The experience of Mormon children in English school-based religious education and worship

An abbreviated version of a paper to be read at the London INFORM/CESNUR conference.

All state schools in Britain are required to offer pupils—subject to a seldom utilised parental withdrawal clause—some form of curricular religious education (RE) as well as a daily act of collective worship, also known as “assembly.” Standards and content vary, but the statutory requirements are clear. The act of collective worship is supposed to be explicitly religious (i.e. not just “spiritual”) and “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” (1988 Education Reform Act, section 7.1). For its part, curricular religious education currently falls outside of the government-set National Curriculum, but is regulated by a non-statutory framework with locally-designed syllabuses intended to complement the national educationpolicy. Teaching world religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Sikhism) is a legal requirement, but syllabuses are also required to take account of the predominately Christian tradition of the UK.

At this point it is worth reminding Americans, who might find the idea of school-based religious education and worship bizarre, that the UK has — despite its de facto secularism — an established state church and that without a written constitution guaranteeing freedom of conscience, it would be difficult to challenge school worship and religion in the courts. Both the assemblies and the RE classes are fairly benign and inoffensive, and concern for indoctrination means schools are very cautious in how they plan and present such things.

Given the concern for “inclusion” in education in general, and in school-based religion in particular, what is the experience of religious minorities in collective worship and religious education? Certainly, concern for an inclusive curriculum, one that reflects Britain’s minority communities is demonstrable: why else would white schoolchildren in Worcestershire be required to learn about Sikhism, a religion which they will seldom otherwise encounter and one which is relatively small in numbers? Stripping RE of its non-Christian elements would be unthinkable today. However, concern for the inclusion of other religious minorities—and I speak here of members of New Religious Movements—is less forthcoming. This paper will discuss the experience of Mormon school children in the RE classroom and worship assembly and any possible implications of this research.

The baseline for this research is Kay and Francis’s 2001 study of the attitudes of over 25,000 schoolchildren regarding RE and collective worship. I have compared their findings with a survey I conducted of 43 Mormon Seminary students in a provincial Mormon stake in England. The sample is admittedly small and it is hoped that it can be widened in the future, but gaining access to large numbers of Mormon children for the purposes of conducting an academic survey is not an easy undertaking. A further and planned improvement will also be to individually interview some of these students.

Research undertaken among American Mormons has showed that Mormons tend to have an above-average level of both education and religiosity. The English group I surveyed represent the most active of Mormon youth. They were all between the ages of 14-18 and enrolled in the church “Seminary” programme which requires them to study the Mormon scriptures and meet regularly in classes (sometimes early in the morning). They were participating in their bi-monthly “stake” (diocesan) meeting and demonstrated by their presence a high level of commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These were not cloistered cultists, however. Most of them were bright and articulate and as interested in flirting and joking with each other as they were learning about the Old Testament. All of them attended state schools in the area. I asked them to respond to a series of questions on a five-point Likert scale (agree strongly, agree, not certain, disagree, or disagree strongly). The scale was scored in the direction of favourability, “agree strongly” scoring 5. The questions were as follows (the first two modelled on Kay and Francis):

1. Religious Education should be taught in school.
2. Schools should hold a religious assembly every day.
3. I feel comfortable participating in RE in my school.
4. I feel comfortable participating in religious assemblies in my school.

I also asked a fifth question: “is the Mormon church ever mentioned in class or assemblies? Please give details.”

Mean results were as follows (with comparisons to Kay and Francis):

Religious Education should be taught in school
Non-religious 2.71
Religious 3.21
All Christians 3.21
Non-Christian 3.53
Non-sectarian Christian 3.15
Sectarian Christian 3.59
Regular (“nearly every week”) religious attendees 3.68
Mormons 3.67

Schools should hold a religious assembly every day
Non-religious 1.83
Religious 2.18
All Christians 2.19
Non-Christian 2.44
Non-sectarian Christian 2.13
Sectarian Christian 2.48
Regular (“nearly every week”) religious attendees 2.61
Mormons 1.95

I feel comfortable participating in RE in my school
Mormons 3.79

I feel comfortable participating in religious assemblies in my school
Mormons 3.00

Only 33% of my respondents noted that Mormonism was discussed at school and even then, it was not always done in ways that reflected the children’s own religious experiences. One student responded that the church was mentioned “briefly, talking about polygamy”; another responded that “yes [the church was mentioned] once or twice because we are a bigotry (sic) religion apparently”; another said, “in history, we learnt about Mormons and they were given a negative view and some facts given which are untrue.”

This limited data set suggests that English Mormon kids quite like RE (to the same level as other religiously active people, and higher than “ordinary” Christians), despite Mormonism’s absence/poor portrayal in the curriculum. They feel fairly comfortable in worship assemblies, but otherwise oppose its inclusion in the curriculum.

In the full paper I discuss what this all might mean and how the RE curriculum should reflect the support offered by this one particular NRM. For that, you’ll have to come to London!


  1. John Deacon says:

    Living in England and having members of around 15 members of my family currently in the 14-18 age bracket. In my conversations with them, they are very skeptical about attending their respective RE classes. This skepticism is founded by experiences of teachers wholly focusing on plural marriage when it comes to “Mormonism”. As a 14 year old questionning the authority of the teacher can be difficult, but it is sad that this is the case and I feel we have a struggle to change the mindset that they are break away groups and the “mainstream” church and no distinction is given between the two.
    If recent events in the media can’t be reported correctly or inaccurately then you would expect teachers to combine the fundamentalists with Mormonism in general.

    Great article and alot to take from it though. Sorry if I digressed!!

  2. John,
    I agree that this is probably a frequent occurrence. It’s interesting that despite this, the Mormon kids I surveyed come top of the RE favourability table.

  3. Well, I won’t be coming to London. But I found your summary very interesting. Thanks!

  4. Ardis Parshall says:

    Very interesting, Ronan. I wonder how the opinions of members of other small/new religious movements would compare to the Mormon kids’ ratings.

  5. Very interesting! Can you define a few terms? What is the operative definition of a Christian, Non-sectarian Christian, and Sectarian Christian?

  6. TT,
    For Kay and Francis, “sectarian Christian” equals churches outside of the main Anglican/Catholic umbrella, e.g. House Church, Baptist, etc.

  7. I should add that the result for “Christians” is for all Christians, and that sect./non-sect. is a subset of that.

  8. How is this handled with the south-Asian and African conservative Muslim students in Britain?

  9. MAC,
    They can withdraw if they wish, but rarely do. Note that non-Christians are more supportive of RE (which teaches Islam as one of the world religions) than Christians. Some predominantly Asian schools will have the freedom to incorporate a greater amount of Islam in the RE/assembly curriculum if they wish, subject to certain limits.

  10. Ronan, are you going to make this paper available? Is it going to published? I’m very interested in this subject.

  11. Steve Evans says:

    Ronan, interesting statistics — but how large was your sample? How can we gauge the applicability of the results?

  12. Jordan,

    Not large enough. But having demonstrated the usefulness of the project, I hope to widen it considerably in the future.

  13. Great work, Ronan.

  14. Ronan, Did you have a chance to explore why they thought religious education should be taught in the schools? I’m curious as to whether they thought the benefit largely personal or societal.

  15. Molly,
    Stage 2 is to convince CES to let me widen the survey across the UK. Stage 3 will be to interview a number of children about their attitudes.

  16. Single Sister says:

    It is also worthy to note that LDS members cannot get married directly in the Temple. They have to have a civil marriage first and then go to the Temple. All of my LDS friends in the UK have civil marriages first and then go to the Temple. When a friend of mine wanted to get married just in the Temple she was told explicitly that it would not be considered “legal” in the UK and hence it could not be recognized as “legal” by the church, so she was forced to have the civil ceremony first. I don’t know what restrictions apply to other religions, but they certainly don’t recognize UK LDS marriages as legal if they are “just” performed in the Temple.

  17. Steve Evans says:

    Ronan, excellent stuff, and I have to admit the next stages sound equally intriguing.

  18. Single Sister, that is the same in France, but it is important to realize that they don’t recognize any church’s marriages. Even Catholics have a civil service and then get married in by the Church.

  19. Single Sister,

    The trouble with that anecdote is that it misses two points.

    1. Every Mormon I know likes having the civil wedding first as it a) allows brides to walk down the aisle and be all Beautiful Bride, and b) it means non-member family and friends can attend. I think American Mormons would benefit from this dual system, actually.

    2. It’s not a legal restriction against Mormons, it’s a legal restriction against marrying in a place that isn’t public. By law, all weddings must be open to the public. I have no problem with that, and I think the vast majority of UK Mormons would agree with me.

    (Which is all to say that there is no need to overstate any grievances.)

  20. Are UK Mormons required to wait a year after the civil wedding before being sealed in the temple?

  21. Single Sister says:

    I think I should expound a bit on my comment. I lived in the UK for a while and I personally loved the fact that marriages were done civilly. My friend who didn’t want a civil ceremony was American (marrying a Brit) and she was appalled at it. I personally would love it if we did that here (I live in Canada) as I know of a number of brides/grooms whose families are non-members and they are heartbroken at not being able to be at the wedding. It happened in my friend’s family and it actually tore the family apart for a long, long time and left a lot of bitterness to this day. So I don’t disagree that it is a good thing to have a civil ceremony first. I also absolutely loved the whole religion in schools thing. We in Canada are so afraid of our Christian heritage that we bend over backwards to avoid any recognition of it at all. And I find that both offensive and sad.

  22. Single Sister,
    Well, there you go then.

    No, of course not. (As you *have* to have a public, civil wedding first, that would be a bit unfair, no?) But I think you’re supposed to high tail it to the temple the same day as your chapel wedding, or the next day if you’re coming from somewhere like Ireland.

  23. Ronan, I assumed as much since a civil wedding is State mandated, but wasn’t sure.

  24. Ronan, is CES reticent to you doing this survey? If so, why?

    Or is it just complicated bc you have to get all the permission?

  25. Latter.

  26. Kevin Barney says:

    Great stuff, Mr. Chips, er, Ronan.

  27. oh. I was hoping they were being bi-atches so I could complain/commiserate.
    darn it.

  28. Interesting. The posh, artsy fartsy independent school I worked out didn’t do RS or religious assemblies (we had ‘village meetings’ thankyouverymuch) but every one I met thought the RE classes were good if only to allow for a public, somewhat objective space in which religion was discussed.

    It makes me laugh that we get so mad that people around the world can’t tell the difference between LDS and FLDS, when you’d have to look pretty hard to find a Mormon who can explain the difference between the doctrines of the different Lutheran synods, a Methodist from a Presbyterian, or even know what a Sikh is.

  29. Robb Cundick says:

    I found this of interest because I spent two years in British schools in my youth. I don’t remember having any religious education classes; perhaps those are taught at a different age (I was there for the equivalent of 6th and 7th grades).

    What I do remember are the morning assemblies which consisted of a hymn and a prayer read from a Church of England prayer book. These are very fond memories. Most of all I enjoyed singing the hymns, mingling my voice with those wonderful English accents. The prayers seemed pretty bland when read from a book, which is of course far different from what I was/am used to, but they did not make me uncomfortable.

    I loved theses assemblies. They were a great way to start the day and although I know such a thing is not possible in America I have often wished it was. It didn’t matter to me that the assemblies weren’t “Mormon.” “Christian” was just fine with me.

  30. On my mission in South Africa the English and Afrikaans speaking schools had RE. SA in the early 1990’s had a fervent version of C belief that reminds me of the US South.

    The LDS school kids would regularly tell me that they were being harrassed by both students and teachers during RE.

  31. When I lived in the UK one of the ladies in my ward was a RE teacher at one of the local schools. I wonder how many other Mormon RE teachers there are in the UK? I also wonder how her (and her students) experience differed from that of other RE teachers and students.

  32. To me marriage, as the Mormon faith believes and practices it, is a very sacred and spiritual ceremony, which cannot be duplicated in a public ceremony. There is no way that I would want to have a “civil” ceremony first. I think it is the UK Mormons who are missing out, not the American Mormons. By the way, my parents could not attend my wedding and didn’t even come to the temple on my wedding day,even though they were Mormons, they weren’t living the standards required. That was disappointing, but my wife and I would not have it any other way and we have never regretted it. You can do all of the frills, beauty, and public show at the reception. But the actual wedding itself is one of the most sacred and spiritual thing you can do on this earth.

  33. Good for you, Ron.

  34. Single Sister says:

    I don’t think that having a civil ceremony takes away from the sacredness of the Temple Ceremony (using the UK model, the Temple Ceremony has to take place within 24-48 hours after the civil ceremony). Standing before your family (members or not) and pledging your love in front of them is just as sacred a thing to do out of the Temple as it is in. In my opinion, saying “Families are Forever” and then refusing to allow the people who loved and supported you through your life to participate in the most important day of your life is cruel. I’ve seen too many instances in my life where families are left crushed – and bitter – because they cannot see their child/family member get married. I don’t see how that is good for the church, and I don’t see how that can be considered “sacred”.

  35. Ron, then stay out of England and France.

    The wait was established, I believe, to ensure that those who weren’t worthy to be married in the temple but (in that day and age) had to get married had sufficient time to repent and gain worthiness. Absent that need, why make someone wait? Imho, this falls into traditions of our fathers that get expanded way beyond the original (proper) intent.

    In America (or any other country that allows temple marriage as recognized by the state), in situations where not all family and friends can attend the actual marriage ceremony, I suggest a reception where the couple re-commits to each other (as husband and wife) and exchanges rings. As long as everyone understands that they are married already, why not go through the motions for those who could not witness the actual marriage.

    As for RE in high school, I wouldn’t mind it for my kids, at all. It would give me a chance to debunk the crap that would be taught about us.

  36. Mexico, I have heard, works the same way as the UK. A civil union has to happen first. Personally, I really wish that we in the US operated in like manner. I think if would help us clarify conversations about who can marry or have a civil union if we recognized that marriage involves a number of components, some civil and some religious. Plus, I would have given anything to have been able to have had a wedding that my whole family could attend. I think it is extremely insensitive to not allow church members the opportunity to have both a civil and temple wedding. Why should having a civil wedding diminish the temple one?

    Ronan, my former neighbors are Hindus leaving in London. They told me that they could not get their son into the majority of schools that we would consider private in America, because they did not allow non-Christians. Do you know if this report is accurate?

  37. Natalie,
    I very much doubt that. Private schools will take the cash of Hindu, Mormon, and Satanist.

  38. Out of curiosity, Ronan, did you limit the students you talked to to those who chose Religious Studies for one of their GCSEs or A-levels? I was under the impression that RE was optional after the British version of junior high school (age 13 or so,) or that it was a very low-level requirement (like Health classes in the US — in some school systems you take it once for half a year in 8th grade, are graded pass/fail, and then never speak of it again.)

    I was just thinking it’d be somewhat less oppressive-feeling if you don’t really have to take it for very long (or at all) and you spent about twenty times the effort and number of hours in Seminary anyhow.

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