What are we to make of the Church of England's new Charter for 'faith-sensitive' and 'inclusive' Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE)?
It has been released in the midst of heated controversies over the teaching of gay relationships, transgenderism and masturbation to primary age children, with schools - and courts - refusing to bend to parent concerns.
The Charter does not address these controversies directly. However, it does make clear that 'what is taught and how it is taught is ultimately a decision for the school.' This is true. But it is also true that the statutory guidance says that schools should ensure their RSE policy 'meets the needs of pupils and parents and reflects the community they serve,' and that 'the religious background of all pupils must be taken into account when planning teaching, so that the topics that are included in the core content in this guidance are appropriately handled.'
Why not also mention these crucial points, particularly in a 'faith-sensitive' Charter? The fact that schools have the ultimate decision does not give them a free pass to ignore parental objections and concerns. RSHE should never become an exercise in indoctrination into fashionable orthodoxies against the wishes of parents. The Charter's failure to make this clear, while stressing that the lessons are 'ultimately a decision for the school', is disappointing to say the least.
In other areas, as well, it is in its omissions as much as its assertions that the Charter will be found deficient by many Christians. It opens, for example, by quoting Genesis 1:27: 'So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.' But, bizarrely for a document all about relationships, including sexual relationships, it omits the rest of the sentence: 'male and female he created them.' What possible reason can there be for cutting short this verse here, lopping off the critical reference to being created male and female, if not to fit in with fashionable notions of gender fluidity? It betrays a Church much too eager to please.
Perhaps most shocking for believers is how emphatic the Charter is that church schools will not teach as true the Christian teaching on marriage and sexual relationships. Instead of teaching 'only one moral position,' Church of England schools will seek to 'develop character within a moral framework.'
While valuing the 'importance of faithfulness', the stress is very much on developing the 'skills needed' to 'appreciate the lived experience of other people and to live well together.'
'RSHE will seek to explain fairly the tenets and varying interpretations of religious communities on matters of sex and relationships and teach these viewpoints with respect,' it says.
This all sounds very woolly, not to mention confusing for 4- to 11-year-olds, and a far cry from a clear presentation of the biblical picture of marriage as the life-long union of a man and a woman with a view to raising children together.
The lack of a distinctive Christian vision for RSHE should probably have been obvious, however, when Stephen Conway, Bishop of Ely and the church's lead Bishop for Education, launched the Charter by saying it was 'not just for Church of England Schools, but can be of value to any school'. Something designed to work for 'any school' is never going to offer a clear steer for church schools wishing to give solid expression to their Christian ethos.
At one point the Charter appears to suggest that the Equality Act limits what schools may teach, saying RSHE 'will not discriminate against any of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act.' This risks reinforcing amongst church schools the misconception that the Equality Act applies to the content of a school curriculum, when it expressly states that it does not. This exemption in the Act is provided in part specifically to allow church and faith schools to teach their own doctrinal and ethical position in areas like marriage and family - an opportunity that the Church of England seems determined to pass up.
Overall this is a deeply disappointing document. While containing some valuable principles about respect and engaging with parents, it fails to grasp the opportunities offered by our education system and the new RSE regulations to set out a distinctive Christian vision of what relationships and sex education might look like.
In a time when there is more confusion than ever about romantic relationships and what it means to be male and female, the Church of England yet again misses the chance to offer support to Christians trying faithfully to hold out a biblical vision to a culture that so often doesn't want to know.
Church schools are not just for Christians. Nonetheless, they are schools with a Christian ethos and parents have a right to expect that the schools will be run in line with that ethos. That ethos comes from the Bible, not from airy notions of developing character and living together well.
This Charter is another reminder that the Church of England appears to have lost all confidence in its own biblical teaching, exchanging it for the thin gruel of progressive relativism where the highest goal is muddling along together. We all deserve better than this from our established church.
Dr Will Jones is a Leamington-based writer, a mathematics graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and a diploma in biblical and theological studies. He blogs at www.faith-and-politics.com and is author of Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present (Grove, 2017). He can be found on Twitter @faithnpolitic