Churchfields Schools' Lecture
9th June 1999

'What They Never Told You About Spiritual Development!'

by Terence Copley
Professor of Religious Education, University of Exeter


The start point for this lecture has to be ourselves. In the building hearing this lecture and among the readers of the printed version we may find parents and friends of the schools who are committed and practising Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Baha'i, Rastafarians, Zoroastrians and other faiths. There will also be less committed members of these religions, whose practical involvement in their faith on a daily and weekly basis is rather less but who, when the proverbial chips are down, identity with it. We will also find those who are quite clear that they are atheists or agnostics or humanists. In addition, there will almost certainly be people who are completely confused about religion and haven't got round to sorting it out! The first point I want to make is a simple one: as far as education is concerned, all these people have a right to be here; all of them can join in the debate about spiritual development and all of them have something to contribute to it.

The second point to note is that 'spiritual, moral, social and cultural development', 'SMSC' as it's called in the trade, is a requirement on schools to deliver and on Ofsted (and in church schools, Section 23 inspectors) to inspect. That's quite a thought! Inspecting spiritual and moral development, let alone social and cultural! How do we grade spiritual development? What league tables does it fit? How do we score our pupils? What would Mother Teresa have scored? Or the Buddha? Or Gandhi? Or Zoroaster? What qualifies the inspector of this subject!? Wisely, inspection has concentrated on the arrangements and provision for SMSC, not the development of individual pupils. Your daughter or son will not arrive home having done SATs in SMSC.

There are other factors that define the place of SMSC in our schools:

  • SMSC is not the same as RE, although there may be overlap

  • SMSC is intended to be delivered through different curriculum areas, perhaps art, music, dance, drama, literature are obvious areas for this - and in collective worship. SMSC seems to be heading for inclusion in PAL (Preparation for Adult Life), the new grouping that includes citizenship and PSHE

  • the Qualifications & Curriculum Authority and its predecessors (NCC and SCAA) have provided guidance for teachers

So what is spiritual development? To answer this we must look not just at ourselves as the sort of mixed audience I've already mentioned, but at the English as the defining community for the legal provision for this. The English are of course diverse religiously, ethnically and culturally. Can we generalise about them? With the important provisos that apply to any generalisations, I think we can.

The English and religion

If Martians landed in England, what might they notice about the English and religion?

The English don't seem to be able to join any religion en masse, but they don't seem to be able to give religion up either. They like it around, the sound of country parish church bells for a summer Sunday evensong, Christmas carols in the shops from September onwards. Many people put C of E on hospital admission forms, in case they encounter the Almighty more quickly than they intended. There's a sort of apathetic goodwill towards the minority who take religion seriously: 'We don't want to stop them, provided they don't want us to take it seriously too'!

The English find religion hard to handle. They can't quite decide whether it's the cure or whether it's the illness of the world. Some have all sorts of guilt because they aren't religious; others run away from the issue by telling themselves that religions are divisive, that they cause wars. The reality is that religions can be a force for bad, but also a force for good. We can't label religions too easily. But it's easy to present religions as divisive and competitive: you are in or you are out; 'my' religion is better than 'yours' etc. Often religious believers find other religions hard to cope with. For some people it's easy not to notice religion at all. It's simply not on their horizon. They don't even think about religion, let alone reach a point where they can make an informed choice.

In the UK media, religion is presented either as harmful - the portrait of Islam - or as full of well meaning buffoons, like the vicar in Dad's Army, or as caught into that perennially English pre-occupation, naughty sex. Vicar runs off with choir-mistress, or choir boy. All this might be amusing, if it weren't that religion as presented in the media is the only encounter many people have with it. The media does not merely influence, it controls their view. That's serious.

But our imaginary Martian might easily conclude that in the UK the real national religion is shopping. It's become a dominating national pre-occupation. That's where the people are in their millions. The people demand 24 hour opening. That's where they spend their time and money. The great out-of-town superstores have become the cathedrals of our age, catering for food, finance, furniture, pharmaceuticals - even funerals. We can buy our spectacles, CDs, videos and contraceptives. We can get nappies and baby foods when the contraceptives fail. You can stay there all day - and now all night - and buy a meal. The long queue for Lottery tickets expresses our belief in the mysterious power of money to change human destiny. So we have fact in the superstore: our daily bread on the shelves, and fantasy, our millionaire status in this week's Lottery win. These symbolize our values. That's why as a nation we use these stores, even when the local shop (if it hasn't closed down) is often no more expensive and frequently more personal.

The Me culture

We inhabit a Me-centred culture in which my rights, my wishes, my ambitions, are held to be supreme. Why shouldn't I? seems to be an unanswerable question to many children. Why shouldn't I ... have a day off school, have sex with whom I fancy, not bother to work at a boring assignment, go abroad for a holiday even if I'm in debt, expect a flat of my own to be provided when I want to leave home? This cultural move is illustrated by the shift in attitudes towards alcohol. When I first started teaching in secondary schools in the late sixties, you could discuss with Year 10 or 11 children this question:

What might be wrong with going out with the deliberate intention of getting totally drunk?

They'd come up with answers like: it's antisocial; other people have to clean up the mess; it's a weird way to make yourself 'happy'; it's just a form of drug abuse, alcohol is a depressant etc. When I teach now in the late 90s classroom, if I raise the same question, the children look at me as if I'm the Martian - what planet is he living on? It's a stupid question to them, like whether vitamins are left handed. There's nothing wrong with going out to get totally drunk if I want to do it!

Another example of the Me culture is the tendency now for parents to make up the spelling of their children's forenames. The convention that there was a set way of doing it which you had to follow if you chose that name has disappeared in recent decades. It makes writing school reports a nightmare! Recently we've begun to customize funerals with music, poetry etc from the departed and put their photograph on the gravestone; nothing wrong with that, unless it shows an inability to come to terms with the end of Me, but it is part of a significant trend, like the demand to hold weddings anywhere from underwater to hang-gliding. Notice what's happened? In a mere thirty or forty years the Me culture has advanced, born out of a less authoritarian society, more affluence and a media culture of the young that makes parents who're trying to put the brakes on feel like dinosaurs. It also means that its effects are less noticed by large numbers of people under the age of 40 who have been born into it or grown up in it. They are quite unaware of the Me culture that has shaped them. That too is serious.

The Me-centred culture takes a me-centred view of religion: what's religion going to do for me? It doesn't ask the harder question: what is truth? Even Pontius Pilate got that far! (John 18.38)

Cracks in the Me culture

Yet as my mother once said (although it's not cool to quote your mother in public in a Me-centred culture!) you get a fairly humbling view of yourself when you're naked except for an operating gown and you're waiting to go into theatre for major surgery. You also realise you're vulnerable when your special relationship breaks up, or your job disappears, or your child is made the victim of systematic bullying, or someone you care about dies or a hurricane blows the roof off your house. In such situations I am not in control; the Me-culture is exposed as a sham. What are we to do? Lie on the floor on our backs kicking our legs, like the tantrum of the toddler who is also in a Me culture? That's when some people are made aware of the possibility of what one might call the spiritual, the other, the more than material, the 'more than meets the eye' in life, that dimension of reality which might reach the parts that shopping doesn't reach.

Popular spirituality

The death of Princess Diana showed that the although the UK is not Christian, it isn't atheist either. The notes written to her in condolence books and on labels on flowers presupposed she could receive the messages. Her resting place, the lake island grave of a sleeping princess, had echoes of Avalon and the King Arthur legend. Nor was the popular mourning all a media hype. Contrary to what the media assumed about Diana's death, this sort of mourning was not a new national phenomenon: something similar happened on 11th November 1920 when Lutyen's Cenotaph was unveiled after the Great War. Whitehall was twelve feet deep in flowers. It's a sort of inarticulate spirituality.

The English seem to find the spiritual easier to handle than the religious: the spiritual is open to atheists and agnostics. It's more vague. It doesn't require you to believe specific things, for instance about God. But it offers a sort of route to explore the unscripted part of life, the submerged part of the iceberg, the part we so often keep down until it erupts (if that doesn't confuse icebergs with volcanoes) into our everyday life.

Let's examine the spiritual further and see how it fits into school: the national curriculum has after all been written by people who're living with the sort of pictures of religion we've just been looking at.

The spiritual and the curriculum

In the end we have to talk about values. We have to stop the sixties pretence that 'any dream will do'. When I was in Nottingham Prison - as a prison visitor - I met a professional bank robber. In conversation he informed me that he ought to be given a stall at my secondary school's careers convention. He said his was an interesting job, he didn't harm people physically and he took what the banks could easily afford (Nottingham and the Robin Hood motif was perhaps in his mind), it was a job with short working hours and you got Bank Holidays! Or again, if in your Churchfield Schools we were discussing with children and someone said, 'Well, what's really wrong with child abuse?', we wouldn't respond by saying, 'Well, that's a very interesting point of view, we all ought to think about it carefully' and thereby promote it as an option. In other words there are some core values, which cut across religions and ethnic groups and gender and other areas and which are common. These are mainly moral. We might counsel bullies, but bullying is never negotiable - it's plain wrong. In extreme forms it can lead to victim suicide. However, apart from a tendency to hear the word 'moral' and think 'sex', it's significant that our society finds moral education easier to talk about than spiritual! If some moral values illustrate culture collision - the rights and wrongs of arranged marriages, for instance - other moral values are still absolutes, even in a Me-culture.

The question is, are there absolute core values about spiritual development?

What does the word spiritual mean to you? Or spirituality? Or spiritual development? Are you spiritually developed?

'When I use a word' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.'

'The question is', said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean different things.'

'The question is', said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all...When I make a word do a lot of work...I always pay it extra'

In 1993 the NCC had a go with words about SD. They identified aspects of spiritual development which included:

  • an appreciation that people have individual and shared beliefs on which they base their lives, and how beliefs contribute to personal identity;

  • a sense of awe, wonder and mystery,

  • experiencing feelings of transcendence...

  • search for meaning and purpose,

  • reflecting on the origins and purpose of life and responding to challenging experiences of life such as beauty, suffering and death;

  • self-knowledge, an awareness of oneself in terms of thoughts, feelings, emotions, responsibilities and experiences;

  • relationships, recognising the worth of each individual, developing a sense of community, the ability to relate to others;

  • creativity, expressing innermost thoughts and feelings through, for example, art, music, literature and crafts,

  • exercising the imagination, inspiration, intuition and insight;

  • feelings and emotions,

  • being moved by beauty or kindness, hurt by injustice or aggression,

  • a growing awareness of when it is important to control such feelings and how to use them as a source of growth (NCC Paper, 1993: 2f).

In 1996, SCAA tried again.

They suggested that spirituality might mean

  • 'the essence of being human, including the ability to surpass the boundaries of the physical and material';

  • development of the inner life, insight and vision;

  • an inclination to believe in ideals and possibilities that transcend our experience of the world;

  • a response to God, the "other" or the "ultimate";

  • a propensity to foster human attributes, such as love, faithfulness and goodness, that could not be classed as physical;

  • the inner world of creativity and imagination;

  • the quest for meaning in life, for truth and ultimate values;

  • the sense of identity and self-worth which enables us to value others.

At the same time, David Hay, a zoologist by academic background, was researching this area at Nottingham University. In a book with Rebecca Nye, he argues that spiritual awareness is 'natural human disposition, a biological reality... mediated through and influenced by one's own particular culture or tradition'. In other words, we're all spiritual beings because we're human beings.

Wow! What are we to make of all this?

Comments about spiritual development in education

All this is a brave attempt to find for our children a recipe which will not be divisive, with which parents of any religion or none might be happy. A sort of lowest common denominator of spiritual development that takes into account the mixed audience we have in this lecture and its readership and in our schools and society. But it's got five big problems

  • it doesn't correspond to any of the different spiritualities among the different world religions (it hasn't 'learned from religion', which is the National Model RE Syllabus AT2), so it's a sort of hybrid spirituality which comes from none of them. It's even posing as implicitly superior to them. It makes spiritual development look more important than any particular religion. The Church of England Board of Education (Church Times, 21 May 1999 p5) reminded our government that the values and virtues of our society's Judaeo-Christian tradition had been ignored in their thinking on this. But in fact all religious spiritualities had been virtually ignored in government thinking on this.

  • it doesn't correspond to or address the sort of popular spiritualities like that which surfaced in connection with the death of Princess Diana

  • the government's 'spiritual development' is not always distinguishable from merely human development - why do we have to call some of it spiritual at all?

  • if spiritual development means something like the 'essence' of being human (SCAA, above), what is this essence? Who is qualified to say?

the government view takes no account of spiritual regression, what some religions call sin, in other words that people can go backwards in the spiritual and that onward progress is not inevitable. I think I was probably more 'developed' spiritually at the age of eight or nine than I am now.

Beginning and ending with Me

Is there a way forward? Let's play the Me culture at its own game for a minute.

I live in a small town on the South Devon coast. One evening, when my daughter was about seven years old, I was marking a pile of essays and she asked,

'Dad, will you take me down to the sea?'

Very bad tempered, I replied that I was far too busy and we'd have to do it another night (Teachers, recognise this sort of conversation?!). After a bit, I relented with a very bad grace and, shovelling her into the car rather like a bag of potatoes, I drove to the sea front to save time by not walking and we got out and went onto the beach. It was dark, a moonlit night. The moon had carved a silver path right across the waves, as far as the eye could see. It looked as if we could walk across the water, perhaps all the way to Guernsey. My daughter's hand crept into mine and together we just looked. Nothing was said. My annoyance at being disturbed melted away into an awareness that the marking was important, short term, but here was something eternal... After what seemed a very long time, and with real reluctance, I led us both back to the car, and home... But on the way I became aware of a smell. We had a shoe inspection. Yes ! It was a British beach and an anti-social dog owner had allowed their animal to foul the beach and stain our experience!

That's the spiritual in a nutshell! The chance of awe and wonder is threatened, by indoor living, by busy-ness, by what passes for important, by the selfishness of a Me culture that says it doesn't matter if my dog fouls this beach for those who come after.

The experience I shared with my daughter you might have had, by the sea, on a high mountain, in a deep forest, alone or with others. It is not, of course, a religious experience. An atheist can just as easily have it as a religious believer. It may not even be a spiritual experience. You could call it aesthetic or poetic or whatever. But this sort of experience has the capacity to be life-sustaining. You can feed on it afterwards. Yet often it takes on meaning only when explained alongside other similar experiences presented by world religions.

This carries all sorts of problems in terms of curriculum. We can't compel children to have spiritual experiences. In large groups they're harder to experience than in small groups or alone. If I'd been on a coach party to my beach I'd have been less likely to feel what I felt. Furthermore, if children are allowed to 'muck about' and be disrespectful, we allow them to create a climate in which such experiences are most unlikely to occur. But in a curriculum dominated by literacy, numeracy, citizenship, tests, scores, league tables and inspection, we shall be found to be indoctrinators if we edit out the possibility of exploring the spiritual with children in conversation, in music, in art, in drama, in silence, in religions. It's the sort of experience which draws Me out of Me, and that's not bad in a Me culture.

But into this the government and its educational quangos must bring much more clearly the contributions from the spiritual wisdom of the world's religions. These are full of experiences of the spiritual. These have been ignored by government and its agencies including the DfEE, but are we so far superior to the world's religions that we can neglect them? Am I so self-sufficient that I can dispense with every drop of spirituality from each of the world's religions? Religious and non-religious wisdom can inform us and move us on in a society which has more knowledge than it can cope with.

In education currently there's plenty of emphasis on knowledge, not much talk about wisdom. I think with the Web and with IT our children will grow up surrounded by knowledge, soaked in it, or half soaked! But knowledge didn't stop Auschwitz. It made it more efficient. Knowledge doesn't make a marriage work. Knowledge doesn't make a man or woman good. Knowledge doesn't automatically produce what the Hebrew Bible calls hesed, lovingkindness. What humankind needs is wisdom. After all, one of the world's most famous Jews, who became the centre and light of Christianity, and who was recognised as a prophet in Islam and a major figure in Bahaism and Rastafarianism said;

Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also... (Matthew 6. 20, 21)

Select bibliography

Copley, T., Spiritual Development in the State School, Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 1999
Hay, D., and Nye, R., The Spirit of the Child, London, Fount, 1998
Kent SACRE, Shaping the Spirit, Kent County Council, West Malling, Kent, 1999
National Curriculum Council, Spiritual and Moral Development: A Discussion Paper, York, NCC, 1993
Priestley, J.G., Spirituality in the Curriculum, Frinton-on-Sea, The Hockerill Educational Foundation, 1996
SCAA, Education for Adult Life: the spiritual and moral development of young people, London, SCAA, 1996
Smith, D., Making Sense of Spiritual Development, Nottingham, The Stapleford Centre,1999
Wright, A., Spiritual Pedagogy, Abingdon, Culham College Institute, 1998

Terence Copley, University of Exeter, 1999

See also Anne Krisman's Review of the lecture


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