Helping British teachers explore new avenues of religious education

Few school subjects have changed more radically in recent years than religious education, a compulsory subject in the United Kingdom and in separate (religious) schools in Canada and an elective subject in Australia.

At the Regional Religious Education Center in Isleworth, Middlesex, Maurice Lynch, whose main interest is exploring religious education for primary school children through storytelling, explained how he intends to broaden the teacher's vision of a story's ''religious, moral, and spiritual dimension.''

Bible stories might be used, or nursery rhymes, or a variety of well-known children's stories dealing with social subjects, he said. He helps teachers to pursue the child-centered approach, to relate stories to the child's own experience; to develop in them a sense of awe, wonder, celebration, fatherhood - ''the spiritual dimension of life.''

''The teachers need to feel a responsibility to the development of the whole child, to create a sensitive approach to what it might feel like to take a religious view of life - what it would feel like to be a Jew or a Muslim. This child-centered approach and openness toward a religious point of view then becomes a quest,'' Mr. Lynch explained.

The approach, he said, is no longer indoctrination, an initiation into belief , but rather an attempt to lead the children to see the part religion plays in human life, to help them evaluate religion.

In the place of the traditional study of the Bible and Christian faith, religious education as a school subject in Great Britain today aims to develop an understanding of the nature of religion itself and its significance in human life.

Through a study of the origin and nature of the great world religions, a pupil can begin to understand how private convictions and public decisions are related. The goal is that the student will also gain a greater sensitivity toward other peoples' beliefs and customs and a deeper knowledge of himself.

To help teachers achieve these goals, the center offers courses that include authentic presentations of religious customs, rituals, feasts, and symbols of the major world faiths: Christian, Judaic, Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu. Desmond Brennan, the center director, told me the center was set up in 1973 by the Department of Education and Science when the present prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, headed that department.

''It came into being in response to a crie de coeur from teachers of religious education to give them positive help in carrying out their difficult task in a multifaith society. The aim is to provide a variety of innovative in-service courses, not to lay down hard and fast rules, but to relate to their needs.''

At the center teachers compare new syllabuses produced in different counties and meet with teachers from other boroughs and with visitors from abroad; the result is a wide exchange of ideas.

''The thrust is not to proselytize,'' Mr. Brennan said, ''but to assist teachers to help their pupils to consider the ultimate questions that touch us all: birth, human relationships, and death, and to give them religious signposts , one might say.''

A well-stocked lending library is maintained by the center, and audio-visual material is also available on loan for school presentations. Schools and individual teachers can avail themselves of the center's consultative services. The center prepares book reviews for teachers and conducts seminars on religious education for publishers and education editors.

Peter Wetz is in charge of the loan service and audio-visual material, and all these teaching aids are being fed into a computer terminal for easy reference.

Any teacher interested may write directly to the Secretary, Regional R.E. Center, West London Institute of Higher Education, Borough Road, Isleworth, Middlesex TW7 5DU

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