The Times and the Daily Telegraph both report that the Church of England has suggested that there be a toning down of hymns with confessional content out of sensitivity to those attending its schools who do not share its faith.
If the Church of England has no message to share, though, why does it persist in its control of so many schools? It is not as though school patronage is doing it any favours. The Church of England continues its long-term steep decline. School patronage has not stemmed the loss of membership; if anything, it has probably drained the church of personnel and resources that might better have been spent elsewhere.
In the Nineteenth Century, evangelical Christians opposed Parliamentary provision for Church of England schools. The legislation was seen by non-conformists as the subsidising of the Church of England by ratepayers. If Christianity was to be taught, they believed the lessons should be non-denominational and limited in their scope. The established church in England was regarded by evangelical Christians as leading to nominal Christianity, it demanded no personal commitment of its members and baptised whoever might come along. If one delves into history, there is a strong evangelical tradition that desired a separation of church and state and a reduction of the influence of the established church in spheres such as education.
A hundred and fifty years after the 1870 Education Act that provided for those Church of England schools , the strongest churches are those which control no schools, those which rely upon nothing other than their own pulling power. If the furthering of the Gospel depended upon the control of schools, then such churches would not exist.
If Christianity does not depend upon subjecting primary school pupils to such musical items as The Butterfly Song and banal prayers, then why do churches persist with their control? If there are no theological grounds for ecclesiastical involvement in education, and the message regarding the toning down of hymns suggests theological motivation is not at the forefront of thinking, then the reasons must be much more human ones. Controlling the ethos of primary school education, does not create a Christian society, it creates the nominalism so disliked by those in the past who regarded themselves as committed Christians.
The Church of England could render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s; they could embrace a separation of church and state, so that those who are called “Christian” might really be Christian, so that church members might be people who have made a personal commitment and who have a personal faith. The Church could then confidently serve Jesus among those whom Jesus himself would have regarded as friends; the Church could could happily turn its back on the past and seek to live out the Gospel in daily life.