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Seminar 5 - Hazel Henson

On 26 May 2015 the 'Understanding and Christian Doctrine' project met for its final seminar, and heard a presentation by Hazel Henson on her work on the ‘Christianity Project’. This project was born out of a collaboration between the Cambridge Inter-faith Programme’s and the Church of England’s Board of Education, and was aimed at developing a new approach to teaching about Christianity in primary and secondary schools in the UK.

In a brief overview of the 20th century history of RE in the UK, Henson described its development from the work of turn-of-the-century philanthropist Joseph Watson’s founding of schools for the working class that would essentially catechize it’s pupils into the Church of England, through to the post-war period of Ninian Smart and the Lancaster School’s introduction of a phenomenological inquiry into varieties of religions as a cultural study, into the late 20th and early 21st century reductionist, “shared ‘noble’ teachings” emphasis in RE.

A 2010 study by OFSTED found that the teaching that resulted from these models couldn’t present the religions in such a way as to show why and how people actually adhere to them, because it failed to capture the distinctive nature of the various faiths in a way that would be recognizable to their participants. It was particularly poor on articulating religious beliefs. The study was particularly critical of the state of RE in Christian theology. In 2013 OFSTED conducted a new study and, according to their criteria, found that 60% of RE lessons were only satisfactory or adequate, and that the teaching of Christianity in particular tended to be mediocre. A 2014 study found that Church of England schools demonstrated similar inadequacies.

The Christianity Project was born out a desire to address the specific problem of RE in Christian teaching. It asked how whether it was possible to develop a curriculum which would lead pupils into an understanding of the overall shape of Christian theology, and help them understand what it meant for Christians of the past and present to inhabit this shape as they conducted their lives in the world. The goal was that children would come away from RE lessons not simply knowing what happens in a church on Sunday or what the basic plot of Noah’s Ark is, but with a theological understanding of why things happened the way they did on Sunday and why a story like Noah’s Ark was important.

The model developed in the project was based on three key assumptions. First, not all religions are the same. Second, the content and method of teaching should be shaped by the religion being studied. And third, in the case of Christianity this mean that narrative theology can provide a good overall framework.

Beginning with the ‘foundation stage’ the curriculum introduces the youngest pupils to the themes of Creation, Incarnation, and Salvation – not, of course, by offering complex theological explanations, but by exploring stories told in key Christian festivals and practices. In future years, the same overall plot is explored again and again, with new elements being added (such as Fall, or Covenant), with the level of sophistication increasing with each pass through the story. By the time they reach year 6, the pupils should know, for instance, that there are different interpretations of scriptural texts, and be able to compare them.

Summary by Michael Raubach and Mike Higton