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Learning About Others Teaches Us About Ourselves

by Michael Ford last modified 24 Sep, 2018 10:28 AM

Visits to places of worship of other faiths provide us with a mirror as well as better understanding of others.

It’s a classic story of the internet age: a far-right group publishes a story on its website claiming that children are being ‘brainwashed’ on a school visit to a local mosque; often the facts are a little garbled; the school may find itself receiving a flurry of phone calls and e-mails, often from outside the area. Outsiders also encourage parents to withhold permission for their children to attend the visit.

Our Church schools are unambiguously Christian schools. They are open to children of all faiths and none, but they are rooted in Christian values. They teach positively about the Christian faith, and about its role in the story of this country. So why do they teach children about Islam and mosques, as well as other faiths and their places of worship?

For starters, they do this because this is the law of the land, and it has been for thirty years. The 1988 Education Act states that Religious Education ‘shall reflect the fact that religious traditions are in the main Christian whilst taking into account the teachings and practices of the other principal religions in Great Britain’. This was never controversial until recently.

All children, whether the school they attend is a church school, secular community school, or associated with another faith, must be taught about the major faiths in this country, including the central role Christianity has played in shaping the England and United Kingdom that exist today.

Religious education must be taught as an academic subject that is objective, critical and pluralistic. No school should be offering religious indoctrination rather than religious education. Faith continues to play a major role in both people’s day-to-day lives and major world events, good religious education enables young people to understand themselves, their neighbours, and their world.

As Islam is the second most practised faith in the country after Christianity, there would be something deeply lacking if our children were not taught about its main beliefs and practices. Visiting a mosque also gives our children a chance to put into practice something that will be a lifelong gift to them in any context – how to be a good guest as well as a good host, to accept hospitality willingly and graciously.

Respect, of course, can only work both ways. The culture and faith of both the visitors and those being visited need to be treated with utmost respect.

The giving and receiving of hospitality has long been a cardinal British value, and so has tolerance. Live and let live is as British as it gets. Learning the facts about what others believe allows our young people to make informed judgements rather than basing their opinions on internet myths often peddled by people with a sinister agenda.

In encountering people with other faiths, we don’t only have the chance to gain a more accurate picture of what they believe, but also to have a mirror in which to understand ourselves better. We don’t only gain an appreciation of Islam – or Judaism, Sikhism, Hinduism and Buddhism – but also a greater appreciation of what makes Christianity distinct and unique.

We learn in what respects our culture and our faith are unique gifts to the world, and also the ways in which all people are ultimately the same. At the end of the day, we are far more united than the things that divide us.

The Ven Antony MacRow-Wood is Archdeacon of Dorset and Chair of the Salisbury Diocesan Board of Education.

This story first appeared here.

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