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The Bishop Is Right to Scrap School Worship

09/07/2014 15:26 BST | Updated 08/09/2014 10:59 BST

It is strange for a rabbi and a bishop to want an end to worship - but that is certainly the case with regards to schools assemblies.

As a rabbi I back fully the call of John Pritchard - the Bishop of Oxford and the Church of England's head of education - to end the practice of school prayers that have been a legal requirement for the last seventy years.

This stems from the 1944 Education Act which insisted that all schools hold acts of collective worship "wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character".

I would also defend him against those in his own church who have accused him of letting the side down and being too soft on spreading the Christian message.

In fact, what the bishop is doing very bravely is recognising both the true nature of worship and the social realities of today.

First of all, worship has to be voluntary. Whereas in past ages, they said "Thou shalt pray" - and would even burn you at the stake if you did not - we realise today that prayer is an intimate and personal act that can only be meaningful if it is voluntary.

It can therefore be done at home as part of family life or in places of worship, but not be part of the school syllabus alongside having to learn maths tables or geographical locations. The latter is factual information, the former is personal expression, and they cannot be equated.

The bishop is not abandoning worship, but acknowledging the place where it best belongs.

Secondly, the reality of modern Britain is that many teachers are not religious and therefore object to, or feel hypocritical at, leading school worship. There are also those who are not Christian and therefore feel unwilling, or ill-equipped, to lead Christian worship. The result can be school assemblies that are utterly dire, or that are avoided altogether so as to circumvent the problem.

This religious diversity is also reflected in the school population, many of whom will be irreligious or non-Christian. Can it be right to force them to worship via a faith to which they do not adhere? Obviously not, but as well as being inappropriate, it also makes them question other messages they are receiving from staff and undermines their respect for those teaching them once in the classroom.

Far better - as the bishop suggests - to change the purpose of assemblies and use the time for collective togethernesss and spiritual reflection. There can be a mix of prose and poetry and song and silence. They can focus on themes such as shared values or contemporary events.

They need not be anodyne but can highlight different approaches and divergent understandings. They can certainly incorporate Christian teachings, but can also include those from other faiths or secular literature. School assemblies can thus develop into unique moments to lift the children away from facts and figures and venture into vision and perception and purpose.

The Bishop of Oxford deserves praise for both being honest about the problems and creative about the solutions. They may seem glaringly obvious to the secular world, but are refreshingly positive from the religious one.

The next step is for the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, to change the law, remove the compulsory nature of collective worship, stop forcing teachers to double-up as preachers and let them concentrate on teaching.