotland representatives, there would until recently have been little to worry about, but this may be changing. The Church of Scotland now sends seminarists to the interdenominational Highland Theological College, which has a biblical infalibilist requirement for teaching staff and two six-day biblical literalist theologians on its Board of Governors. To an outsider, this looks like an unsavoury political deal, where the liberal wing of the deeply divided Church has agreed to this creationist infiltration, in the (probably vain) hope of being allowed, in return, to pursue more gay-tolerant policies.
Of the third (and occasionally fourth) representatives of religion, two are Church of Scotland, two Moslem, one Jewish, one Salvation Army, four Baptist, and five (from four local authorities) represent smaller evangelical Protestant groups who embrace biblical literalism. So, if you are a parent in 8 out of Scotland’s 32 council districts you might have worries about who is deciding what your children will hear at school.
As I shall show in my next posting, these worries will be more than justified.
[Update: the petition was duly submitted with 1516 signatures, and Mark Gordon (for himslef) and Caroline Lynch )for Secular Scotland) have been invited to give evidence to the Petitions Committee in September]
Only one week remains to sign the Secular Scotland Petition to the Scottish Parliament (you can sign here), to change the procedure regarding registration for children to take part in Religious Observance in schools from opt-out to opt-in. This petition has already attracted widespread attention in broadcasts, local and national newspapers, and discussion forums both secular and religious.
I and others have already rehearsed the arguments. Parents (and children) are not being informed of their rights, and in one extreme case (the Edinburgh School Handbook template, no less), the existence of RO is not even mentioned. RO receives input from committees with their own dynamic, including in at least one case from a prominent advocate of six-day creationism. Children are left thinking that the school requires them to take part in religious ceremonies that they don’t believe in, and those parents who are aware of their rights and wish to assert them are presented with bureaucratic hurdles, up to and including the need for a personal conference with the head teacher.
My own view is clear. Children should only be taking part in religious observance if they want to be, and I do not understand why anyone, whatever their own personal beliefs, would wish it otherwise. The view from the Catholic Church, and from the Free Church of Scotland, who find themselves in agreement over this (as over so many things these days), is that the change would cause disastrous disruption to the fabric of society, and be a prelude to the complete removal of religion from the public educational system. Such anxieties speak volumes.
For what it’s worth (and I know that facts are not worth very much in some discussions), both the petitioner, Mark Gordon, and the supporting organization, Secular Scotland, are very much in favour of the retention of Religious Education in schools, given the important role of religion in cultures worldwide, both historically and in the present. Moreover, neither is demanding the removal of Religious Observance from schools (there is indeed a separate petition to that effect, in which, however, Secular Scotland plays no formal role). My own view is that the public discussion that would result from the change to opt-in would help rejuvenate RO, because its advocates, with inertia no longer on their side, would be forced to find a role for it suitable for today’s Scotland, in which the traditional beliefs can no longer be taken for granted.