It’s been a while since I’ve found myself acting alongside a colleague in a scene of domestic tension, then being asked to reflect with others on what this tells us about religious ideas and practices. Focused discussions and lots of laughter featured strongly at a recent CPD workshop for teachers at Manchester University. The workshop explored stories of lives changed by religious encounters between Christians, Hindus, Parsis and others in colonial India. The workshop was distinctive because it featured stories of religious encounter ‘from below,’ written by Indians and translated from different languages into English. Whilst it is not too difficult to find first-hand accounts of such encounters written by Christian missionaries, this fresh perspective provided food for thought about new ways to teach Religious Studies in the classroom. We drew on stories from the unique collection of accounts of the experience of Christian Mission by Indians that the project uncovered. These provided insights into the many challenges posed by the encounter with Christianity during the long colonial era in India.
The workshop sessions led to lots of discussions that put religious change in everyday perspective. For example, we talked about the significance of a biscuit of doubtful provenance for a young Hindu attracted by radical friends and their challenge to caste norms. We constructed lesson plans about Hinduism and Christianity using the materials, including one which explored the arguments of a father and son about how important it is to express your religious ideas in public. We also had an energetic post-lunch drama workshop – courtroom drama and marital tensions are the stuff of Religious Studies!
The workshop attracted RE teachers from the North West and the Midlands. The materials we looked at were all from 19th century India, so a key topic of discussion was how relevant they were for secondary school students in Religious Studies classes in 21st Century Britain. By approaching the materials as examples of religious encounter, teachers at the workshop were able to draw parallels to the experiences of students living in multireligious cities like Manchester and Coventry. In such cities, small-scale encounters between people from different religious traditions are part of daily life. The project materials show a similar concern for these daily issues – how to deal with your Christian husband’s new friends; fending off the threat of social isolation; trying out transgression by eating something previously forbidden. These narratives of small-scale challenges show how religious encounter is experienced by ordinary people – less in terms of theological debate, and more in terms of all the ways that religious practices are woven into everyday lives and relationships.
In our closing discussion, teachers sent a strong message that tailored resources for teaching non-Christian religions, and for teaching Christianity from different perspectives, would be eagerly received. In our project we have begun to do this, but there is much much more to do! One teacher commented that “I’ve left today full of ideas”. I also had lots of ideas! The workshop taught me that we need to work more closely with our colleagues in the secondary sector. We will all benefit by discussing ideas and practical solutions together to ensure that Religious Studies is a vibrant and compelling subject at the heart of the Humanities curriculum, right through from school to university.