Flying into Københaven in August 1998 you passed over the new Denmark-Sweeden international bridge under construction across the straits. What better metaphor could there be for the 3rd European conference for teachers of Religious Education that was to meet in the delightful surroundings of the Schaeffergarden conference centre in the north of the city of Københaven (Copenhagen). Organised and arranged by Scandinavian colleagues the conference was to last 3 days from the 27th to the 30th of August. Delegates had gathered from 13 countries as far apart as France and Finland, Scotland and Latvia.
The theme of the conference was 'into the 3rd millennium' and was opened by Per Bregebgaard, the Mayor of Copenhagen, who spoke of the Danish education system as secular and non-confessional and independent of the state church. He also spoke of his feeling that religious education in Denmark needed to be more open, multi-cultural and multi-faith to reflect the changing nature of Danish society. This raised the questions that was to lie at the heart of much of the formal and informal discussion over the conference as speakers and delegates struggled with the question, "what form should 'good' Religious Education take in our schools and colleges as we enter into the new millennium, 2000 years after the monumental events which founded the Christian faith now that the Europe which we share no longer has a dominant and universal faith system ?"
After an excellent lunch the presentations proper began.
Friday 27th August
The theme for the first day was 'Religious Education Studies, Religions and Culture'. Martin Palmer, the director of ICOREC (meaning ?), spoke on 'Christian Europe and monocentric RE', of how the millennium reminded us of the central role that Christianity has had in the shaping of the history of the European continent. Yet we must not think that this has been a uniform message for diversity, both cultural and spiritual, has always existed. The new challenge to this monocentric Christianity has come with the influx, especially in the last 50 years, of new cultures and new religions into the member countries of Europe. Religious Education has been worthy to this challenge and in many ways has coped far better than the secular society which has been equally challenged. Uffe Østergaard, the professor of European civilisation at Aahus university then took the floor to talk about the 'Significance of Religions in shaping European Civilisation'. In his presentation he emphasised the central role of religion in the history of the continent and the highly political nature of European identity, especially in this time as Eastern Europe is being re-integrated into the political arena. He went on to talk about the development of national identity and how that is now breaking down into a dual sense of cultural identity as seen in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the former USSR and into a wider 'civilisation' identity. The future will be characterised by a clash of these civilisations as the nation states merge into greater political identities. He then challenged the notion that Europe is a 'Christian' civilisation as there is such a division between the Protestant 'North' and the Catholic 'South' and with the historical influences of Judaism and Islam and the more modern influences of immigrant communities.
Saturday 28th August
Peter Schreiner of the Comenius Institute opened the day in his address on 'Different approaches to the teaching of RE / RS in European schools'. His thesis, in terms of the religious landscape, the Church - State relationship and the schools system illustrated that RE teaching in Europe is varied, colourful and encouraging. He spoke of the challenges to RE over the next 10 years as national boundaries drop and as pluralism and relativism become more significant. Peter stated that unlike some other subjects RE cannot be neutral. The teaching of RE is either for liberation or oppression and must develop dialogue between teachers and pupils and also their moral, political, ethical, personal and spiritual awareness. Some of the current developments he has found include a shift of paradigms in Switzerland, the identity of schools in the Netherlands with one third having no RE and the other two thirds being run by the church, 'Cultural religieuse' in France and Spiritual development in England. Finally Peter outlined the common challenges that will face all those involved in the delivery of RE teaching over the next 10 years. These included the danger of marginalisation, the challenge of pluralism and the continued struggle between church and state.
Saturday afternoon there were a number of visits. Along with a group of others I went to visit a Danish school for children aged between 5 and 14 before they went onto the academic school (gynamsium) or the technical school (vocational) at 14. The headteacher of the school was very proud of the integration the school had achieved with the local immigrant community and although there was no explicit RE in the way that we would understand it there was a strong focus on the spiritual and cultural aspects of the community. Other members of the conference visited a church school, a technical college and a gymnasium.
Back at the conference centre Sven-Ake Selander spoke on 'Church, State and School in Scandinavia'. Sven talked on the integral place of Scandinavia within central Europe and outlined the historical place of the development of the school system as part of the religious history of the region. In medieval times there was a Roman Catholic domination which lasted until the reformation when the church and state identified to produce a secular spiritual alliance with a domination on Lutheranism. As the enlightenment swept Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries there was a move towards state education though the church still had a dominate position especially in primary education.. The changing political nature oft he region meant that differences emerged in Sweeden the child and family became the educational focus whilst in Denmark the school reforms were controlled by the state. In Finland there was a tension between the Russian Orthodox and the Finnish Lutheran and so education in Finland developed a double confessional model. Now the solution is seen to lie in liberal theology and psychology. Culture, ethics and integration are the key issues which dominate religious educational thinking. Now the church works in partnership with the state across the region with differing amounts of influence in educational policy and philosophy.
In the afternoon of the Saturday a number of workshops allowed delegees to focus on RE and the Environment, ICT,
On the Saturday evening Erik Karlsaune spoke on "Sociology as a toolbox for Analysis of religions as we enter the third millennium". Erik started with a critiqué of Ruldolf Otto and asked what were the different ways that theologians, psychologists, historians, anthropologists and sociologists, such as Luckmann and Berger, view religions and religious experience. He asked us to consider the conflict between the individual and the collective. There are 3 questions that we must consider, How do we approach the contemporary religious scene ? What do we look for when we observe religion ? How do we describe the individual religiosity and a religious community.
This was followed by an evening of Danish Folk Dancing followed by sampling of excellent Danish beer!
Sunday 29th August
On the third day the theme was "the future ?" The day was opened by Geir Skeie on, "The challenge of Plurality - Norms and Relativism in RE" Geir talked about the three features of modern society as plurality, norms and relativism and that RE teaching across Europe needed to address these issues as central and vital. A vital part of the norms of any society are rooted in the cultural and religious development of that society and RE is often challenged to represent the traditional and 'living' religions of the society. Geir argued that this should not be the role of religion that the teaching of a religious phenomonology was to fossilise RE in the mire of facts. He argues that the real challenge of RE was to prepare pupils with the skills they need to operate in the plurality of modern society a plurality that is economic and social as well as cultural and religious.
Adrian Brown a teacher from England followed this up with an entertaining talk on "Youth Cultures and RE teaching in England today". Adrian talked of how youth culture was interested and driven by the 'sound bite' culture which mean that the traditional linear presentation approach of education was irrelevant and dull to teenagers today. He asked what were the factors that were mysterious, tremendous and fascinating to the teen culture ? And that terms like 'validity; and 'politically correct' were not issues for this group. There has been a paradigm shift from social truth and reality to post-modernistic self which is a dazzling pick and mix suspicious of tradition and history. Youth likes fuzzy and movable boundaries and refuses to judge except against personal values and expectations. This means that RE teaching must enter this area with the uncomfortable and the challenging that doesn't accept this 'fluffiness' but abuts it against the harsher nature of divine and absolute truth. Adrian went on to say that youth has moved from words to pictures from logographic to iconographic, that being irreligious is 'cool' and that religions are often presented in a way that makes them seem alien to the environment in which they are being presented. RE must look for the connection with the youth culture in the mysterium and the transcendent. The unexamined life is not worth living.
The final seminar on Sunday morning was an address from Tim Jensen on "Religion and RE in a Europe of conflicting trends" where he takes us back down to ground after the sacred mountain we may have been on on Saturday ! Tim Jensen argued for a secular RE controlled by the state and an academic discourse which means that all people will leave school having learnt something about religion and religions but which it will do so from a critical position. RE should be critical not confessional, vet does not have to be a cow in order to treat mastitus, and should not get lost in a muddle of pseudo-morality and ethics. The teachers of religion should treat is as a sociological, historical and theological study of cultural facts. We must develop a set of critical and academic tools that we use on all religions irrespective of a 'politeness' or 'respect' for their confessional positions. Reverence is a religious not a scholarly attitude and we should not be afraid of the response of the adherents of a religion because they do not like the way that we study it. Above all of this RE must be prepared to study, and critiqué itself.
The conference was closed after lunch on the Sunday. Alongside the academic stimulation of the conference was the opportunity to meet colleagues from all over Europe with the same enthusiasm and concern for the continued presence of Religious Education in the curriculum, add to this mixture excellent food and superb accommodation and you have a recipe for a highly enjoyable and very successful conference. Roll on Edinburgh in 2000.
Paul Hopkins - September 1999