Reverend Dr James Walters, LSE Chaplain and Interfaith Adviser, writes about the Faith Centre’s relationships with the local community, widening participation and promoting interfaith dialogue in local schools…
Public engagement is a core part of LSE’s work and the Faith Centre is no exception. For the last three years students of different faiths have visited local primary schools in Interfaith Week in November. Contemporary London has an extremely diverse religious makeup and school teachers are not always equipped to address the issues and tensions that can potentially arise. So our students have led discussions among the children on religious commonalities and differences, as well as demonstrating by their presence the important fact that people of all faiths can attend university and become friends with one another. This year our workshops focussed on how people of different faiths can ask common questions together such as “how do we live a good life?”, “how do we face suffering?” and “how do we understand gender equality?”
To build on this programme, since moving into the Centre, we have been returning the invitations! While we await the installation of Christopher Le Brun’s stained glass, we ran an interfaith art project for children from three local schools to work on temporary window hangings depicting our theme “the sacred desert”. Recent participants in our interfaith trip to the Holy Land joined with professional artist Nathalie Frost of Love Art for Schools for a day session that combined the art project with learning about university life and interfaith dialogue. The finished work will be going into those schools later this month.
Then last week it was the teachers’ turn as we co-hosted an event with Camden SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on Religious Education) for Camden head teachers and RE coordinators. This included representatives from faith schools, community schools and the UCL Academy. Entitled “Religion, Secularity and Learning in the 21st Century School”, we had input from Lesley Prior, chair of the National Association of SACREs on the current state of RE in the UK, followed by a keynote address by LSE Director, Professor Craig Calhoun. Craig gave a historical overview of how religion has been increasingly marginalised in the educational context since the Reformation and how this is currently in transition. He discussed how religion can be an important way of engaging with current world issues and is generating new moral questions among younger people. However, this can create conflict between the comfort zones of teachers and the enquiring minds of students. He emphasised that teachers need to have confidence, and understand their own identity and purpose in teaching RE. This is rooted in a belief that faith can enrich the conversation and should not be something avoided in the classroom.
The day provided an opportunity for both primary and secondary school teachers to reflect on how this area of school life has changed dramatically in the last couple of decades. Even the less diverse faith schools are now educating young people in a context that is both complexly religious and complexly secular. Sharing our experience and the resources of the new Centre with those educating a new generation of multifaith Londoners helped to forge some new thinking for, what we hope will be, a more cohesive future.