Faith Schools in England

I think it’s fair to say that my school experience has been a very diverse one. Of school types, I’ve had about one of each. I started in a non-religious private school for elementary, went to a Lutheran school for middle school, a Catholic school for high school, and then rounded it out with a public school for university. Mind you, all of this while having a very non-religious family. This all being what it is, I suppose it makes sense why the British school system would be so interesting to me.

St Philip’s RC Primary school

The first time I started thinking about this topic and the difference between American and British school systems was when we were talking to some British people and they were confused by the notion of private schools. This, in turn, made me very confused because I had seen religious schools and having lived in the United States the idea of having public religious schools doesn’t really make sense to me at all. I guess that it all relates back to the fact that England has a national religion. Because the Anglican Church is nationally backed, it makes sense that they would have their own state-funded schools. I was surprised and a little impressed to find that the state also funded non-Anglican religious schools.

To be honest, it is very difficult for me to say whether it is better to have the religious schools mixed in for free or to have them, as we do in the states, separate from the state schools. This may have to do with the fact that the only reason that I ever attended private school was because it was better funded and was a better educational opportunity in my area of town. So then, what if all of the schools were funded the same, if there wasn’t really a difference in the education you received other than one also focuses on a religion? If there were no difference, then why would anyone bother going to a religious school that is not of their religion. It seems the British people agree with me. According to an article  in The Guardian, “over the past five years, when people were given a choice between a new faith school and another school opening in their area, they chose the other school a whopping 85% of the time,” and understandably so.

According to that same article, the number of faith schools, now that they are being state-funded, seems to be increasing. Now here’s where my personal bias comes in, I don’t think that having that many religious schools is necessary at all. Having some options for faith school is nice for those very religious families, I suppose, but for the rest of the population there doesn’t seem to be any benefit at all. In fact, having so many children attending faith schools might even be a problem. Speaking from experience, attending religious school when I was at an age where I couldn’t rightly think for myself was a bit confusing. It’s difficult for the teachers to separate what is truth for them personally from what is what we’d consider universal truth. In other words, they tend to present a lot of things as facts that are, in fact, actually just beliefs, things taken just on faith

Students at St. Peter’s Primary School

Apart from all of this personal opinion, the main controversy right now that surrounds the faith schools is that they have been notorious for accepting fewer students that require free school meals than other schools do. They are using their status as faith schools, the fact that they are in a different category than regular school to discriminate against students of lower socio-economic backgrounds. Not only does this create an imbalance in the schools, but it also seems to be completely contrary to the morals of nearly every religion that I’ve ever studied. Surely, they should be even more willing to take in those that are the most needy?

It seems to me that with all of this, the publically funded faith schools are more trouble than they are worth right now. Between the discrimination in admission and biased curriculum, are they worth keeping around, or should it be enough just to let your kid go to Sunday school or the like and let them go to a standard school?

SLO vs. London (Respect for Religion)

What have I learned about religion during my time here in London? An awful lot actually.  But perhaps more importantly, what differences exist between the cultural diversity here and cultural diversity back home in San Luis Obispo?  The differences between the two are quite numerous and have been very enlightening for my understanding of various religions.

First off, lets enumerate the facts I have learned during my time here in London.  Before this trip I had never heard of religions such as Sikhism, Druidism, or even Jediism.  London is a city vastly populated with atheists, while at the same time, it is home to a multitude of different religions and cultures.  The multiculturalism of London gives the city a distinct feel and although most of the residents are atheist, the people here seem to be genuinely accepting of other people’s chosen religions.  Also the city has distinct areas that pertain to certain religions.  For example, Brick Lane is n area that has been predominantly Muslim for the last hundred years.  Still, Londoners are so accepting of this religion that it is becoming an area that attracts more and more young adults every day due to its good food, friendly people, cultural diversity, and beautiful architecture.  Various London boroughs are also home to the Jewish community, and although these people have been discriminated against in the past, the events of World War Two have led to a much greater acceptance of London’s Jewish community.  Another interesting point of London is its various cathedrals and churches.  Many of these buildings are much larger than any church I have come across in California.  These buildings have been standing for hundreds of years, and although many of their visitors are not Christian, these churches accept various religious peoples because they know that they go there to appreciate London’s cultural heritage and beautiful architecture.

London has also taught me much about new religious movements.  I would even go so far as to say that some of these new movements are also a “tongue in cheek,” take on the basic ideas of what a religion actually is and how it cannot be properly defined.  The perfect example of this would be Jediism.  While Jediism was may seen as just a group of Star Wars fans, its ideologies seem to resonate with millions of people worldwide, and London itself is home to various sects of this religion.  And though most of us do not worship lightsabers and laser blasters, Jediism actually provides hope and answers to those who are looking to enrich their lives through something great and mysterious.

Now lets look at religious diversity back in San Luis Obispo.  SLO has very little to offer in the realm of religious diversity.  The population is predominantly Christian, and religions such as Sikhism, Islam, and Hinduism are extremely rare to come across.  Is this because we do not make these religions feel welcome?  I sincerely think so.  I feel that clothing articles such as hijabs would label a person as an outsider and most SLO residents would decide to treat these people differently based on their religion instead of seeing them as just another person first and foremost.  Upon returning to California I will do my best to make people of any religion feel welcome and not treat them as an outsider.  These people are just like us and though they may choose to follow a certain religion, every religion carries the same basic undertones of treating others as you yourself would like to be treated.

Magic In Stonehenge

What is it about Stonehenge that continues to draw more than a million people per year?

Stonehenge is considered one of the “most important prehistoric monuments in the whole of Britain.” Located on the Salisbury Plain, the 5,000 year old Bluestones, Sarsen, and Welsh Sandstones that comprise the Henge fill the place with ancient stories of wonder. The intriguing aspect of Stonehenge is the mystery of its unclear past.

Stonehenge has been standing for more than 5,000 years

Monument, cemetery, astronomical predictor, sacrificial ritual site?

For many years, historians have debated why Stonehenge was built and what is was used for. Most believe it to be used as a burial ground; however there are many other purposes that have remained unidentified. A main contributing factor as to why it has become a top tourist attraction for Britain is due to its association with Druidism.

The tourist advertisements use the religious history of Stonehenge to give it an enchanted, mysterious appeal. We were handed audio guides that told us some interesting facts and pieces of history about the ancient stones. Haunting choral melodies was used in the background during the portion where the audio described the Pagan rituals and Druid history of Stonehenge. This is an example of the darker, mysterious stereotypes associated with Druidism.

Druids are known for their magical aspects. Modern day Pagan ritual at Stonehenge.

Regardless if Stonehenge was truly used as a Druid ritual site, the two have become popularly related to each other. Stuart Piggott evaluates in his article, “The Druids and Stonehenge”, the becoming’s of the Celtic originated Druid religion to Stonehenge. Piggott states that Druids in the Ancient times who were the first who supposedly practiced at Stonehenge were “philosophers, poets, and seers whose doctrines are known in detail and contain hints of higher things.” The first to actually connect Stonehenge to Druidism was Julius Caesar during his conquests in Britain. Roman and Greek writers documented Druidism as “the priests of barbarian Celts”.  They are known for having “elaborate series of ceremonial observances and solemn ritual which took place in the open air, in circles of standing stones.” Hence why Stonehenge is distinguished as a possible site for Druid rituals with its distinct circular structure. Piggott calls on stories that describe Stonehenge as a once great Druid ritual site: “particularly impressive ceremonies were performed at sunrise on Midsummer Day when the rising sun first strikes the altar stone” (Piggott). Today, thousands still gather in the Salisbury Plain around the ancient stones to celebrate the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. The magical atmosphere that Stonehenge provides gives the Pagan festival an added sense of mystical to it.

However, Piggott points out that recent research has found that Druids couldn’t possibly have been associated with Stonehenge. Stonehenge is a monument used in the middle of the second millennium, but the Druids are the priesthood of the Celtic peoples a little around and before the beginning of the Christian era. He concludes that, “no ancient tradition associates the two.”

So then why is present day Stonehenge commercially advertised as a magical place that the Druids built for their sacrificial ceremonies?

Modern day tourism has greatly affected Stonehenge as a sacred site. On Brittania.com, the site states how a “commercial circus” has taken away from the essence of Stonehenge from when it was originally created. With the commercial circus, I think the mystery of Druid and Pagan affiliation is put on the forefront for advertisements because it’s what sells admissions tickets. Most people see it as a place that has hidden secrets of magic and mystery. The sacred ruins bewilders imaginations and lets them run wild as Piggott mentioned poets who created mythical poems about Druidism and Stonehenge. These published works definitely had an impact on the way people view and buy Stonehenge.

Whether people see it as a burial ground, a miraculous piece of architecture, an instrument of science, or a place of worship, Stonehenge is an important piece of history that draws many visitors. This circle of stones has managed to survive over the centuries, withholding some of Britain’s greatest history. Many people are trying to revert Stonehenge back to capture more of the site’s original history and reveal the true information about Druid connections.

Me at Stonehenge!

External Sources

Piggott, Stuart. “The Druids and Stonehenge.” South African Archeological Society. 9.36 (Dec. 1954): 138-140. JSTOR. Web. 22 July 2012. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3886827&gt;

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-wiltshire-18519636

http://www.stonehenge.co.uk/history.php

http://www.britannia.com/history/h7.html

Circumscripture

I love my foreskin

Bumper stickers being sold in support of the circumcision ban in Germany. Translation: “I love my foreskin”

Following some particularly gruesome complications from a circumcision performed on a four year-old Muslim boy in Germany, his doctor was pressed with charges of bodily harm. After some time in court, the doctor was acquitted having not broken any law, which posed a new question: Is circumcision an ethical procedure? In Germany most babies are not circumcised. But many Jewish and Muslim parents choose to circumcise their boys for religious reasons, and the Muslim family who was having their four year-old circumcised was just trying to do the right thing. But are these good enough reasons to modify (some would say mutilate) your infant’s genitals?

For Muslims, it’s an issue of cleanliness. It is essential that Muslims purify and are as clean as possible before prayer. Most Muslims wash their hands (whenever possible), and wear clean clothes that cover the body before prayer. It is thought that circumcision can contribute to the cleanliness, as removing the foreskin would prevent dirt and urine from getting trapped in it. Although the Qur’an does not mention this, the Hadith (the collected word of the Prophet Muhammad) does say that circumcision is necessary for males and recommended for females. But with today’s modern conveniences and high standards of personal hygiene (daily bathing, indoor plumbing, etc), does this cleanliness argument really hold up? The rest of the uncircumcised world seems to be getting along without any major problems.

Jewish boys are traditionally circumcised 8 days after their birth at a Brit Milah ceremony
photo by Cheskel Dovid

For Jews, circumcision is also performed out of tradition. In Genesis 17:9-14, God tells Abraham that all men in his family should be circumcised as a token of the covenant of their relationship with God. Those members who are not trimmed have broken the covenant and should be cut off from the community of God. This usually happens in a ceremony called Brit milah, 8 days after a Jewish baby boy is born. This is traditionally when the boy’s name is also announced, having been a secret until then. If a family chooses not to have their boy circumcised, they will probably not be excommunicated from the congregation. And since most guys don’t advertise their foreskin status to the world, they will not likely encounter any discrimination amongst their peers within or outside of their religious community.

Germany is not the first to consider circumcision legislation. A year ago in San Francisco, a potential ban on circumcision in the city was “snipped” from the ballot, after officials determined that it would be unlawful to locally regulate medical procedures. Although it sparked some good debates, it would have been a waste of resources to put it to public vote.

The countries with higher concentrations of Jews and Muslims tend to have higher rates of circumcision

For most of the world, circumcision isn’t even a question. The majority of men in the US are circumcised, though not so much for religious reasons. Religion aside, there are strong arguments for and against circumcision for health reasons (that’s another lengthy debate; I’ll let you do your own research). With American parents, many of the reasons I’ve heard go something along the lines of, “Well your dad was circumcised, so we thought you should be too.” Could this also be applied to having your infant daughter’s ears pierced? Essentially you’re paying money to permanently alter your child’s body, and it’s certainly painful for your child. But there’s no telling if 20 years down the road they will be thankful for having this traumatic procedure done before they could remember it, or if they’ll really just wish they had some foreskin.

Saudi Women: Sexy As Can Be.

While Dani over here complains about the fact that women are not (yet) allowed to be bishops in the Anglican Church, much worse sexism is soaring over the heads of potential female bishops. World renown for their amazing sexism, Saudi Arabia is back in the news, this time here in London. Finally, some good news: two women will be representing Saudi Arabia in the London Olympics, the first being an American born Sarah Attar, having such a traditional Saudi first name. Sarah will be competing in the 800m race. The other, who has a fantastic name, is Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani; she will be competing in judo above the 78kg, that is 172 pounds. A big name for a big girl. “It’s common knowledge that Saudi women are not allowed to pursue higher education, have major surgery or leave the country without their male guardian’s written approval.” Have major surgery is the most queer to me, our society just can’t even fathom something like that.

Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, in some of her glory.

With the Olympics and sports in general, a Saudi man seeing the figure of a woman or a woman running is sleazy and too sexual for his tastes. This man, Fahd al-Rouqi, who is a Saudi sports analyst, was quoted with saying that he “hoped” to die before seeing a Saudi woman in the Olympics. Great job, Fahd, you’ve just put civil rights back another 300 years with that comment. Being a different society is not an excuse to treat women like s-h-i-t, but my opinions are little to no matter in these affairs.

The saddest part of this issue is that the movement did not originate from inside the country, but by pressure from the International Olympic Committee. The reason Saudi Arabia changed is because the IOC(International Olympic Committee) threatened them with a ban that was given to South Africa in the 1960’s. While this is a magnificent breakthrough, “Within Saudi Arabia, social activists and national human rights organisations have other issues that they prioritise before Saudi women Olympians such as making child brides illegal, fighting judicial discrimination against women, lifting the ban on women driving, and opening more work opportunities to women.” So, this is a revolutionary time for Saudi Arabian women’s rights, and while we can complain about how it’s not enough, it clearly is huge.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/13/olympics-2012-saudi-women

Hidden Treasures at the West London Synagogue

                    

Westminster Abbey. Holy Trinity Brompton Church. Saint Paul’s Cathedral.

All three of these places of worship that I have visited so far in the program stand out amongst the buildings in London.

Adventuring the small side streets of the city, I didn’t quite expect the West London Synagogue of British Jews to reside in the crooks and crannies of the urban sprawl. Then again, I didn’t really know what to expect at all since the little information I knew about Judaism was from my religious studies lecture the day before and from what I could recall from the movie Fiddler on the Roof. My prior knowledge doesn’t even compare to what I gained during my experience at the synagogue.

I thought that the building blended in with its surroundings. It was completely unlike the bold, definitive exterior of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. Families continuously brushed past us, coming and going as they pleased. I thought it was neat that this building, which resembles a hole in the wall from any outsider, is so welcoming and popular for its worshippers. It almost felt like a secret sanctuary that only people who knew what they were looking for could find it.

I soon realized it wasn’t simply a secret sanctuary, but more so a secret treasure. Once we entered the synagogue, the building seemed to unravel with each room we went through. The head teacher, who was our guide for the day, took us through the layers of the synagogue. There were venues for events, parties, lessons, and a large sanctuary for prayer. This atmosphere definitely contrasted the large, open halls that we observed when we first entered St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and the Holy Trinity Brompton Church.

There were many traits of the synagogue that differed from the churches. The aspects that I personally connected to the most rested above me.

The Eternal Flame

First, our guide pointed out the Eternal Flame that hung above her. The Eternal Flame is a feature of many synagogues that is hung above the ark of Torahs. In an article by Rabbi Adam Zeff in The Jewish Exponent, he explains that, like any symbol, it withholds a unique meaning to each Jewish individual. It is originally known to be the flame that had to be kept burning on the sacrificial altar in the ancient sanctuary. However, to other Jews it can also represent “the persistence of God’s sheltering presence” or “the protection and inspiration of the Divine that is with us” during troubling times. While contemporary temples now keep their Eternal Flames alight by electric candles, I thought this physical symbol was unlike anything else I’ve seen yet in a church. I think it’s comforting to always have that familiar warmth of a flicking light hovering above you in a place of worship.

The second significant trait that stood out to me was the three Stars of David positioned at the highest point in the sanctuary ceiling. The Star of David is a six apex star which became the accepted Jewish symbol many centuries ago. While most affiliate it with Judaism, the Jewish Star also holds meaning for other cultures and peoples. It shines for us all and is thought of as “an earthly symbol of God’s heavenly stars”. The stained glass version at the West London Synagogue gave the three stars a colorful, illuminated look. They also hold an importance for celebration of holidays. Only until three stars dot the sky can any holiday of the Jewish calendar commence. Our guide informed us that the three star design was a unique trait to the West London Synagogue. It was very unlike the Holy Trinity Brompton church that had looming, dark paintings on the ceilings. The tall ceilings and dark figures in this church made me feel small and intimidated. On the other hand, the Stars of David bring your eyes upward towards the heavens and seem to shine in the brightly lit synagogue.

The three Stars of David on the ceiling of the sanctuary

Recollecting on my time at the West London Synagogue, I feel that there was a certain theme prevalent throughout the tour:

Encouragement of questions.

Not simply in the way that you would ask the tour guide a question about history of the building, but rather to question the ways of one’s faith. Questioning what is stated in the Torah or how something in the Jewish religion works is greatly encouraged. This is something that I found very unique to Judaism.

I asked my Jewish friend, Stephanie, about this and she confirmed that, “questioning and wondering about religious prompts is highly valued in Judaism.”

Having open discussions about the Torah, like at events such as Torah on Tap, has allowed different interpretations to be accepted. I admire that they create an open learning environment not only for Jews to understand their own sacred stories, but for outsiders to comprehend as well. I feel like the best way to better understand one’s self and one’s traditions is by asking questions about it.

Exploring the West London Synagogue was like finding buried treasure. The little things about the synagogue were the aspects that stuck in my mind and helped me gain a better understanding of the Jewish culture and tradition.

I remember that the character Tevye from The Fiddler on the Roof said, “…because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”

The Jewish tradition of encouraging exploration and questioning is an intriguing and enlightening way to find the buried treasures within life.