Education came to the British Isles along with the message of the Gospel, and for many centuries the church was its patron and sole purveyor. This remained true until long after the Reformation, and early in the nineteenth century the basis of the English elementary system was laid by the rival efforts of the Church of England and of noncomformity in establishing the “National” and the “British” schools for the poor. The first break with tradition came in 1836 with the founding of University College, London (known to contemporary Anglicans as “the Godless institution in Gower Street”). Then in 1870 the first Education Act established a system of local school boards. In the board schools “no catechism or religious formulary distinctive of any denomination” could be taught. But this attempt at neutrality between Church and Non-conformity resulted in neutrality between Christianity and secularism. Henceforth Her Majesty’s Inspectors took no cognizance of the teaching of religion, and the Christian faith—hitherto the integrating factor in the whole curriculum—had to struggle for a place on the timetable.

In Scotland a plan projected by Knox during the Reformation had ultimately come to fruition with the result that every parish had its school long before National and British schools began in England. The fact that most Scots were Presbyterians of one kind or another made it possible to arrange for religious teaching even when the schools became controlled and supported by the government.


In England much of what was lost in 1870 was, however, regained in 1944 when a new Education Act abandoned neutralism regarding religion. Church schools were offered half their capital outlay on agreed improvements, in addition to full running expenses. Even the local authority schools—descendants of the board schools—were required to hold a daily assembly for worship and to teach religion according to an agreed syllabus, and once again the Crown’s Inspectors supervised religious instruction.

How well does the British system of religious education work? The answer is with varying success. The denominational schools, with their own forms of worship and also staffs sympathetic to their outlook, should be able to provide an atmosphere favorable to the nurture of young Christians. But their problem is to find enough convinced Christians as teachers. Britain is suffering from an acute shortage of teachers of all kinds, but the dearth of Christian teachers is a reproach to the churches for their failure to provide enough recruits to the profession. The Church of England cannot fill the places to which it is entitled with convinced and practicing church members in its 26 teacher training colleges. Consequently, its colleges are not providing even the church schools with enough Christian teachers. Without an adequate intake of committed and instructed Christians, church colleges lack the spiritual ethos essential for their task. The consequent shortage of born-again teachers called to be pastors of Christ’s young sheep is the real impediment to a truly Christian education for British children. Therefore, instead of the schools being a nursery for the church, they are themselves a mission field.

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Within this mission field liberal and conservative Christian organizations operate by means of traveling secretaries. The Student Christian Movement, officially supported by the churches, is more concerned—especially in its Sixth Form conferences—with questions of applied Christianity than with the problem of making converts. The Scripture Union, definitely evangelical, works through its Inter Schools Christian Fellowship which operates in the grammar schools through autonomous Christian Unions, of which there are over 300, and in the secondary modern schools by Scripture Union branches, run by Christian members of the school staff. In Scotland, there are over 200 SU branches. In Northern Ireland, every senior school has an SU branch, as do 30 grammar schools. In addition, the ISCF runs one-day and three-day (residential) conferences, while the year-round work of sowing the good seed of the Gospel finds its fruition in the 111 camps held in various parts of Britain during the summer holidays when the emphasis is on evangelism.


The university scene is remarkably varied. In England and Wales only the religious foundations—Oxford, Cambridge, Durham, and little Lampeter—give official recognition to the Christian faith with college chapels and chaplains, and—at Oxford and Cambridge—university churches. The English provincial universities are avowedly secular, and their atmosphere predominantly materialistic. Although the various denominations appoint chaplains, full or part time, only a small proportion of the students attend any place of worship, and there is little interest in the discussion of religion. Contrast Cambridge, where a recent census indicated a weekly attendance at worship of nearly 50 per cent! Scottish universities are ancient foundations, and their senate and court meetings are opened and closed with prayer. Each university has its own official chaplain who belongs to the Church of Scotland but whose work is interdenominational. The proportion of Christians among the students is probably higher than in the country at large.

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The most effective Christian witness in all the universities is that undertaken by the students themselves. This is true even of “Oxbridge,” despite the well-attended college chapels.

1. Cambridge: Among the 7,000 students the multiplicity of religious societies is quite remarkable. There are denominational societies, of which the Methodist, with a membership of 230, is the largest. The Congregational is half that size. Then come the Robert Hall (Baptist) Society, the Presbyterian Association, the Young Friends (Quaker), and a small Lutheran Society. All these, operating through fellowship groups, breakfast and tea meetings, provide Christian fellowship and hold some students who might otherwise drift from Christian influence. There is no Anglican Society as such, but the Church Union takes care of Anglo-Catholics, the Church Missionary Society Fellowship fosters missionary interest with emphasis on vocation, and the Cranmer Society aims at providing instruction in the Reformation principles of the Church of England. Two interdenominational societies, the William Temple and the Student Christian Movement, stress the application of Christianity to political, social, and economic spheres, and the SCM also seeks to co-ordinate the work of the denominational societies.

Amid this plethora of religious activity, the task of faithfully presenting Christ as the Saviour of the individual is largely left to the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union which, with its 400 full members and equal number of fringe adherents, is the oldest and most vigorous Christian Society. CICCU’s daily prayer meeting, Saturday Bible reading, and Sunday evangelistic sermon are supplemented in each college by small Bible study groups and prayer meetings—some on behalf of student evangelism in the university, and some to support missionary work abroad. The greatest evangelistic effort is concentrated in the annual “Freshers’ Sermon” and the Triennial Mission to the University, and, down the years, thousands have been won for Christ by these.

2. Other Universities. Although in all the universities student witness is carried on in a pattern similar to that at Cambridge, only Oxford and Durham (where OICCU and DICCU have considerable influence) approach the Cambridge model. But they all have their denominational societies, their SCM, their CU, and again only the CUs make the winning of souls for Christ and the nurture of Christians by Bible study and prayer their chief activities. In Scotland the denominational societies flourish less, and the CUs possibly a little more, than in England.

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There are two essential requirements if the Christian faith is to regain its rightful place in British education. First, there must be far more Christian teachers in the schools, and especially in the Grammar schools for they produce the undergraduates and the future teachers. Until the Christian Church produces enough teachers, the benefits of the 1944 Act will not be fully reaped. Secondly, the university CU’s must beware of becoming isolated groups, the members of which make few friends outside the union. “Holy huddles” are pleasanter and easier than involvement, but Christians are told to be salt, and salt is no use if it remains in the salt cellar. Fortunately, the Inter-Varsity Fellowship, which acts as a link between the CUs, encourages them to reflect on the image of Christianity their members are giving.

The Shade of Lincoln Walks

The shade of Lincoln walks upon these streets

Looking with longing at the passing men;

He yearns to speak something to those he meets, For here he feels the ancient pain again.

Fear plants a furrow on their countenance,

Dread casts a darkness on their tortured path:

They walk in fetters who were born to dance,

Languish in bondage who were meant to laugh.


Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.

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