Page 3, 14th January 1977

14th January 1977
Page 3
Page 3, 14th January 1977 — Norman St John-Stevas

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Norman St John-Stevas

Three questions to Bishop Butler

QUEEN VICTORIA • once announced with her customary firmness: "I do not like bishops" — an apothegm less well known

but very much more authentic than its companion: "We are not amused.

The great Queen's saying flashed into my mind when with some mild surprise I read in the letters column of your paper last week an account of correspondence between Bishop Butler and myself (admittedly somewhat one-sided) which I had imagined to be of a private character.

Unlike Queen Victoria, I do like bishops (of all denominations) and particularly Benedictine ones, but the Queen may well have had a point.

Bishop Butler complairis that I had not replied to his invitation extended some weeks ago to merge a conference on religious education planned by the Human Rights Society with one of his own to be held under the auspices of the Social Morality Council. The reason is quite simple, and that is that I could not commit the Human Rights Society to such a radical step without the approval of their executive The executive has in fact not met since the dispatch of Bishop Butler's letter, but will meet this week, when the item will be on the agenda.

The decision is one for the society and not one for me. The bishop's observation in his Catholic Herald letter that I was replying to him "obliquely" in my column is quite fanciful, as is his statement that the article "implicitly" rejects a joint conference.

Bishop Butler's subjective impressions are interesting as a reflection of his state of mind, but certainly give no indication of mine. However, since Bishop Butler has transferred this and other questions into the public domain perhaps I may ask him to make clear where the Social Morality Council in general and he in particular stand on certain key questions which I alluded to in my article.

The first question concerns those attitudes to religious education which 1 summed up in a portmantetiu phrase as being held by "religious disarmers." There are those who believe that the compulsory clauses in the Education Act of 1944 should be repealed. Some of these are secularists, while others are religious believers.

My own position, and indeed that of the Opposition, has been made quite clear: we believe that the entrenched clauses requiring each school day to open with an act of worship and that "religious instruction" should be given in the schools should be retained.

I understand that the Labour Government has no intention of deleting these clauses. What, then, is the view of the Social Morality Council? Does it believe that these clauses should be removed? I do not happen to agree, but it is a respectable and reasonable view to hold.

And what is the view of Bishop Butler? And for that matter what is the opinion of the Catholic Education Council and Mr Richard Cunningham, who played such a prominent part in the controversy over the abolition of the Catholic directgrant schools? No discussion of a fruitful nature can take place until the views of the parties to the discussion on such a vital point are known.

My second question is also of prime importance. What part do the Social Morality Council and Bishop Butler see for the Christian religion in Religious Education? I have made my own position on this matter plain, but am happy to do so again. When I opened the Religious Education Centre at Borough Road College, Isleworth, on March 6, 1975, I said: "What positive meaning can be given to the words 'religious instruction' in the conditions of today? "l would not object to the phrase being modified to the broader one of religious education, provided that phrase is taken to imply a commitment to the spiritual and not to a mere course in comparative religion.

"The purpose of religious education today should be the awakening of children to the spiritual dimension of life and to the possibility of making religious choice and commitment.

"To do this effectively there must he an actual religious model, and the model which should be used in Britain for cultural and historical reasons is a Christian one.

"Christianity has shaped our history, and is the form in which the spiritual has come to the majority, although not all, of our people. It should retain its central position in any scheme of religious education although there is clearly room for comparison between Christianity and other faiths," My third question concerns moral education. Does the Social Morality Council, and does Bishop Butler, agree that Christian morality should be at the heart of any moral teaching given in our schools? My own answer to this would be affirmative but that there should he room for comparison with the moral values and attitudes of other faiths.

entirely agree with Bishop Butler that moral and religious education are not rivals: indeed, I would go further and say that it is vital for moral education that it should be closely connected with religion.

These are specific questions, and I hope that we may have specific answers. Bishop Butler accused me in his letter of being Vague, and I hope I have amended that defect. But is not Bishop Butler guilty of something of the same order? He refers to the "invitation" he sent me. and adds: "I extend that invitation on behalf of ourselves and our associates to all similarly concerned".

That is vagueness with a vengeance. What sort of a conference is this going to be, and what are we being invited to do? To sponsor It? To pay for it? To participate in it? To determine the agenda and the participants in a position of co-responsibility or to be taken for a ride? It would be interesting and intriguing to know.

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