From September 2020, primary schools will be required to teach age-appropriate Health Education as well as Relationships Education, and secondary schools will be required to teach Relationships Education and Sex Education. Together these can be referred to as Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE). At one level, this idea is hard to argue with; after all, we live in a complex world, where young people are exposed more and more to issues around sex and relationships at earlier and earlier ages, thanks to the general sexualisation of culture. And these issues are as complex and confusing as they have ever been. But it is also contentious and fraught with danger, since the dominance of ‘identity politics’ means that any discussion in this area will be contested, and groups with special interests in the LGBTQ+ lobby will be ready and willing to press the case for particular views to be taught.
In this context, what might the Church of England (or any Christian group or denomination) want to say? Last week the Church of England Education department published Principles and a Charter for the teaching of RSHE in schools. Although the primary concern was in relation to Church of England schools, the Charter was potentially offered to all schools. As with all statements in this area, it received criticism from both sides of the debate.
LGBT+ campaigners were scathing in their evaluation of the proposals from the 485-year-old institution. “It’s a classic bit of Church of England fudge,” said Canon Jeremy Pemberton, who was stripped of his church duties following his 2014 marriage to his long-term male partner.
“They are desperate to be seen as right on and good and lovely, but they’re not really, are they?” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, citing the institution’s ban on same-sex weddings in CofE churches. “You can’t really have your cake and eat it, and that’s what they want to do,” Pemberton added.
Not all campaigners were as dismissive as Pemberton:
Veteran LGBT+ campaigner Peter Tatchell said the latest advice from the CofE was “better and more inclusive than anything previously advocated by the Church of England”.
By contrast, Will Jones, writing in Christian Today, saw the Charter as articulating a complete loss of confidence in the Church’s teaching on sex, marriage and relationships:
Overall this is a deeply disappointing document. While containing some valuable principles about respect and engaging with parents, it fails to grasp the opportunities offered by our education system and the new RSE regulations to set out a distinctive Christian vision of what relationships and sex education might look like.
In a time when there is more confusion than ever about romantic relationships and what it means to be male and female, the Church of England yet again misses the chance to offer support to Christians trying faithfully to hold out a biblical vision to a culture that so often doesn’t want to know.
Martin Davie also offers criticism, and on several points agrees with Will Jones, particularly on what they both see as misinterpretation of what the Equality Act requires of education in this area:
It is true that that schools are covered by the Equality Act. Part 6 Chapter 1 of the Equality Act lays down in detail how the act applies to schools. However, it also specifically states that ‘Nothing in this Chapter applies to anything done in connection with the content of the curriculum.’ This means that the Equality Act does not determine what should be in the RSHE curriculum. This argument is thus simply a red herring.
Some of these points are well made, but I cannot help thinking that Davie is assuming that Church schools are closed environments where the goal is simply the making of Christian disciples, without recognising that the foundation of Church of England schools (with its historic assumption, often from many years ago, of a context of Christendom) is quite different from that of Catholic faith schools, where there is a clearer commitment to teach the Catholic faith. That, perhaps, is the root of our problem here.
As far as I understand it, the goal of the Charter was to make a first, clear public statement that the Equality Act means that faith perspectives must be treated with respect and given space: there is no hierarchy of protected characteristics, so faith perspectives cannot be ‘trumped’ by a concern for the protected characteristics of any other group. And it is aiming to do that in a context where Christians involved in education have, so far, lacked either the awareness that this was the case, or the confidence to know how to respond to it. But at this point, we need to ask a question. Contentious issues related to sexuality and its place in schools has been around for many years—so why is it that Christians have lacked confidence, information and resources? What has the Church of England been doing all this time, when other groups have been very busy producing resources that push a particular line? And how can we have been so far behind the curve on this issue that we can even think to have endorsed some of these resources, without critical evaluation, until some questions were asked and the endorsements were withdrawn?
And both Principles (apparently directed at Church schools) and the Charter (more widely aimed) raised a series of questions for me.
1. If the Charter can be used by anyone, then will we now see a Charter specifically for Church schools? If not, does the Church of England believe that there is no difference in the approach to RSHE between the two? If so, what are Church schools actually doing?
2. The Principles begin with two biblical texts:
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them. (Genesis 1:27, NRSV)
I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness. (John 10:10, GNB)
But both have been either truncated (to remove mention of ‘male and female’) or ripped out of context to detach the promise of life from the call to discipleship. Is that the best we can do in our use of Scripture?
3. The Principles document refers to the Pastoral Advisory Group guidelines for ‘good disagreement’ in debates about sexuality. But that is within the context of the Church, and specifically relate to the current disagreement on whether we should consider changing the Church’s teaching. Is this really the context that we have in Church schools?
4. The ‘suggested prayer’ for a first meeting asks for wisdom and the ability to listen to one another and work for the ‘common good’. But it makes no reference to the idea that God might have a vision for sex and relationships which has been communicated in Scripture and Christian tradition. Should that not feature in Church schools’ discussion? Where is the Bible?
5. The Charter begins by mentioning ‘partnership with parents and carers’ in deciding what happens in schools. But there is no mention anywhere of the role of parents and carers in instruction and modelling of good relationships in the home. Do we now believe that these fundamental values should be delegated to schools, and the family has no role in teaching in this area?
6. The fifth point of the Charter raises the most questions:
- That RSHE will promote healthy resilient relationships set in the context of character and virtue development. It will reflect the vision and associated values of the school, promote reverence for the gift of human sexuality and encourage relationships that are hopeful and aspirational. Based on the school’s values it will seek to develop character within a moral framework based on virtues such as honesty, integrity, self-control, courage, humility, kindness, forgiveness, generosity and a sense of justice but does not seek to teach only one moral position.
There is no doubt that advocating forms of relationship on their own, detached from questions of character and virtue, offers a sterile and legalistic approach to relational ethics. But is it really the case that Christian ethics can be reduced to virtue ethics, with no reference to the forms those relationships take?
7. Is ‘human sexuality’ a gift in this unqualified sense? And if so, does that apply to all ‘sexualities’? And is all of life to be sexualised? Where is there a recognition that modern culture seeks to sexualise every aspect of life, and where is the call to protect children from this?
8. Is the position of the Church of England that we do not ‘seek to teach only one moral position’? If not, how do we address the task of articulating a distinct perspective within a pluralistic culture? If this document was aiming to give Christian parents and teachers confidence, why was it not expressed at ‘We seek to teach the Church’s position alongside other views held within our society’?
I am quite aware that this Charter and the Principles are at the beginning of a process of offering resources—but because of these questions, I am not convinced that, in their current form, they are starting in the right place or heading in the right direction.
What, then, is needed for the next stage of the process, of developing more detailed resources? I would suggest three things:
1. A statement that offers more explicit encouragement for Christian parents and teachers to expound the Church of England’s teaching about relationships, sex and marriage. If Christians involved in this need to be given more confidence, who better than the Education department itself to express and encourage this?
2. Resources from the Church and from other agencies which will assist in this process. Ironically, the new book produced by the non-religious group Transgender Trend, about the importance of our bodies, might be a good place to start.
3. Resources for parents to help them address the issues of relationships, health and sex in the context of the home and connected with what is happening in schools. Just as effective Christian discipleship must happen in the home as well as in church, surely this cluster of very personal issues must also be addressed in the home, and not just delegated to the school environment.
I really look forward to seeing these developments and resources coming from the Education department—working in positive partnership with other agencies.
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