Every morning at school, we’d file into the main hall for Assembly, the youngest boys in the front rows, the oldest at the back. After the Upper Sixth Form and Lower Sixth Form boys had taken their places, members of the teaching staff would file in via the walkway in the centre of the room, between the rows of chairs and thence onto the stage, thus facing the assembled ‘congregation’. Finally, the headmaster would take his place on the platform, mounting the steps to the left and taking a central position, rather like a priest.
This daily ritual would include the often passionate singing of wonderful Welsh hymns, accompanied by the powerful school organ, a memory I treasure and something I’ll never forget. Here’s one of my favourite hymns, sung by the Morriston Orpheus Choir.
It was fundamentally a religious ceremony, incorporating a Bible reading and prayers. Needless to say, most of the hymns had religious content. The whole process would usually end with the singing of another rousing Welsh language hymn – and then the boys would file out again and prepare for lessons. This was back in the 1960s. It was taken for granted that everyone had an identical Christian faith, apart from one group: Roman Catholics were allowed to be absent and stay in a designated room for the duration of Assembly. There was no room for scepticism.
And, for all I know, this procedure still goes on at what was then the boys-only Caerphilly Grammar-Technical School but is now the coeducational (mixed sex) comprehensive, St Martins School.
I remember it all so well. But I also remember my own epiphany moment when I decided that there was no God. Alongside lessons in Biology, Chemistry and Physics that offered rational explanations for so many aspects of existence – including Darwin‘s theory of evolution, complex chemical theories and Einstein‘s theory of relativity, none of which bore any relation to anything in the Bible – I was expected to believe in what I came to regard as nonsensical cant. I was also taught Religious Education, during which Bible stories were presented as historical fact.
And one day I decided that I wasn’t going to take part in Assembly anymore. My hard-working father had died suddenly of a severe brain infection at the age of 38. I was fourteen and my younger brother seven years of age. Thus my mother was left to bring up two young boys on her own. I did have time to pray for my Dad’s recovery, even though I was already quite sceptical about the existence of a god. But clearly the prayers I’d said when Dad was on his death bed in hospital were a meaningless gesture.
I’d mused about the idea for some time; but I remember the very point in the very road where I experienced the realisation that I’d been hoodwinked – like a reverse revelation. All those school assemblies, all the beautiful hymns, all those Sunday school attendances at St Catherine’s (recently rebuilt), reading the gospels religiously and saying all those prayers – it was all just a waste of time. Furthermore, I felt that I’d been brainwashed. Yet daily attendance at school assembly was compulsory.
Being in that hall every morning and going through such a meaningless ceremony began to feel like I was having salt rubbed into my wound. As I saw it, I was being forced to thank God for taking away my beloved Dad. I fairly quickly concluded that there was no god – and that even if there had been, he wouldn’t deserve any praise from me. As far as I was concerned, I had every right to absent myself from Assembly. So, one morning, that’s what I did. I stayed in my classroom … aware that my absence would bring the full weight of school discipline crashing down on my head.
By the way, I was delighted to read, last week, that a couple in Burford, West Oxfordshire, had won a concession by Oxford Diocesan Schools Trust (ODST) after challenging their policy of collective compulsory worship.
Lee and Lizanne Harris challenged compulsory collective worship in school assembly on human rights grounds. They’d discovered that their children’s school insisted that their kids pray and watch re-enactments of Bible scenes during assemblies at academy school Burford Primary School, despite the school’s having no religious character. Bible stories were presented as fact. In addition, their children were made to attend past school leavers’ ceremonies held in a local church, during which students were presented with a bible as a ‘guide to life.’
Backed by Humanists UK, the couple withdrew their application for judicial review after ODST agreed to provide “a meaningful alternative assembly of equal educational worth for all pupils withdrawn from compulsory prayers”.
As soon as it was discovered I had stayed out of Assembly I was given a severe reprimand by my form master – but, much more dramatically, I was sent to the Headmaster’s office. Actually, from what I recall Mr Bell-Jones (left) gave me quite a mild talking-to. But he did leave me in no doubt that I’d get into severe hot water if I repeated my protest. So I never did.
But my opinion hasn’t changed after all these years, and I’m not in such a small minority anymore. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, over half – 53% – of all UK adults describe themselves as having no religious affiliation, up from 48% in 2015. The latest figure is the highest since the BSA survey began tracking religious affiliation in 1983, when 31% said they had no religion.
With these figures in mind, I wonder how much compulsory worship is still in operation in UK schools currently.
I pat myself on the back for having stayed out of Assembly that morning. I feel just as strongly that no religion should be forced on any child. What’s more I had no hesitation in completely agreeing with Stephen Fry‘s sentiments around the notion of meeting God, in his memorable interview with the late Gay Byrne.