'I like it when people who believe something come into school; I think it's good for children to hear from people of faith; as long as it's balanced over a term.'
'I feel awkward doing assemblies because I'm not a Christian.'
'I don't want to impose my faith but I don't want to deny it either.'
I recently led a course for teachers and others who take primary school assemblies. The delegates were a mixture of heads and deputies, classroom teachers, Christian ministers and a couple of people from a Christian organization who take plays, assemblies and other experiences into schools. It wasn't part of the course to ask people about their personal faith position but, throughout the day, there was some informal discussion. The quotes above are some of the things that they said.
So there was a real mix of faith positions within that group, but alongside this there grew an understanding that assemblies have a varied role to play in the school community and that each person could contribute something valuable without compromising his or her own beliefs.
It is clear that many people struggle with the requirement that the majority of assemblies be 'wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character, reflecting the broad traditions of Christian belief'. (See Assemblies and the law). So how do you square your faith position with your professional position? This is a personal area in which we have to find our own way, acknowledging that our views may well change over time, but I hope that the following tips from my experience may prove helpful.
Be clear about what you are doing
Develop an understanding of the place of assemblies within the school and be clear about your role in the process. This will vary from individual to individual and from school to school, taking account of such factors as the religious foundation of the school (for example Anglican, Roman Catholic, Muslim or none), and the established pattern and nature of assemblies. Are you expecting to run the entire assembly or just give a talk or lead a section? Will you be expected to lead prayers and singing? What about administrative issues and giving certificates?
If you are visiting a school, it is doubly important to be clear about what's expected of you and also to be clear in return about what you are happy to do. If you don't feel comfortable with leading prayer, for example, this is the time to say so.
This negotiation can be troublesome for school staff, particularly new staff or newly qualified teachers (NQTs) who might meet assumptions from the head about what they'll do and how they'll do it. If you have to lead a prayer but don't feel comfortable with doing so there are non-religious reflections in most assemblies which you could use. You could then hand over to someone else (perhaps a child?) to read a prayer, if appropriate, or allow a time for silent prayer or meditation.
One of the things that impressed me about the representatives of the Christian drama group at the assemblies course was how clear they were about their role: they were not there to evangelize and they prefaced their statements about faith with 'I believe that...' or 'Christians believe that...' so that they were careful never to suggest that what they said was 'the truth'. They took account of the varying faith backgrounds within the school and saw their work as a service to the community from a Christian perspective.
Assemblies are, according to law, more properly called 'acts of collective worship', but they are different from those acts of worship in which most participants are volunteers (leaving aside for a moment any children who go unwillingly to church with their families!). In a school assembly, most children have no real choice as to whether or not to be present, and they are likely to represent some cultural and religious diversity; add to this the fact that they are impressionable, and it is clear that a more detached approach is essential. This provides scope for a variety of approaches which enrich the school day in some way (see 'Celebrate the richness of assemblies' below).
Choose your assembly
Remember that only 'a majority' of assemblies have to be 'broadly Christian', so if you have problems related to personal belief issues around assemblies, you have 49 per cent of the school year available to you. Conversely, for people who are comfortable with speaking from a faith position, particularly visiting clergy, there will doubtless be many occasions when you are greeted with open arms! For more on this, see Working with your local school.
Celebrate the richness of assemblies
Assemblies add so much to the school community in so many different areas that whatever your personal faith position there will be something that you can contribute and feel positive about:
- communal events - time to come together to have shared experience
- spiritual and reflective events - an opportunity to step back and consider bigger issues and to see things from a different perspective
- learning events - finding out about others and how they live, or the teachings of religious or moral leaders for example
- celebratory events - a time to celebrate seasons, festivals, achievements
- school business events – these might be considered the 'boring stuff' but properly handled this can feed into the sense of a school community which meets together to share important information
- artistic events - drama, dance, music, poetry and more all have their place in assemblies
- fun events - games, interactive stories and more (see Using games in assemblies)
The Collective Worship law is difficult for many people, but school assemblies offer many opportunities to add value to the school day and richness to the school community. Finding your niche in this may be challenging, but I hope this resource has suggested some possibilities. Take a look at the assemblies on this site, all written by experienced practitioners, until you find one that you feel comfortable with, then adapt it to your own style and step boldly into the assembly hall.