The Church of England’s new charter for Relationship, Sex and Health Education.

What is the new charter?

Having recently produced a digital charter, the Church of England has now produced what it calls ‘A charter for faith sensitive and inclusive relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education (RSHE).’ [1]

The background to this new charter is the fact that from September 2020, all primary schools will be required to teach both Relationships Education. and Health Education and that all secondary schools will be required to teach Relationships Education and Sex Education. The new charter, which has just been issued by the Church of England’s education office, is intended as a document which ‘schools of all foundations, faiths or otherwise’ will sign up to as a declaration of the principles which will underly their teaching of these subjects.

The charter itself consists of eight commitments and it is preceded by introductory material from the education office which explains the thinking behind it.

Two problems with the thinking revealed in the introduction.

From an orthodox Christian perspective there are two serious problems with the thinking revealed in the introduction.

The first problem concerns the purpose of education.

The introductory material quotes two biblical passages which it says underpin the Church of England’s approach to education:

‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.(Genesis I:27, NRSV)

I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness.(John 10:10, GNB)’

It then says:

‘Everyone will be treated with dignity as all people are made in the image of God and loved equally by God. All pupils have a right to an education which enables them to flourish and is set in a learning community where differences of lifestyle and opinion (within that which is permissible under UK law) are treated with dignity and respect ; bullying of all kinds is eliminated; and where they are free to be themselves and fulfil their potential without fear’

These words are intended as an application of the two biblical passages to the sphere of education.  These words are fine in themselves, and set out principles for education which all Christians should accept and seek to put into practice. However, the problem is that they don’t address the crucial question of what human flourishing involves.

Down the centuries many answers have been given to the question ‘what does it mean to flourish as a human being?’, but the Christian answer is that people truly flourish when they live in the way that God created them to live. God created his human creatures to live in a certain way as those made in his image and they will only truly flourish, both in this world and in the world to come, if they obediently  live in this way.

That is what the  ‘life in all its fulness’ offered by Jesus means. Because of the power of sin in our lives we cannot naturally live in the way we were created to live, but Jesus offers us the supernatural opportunity to begin to do so.

This being the case, an education that is  intended to enable people to flourish needs to be an education that enables people to learn what it means to live in obedience to the way that God created them to live through faith in Jesus Christ. If we offer children and young people anything less, then we are selling them short. However much they learn about other subjects, they will never truly flourish as human beings unless they have learned about what Paul calls the ‘obedience of faith’ (Romans 1:5) and have begun to put it into practice.

The education office’s material is fundamentally flawed because of its silence on this point. What they are proposing is thus a sub-Christian form of education that will never lead people to the flourishing life God desires for them.

The second problem with the introductory material is that it declares that Church of England schools need to ‘clearly   differentiate between  factual   teaching   (biology, medicine, the law, marriage, different types of families and the composition of society) and moral teaching about relationships and  values.’

From a Christian perspective such differentiation is entirely mistaken. Moral teaching that faithfully reflects how God has created his human creatures to live is just as much factual teaching as teaching about the other subjects mentioned in this quotation. For example, it is factually just as much the case that God has said ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (Exodus 20:4) as it is that sex is biologically oriented towards pregnancy, or that the Equality Act prohibits discrimination against certain categories of people, or that there are now families where the adults are in a same-sex relationship.

The big point here is that God’s creation of the world means that there is a moral order that is both objective and universal in just the same way that there is a physical order which is objective and universal. We learn about this moral order, and what it  means to live rightly in the light of it, through the use of our natural reason and through the Bible, which authoritatively confirms and supplements what we learn through our natural reason. To be properly educated children and young people need to be taught that this is the case and what this means for the way they should behave.

Problems with the commitments in the charter itself.

These two problems with the introductory material are then reflected in the eight commitments of the charter itself.

These commit schools to helping children and young people to form ‘healthy relationships’ and to promoting ‘reverence  for  the  gift  of  human  sexuality.’ However, they are silent as to what ‘healthy relationships’ involve (except for the vacuous statement that they should be ‘hopeful and aspirational’) and they are equally silent about what it means to show ‘reverence for the gift of human sexuality.’

The charter further commits schools to giving children and young people the ‘wisdom and skills’ to ‘make their ‘own informed decisions’ but it is silent about what this means in practice.

This vagueness reflects the fact that there is no commitment to advocating any particular approach to morality, The idea seems to be that children and young people should be offered a smorgasbord of different approaches to sex and relationships and then left to make up their own minds. We would not take this approach when teaching them chemistry, or maths, or foreign languages, so why should it be adopted in teaching about sex and relationships?

Education surely needs to be about passing on knowledge to the next generation. As Christians we know that this knowledge includes (a) knowledge about the moral order made known to us by God through our natural reason and through the words of the Bible, and (b) knowledge about how through Jesus we are supernaturally enabled to live according to this moral order.

The charter seems to want to relativize this knowledge so that the truth God has made known to us is reduced to simply one of many ‘tenets and varying interpretations of religious communities on matters of sex and relationships.’  If the charter is put into effect children and young people will not be taught that there is a right way to live, and that through faith in Jesus Christ they can begin to live in this way. They will be taught instead  that there are very many different opinions about the right way to live and that it is up to them to make up their own minds about the matter and up to them to then try to live in the way they decide.

Two misleading arguments in relation to the charter.

It may argued that there is a legal obligation to teach RSHE in the way suggested by the charter and its introductory material because of what is said in Equality Act of 2010. The material from the education office implies this is the case by the way that it links the new charter to the requirements of the Equality Act. The introductory material notes, for example, that ‘All schools and academies are required to act within the requirements of the law, including the Equality Act of 2010’ and the third commitment in the charter declares that the way RSHE is taught will not ‘discriminate against any of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act.’

It is true that that schools are covered by the Equality Act. Part 6 Chapter 1 of the Equality Act lays down in detail how the act applies to schools. However, it also specifically states that ‘Nothing in this Chapter applies to anything done in connection with the content of the curriculum.’ [2]  This means that the Equality Act does not determine what should be in the RSHE curriculum. This argument is thus simply a red herring.

It may also be argued that schools have to teach in the way suggested by the charter  because we live in a pluralistic society in which there are many different religious and philosophical approaches to sex and relationships just as there are on many other matters, and in which there will be children and young people in school who come from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds and from a range of different types of families.  However, the plurality in society and in the backgrounds of school pupils does not negate the responsibility for those engaged in Christian education to pass on as clearly as possible the knowledge that has been revealed to us by God.

If Church of England schools are simply going to echo the variety of voices in contemporary society rather than clearly and confidently declaring Christian truth to the next generation, then there is very little point in their existence. Children and young people will not obtain the fulness of life Jesus offers unless someone tells them about it. It is surely the purpose of church schools to do this and that has to include giving clear teaching to children and young people about what it means to live rightly as followers of Jesus  in the areas of sex and relationships.

The charter that the Church of England has produced will not help this to happen. The education office should therefore be asked to withdraw it and produce a properly thought through plan for encouraging an authentically  Christian approach to teaching RSHE instead.

[1] The Church of England, ‘Relationship, Sex and Health Education,’ at

https://www.churchofengland.org/more/education-and-schools/church-schools-and-

academies/relationships-sex-and-health-education

[2] Equality Act 2010, 89 (2) at https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/89.

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