Ralph Townsend

Keeping faith

Compulsory chapel attendance does not mean religious indoctrination, says Ralph Townsend

 Most English independent schools, though not all, have their origins in Christian mission, Catholic or Protestant, and most maintain a compulsory element of religious instruction, both in the classroom and in the school chapel. It goes without saying that most things that form the basis of a school’s life are compulsory: attending classes, keeping fit,
adherence to the school rules, and so on. No institution or orderly society can run without an acceptance that compulsion about fundamental things is essential. It is not optional to pay taxes or (if you want to drive) obtain a driver’s licence.

The first question to answer, therefore, is this: is compulsory attendance at chapel a fundamental essential? I would say yes, for several reasons. Any generation of young people is inclined to assume that it is the first to question the validity of compulsory attendance at religious services in the chapel. The truth, of course, is that has been questioned generation upon generation for a very long time.

Most English independent schools were set up, among other things, to train young people in the principles and disciplines of the Christian faith. Apart from their statutes, the physical arrangement of the school often places the chapel dead centre. All societies, great or small, need a moral reference point as to their core values: for most English independent schools, the chapel expresses those values, which are the Christian values underpinning our democratic understanding of the intrinsic value of the human person. All communities need a regular gathering point where they experience their togetherness or solidarity: in many schools the chapel provides that place. In the case of Winchester College this has been so for more than 600 years.

Tradition matters in any society. In all three schools of which I have been headmaster, whenever I have made a decision to change something, the first objection, particularly on the part of boys, is that I am ‘changing a tradition’.

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