One thing which drove myself and, I suspect, many of my teenage contemporaries at school from the grasping arms of the Church of England was the element of compulsion involved. I no more liked having the tenets of Protestant Christianity shoved down my throat than I did being force-fed the joys of Marx by a history teacher.

I can only remember two sermons from my days at Oundle School in the 1960s. One I recall only for a minor joke by the then Bishop of Lincoln – about an old road sign in Lincolnshire which used to say ‘To’, in the top left hand corner, ‘Old Bolingbroke and Mavis Enderby’ on which someone added ‘ a son’: a weak joke, I know, but I used to drive past the same sign on my way to Lincoln years ago, so managed an equally weak chuckle each time – the rest was eminently forgettable, as were, apart from the one below, the other five year’s worth of such offerings.

That other was for a riveting account of life under the Communists by one Pastor Richard Wurmbrand, a Romanian of Jewish origin who converted before the Second World War to Christianity and who was imprisoned and terribly tortured by the Romanian Communists for some fourteen years. He gave a long but electrifying account, delivered in a matter of fact way, of the prolonged beatings and torture he sustained at their hands as they tried to break his will. The sheer variety of methods of torture he had to endure had 700 schoolboys paying him rapt attention (all except one contemporary of mine who sat through the whole thing tut-tutting about lies and propaganda: he ended up working for the Bank of England) as he explained each one in clinical detail. It did not make me a Christian, but it certainly added to my anti-Communism.

As to the religious stuff, compulsion made the heart averser. In England and Wales religious education is compulsory, yet in the last forty years genuine attachment to the Christian Church can hardly be said to have prospered. In the USA religion is specifically forbidden in education, a feature of the Constitution which is rigidly enforced by the Supreme Court. There politics is intimately bound up with religion given its enormous influence and its predominance in some parts and genuine religious adherence is a major fact of life. The comparison may be a far too simplistic one, but it is nonetheless a striking one.

I make this point because of the suggestion by Peter Whittle at New Culture Forum that children should be made to wear British Legion poppies. I cannot imagine a dafter idea. Compulsion will simply engender resistance. Far better to teach them about the significance of it in a meaningful way and then leave it up to the individual to decide if they wish to contribute to the fund and wear the poppy. Most, if properly taught about the value of the poppy, will choose to do so. And how much more valuable will be that voluntary choice. If they were all forced to wear one, its impact is lost. But seeing a row of schoolkids who have all voluntarily decided to buy and wear a poppy, how powerful a statement is that?

The denizens of Oosterbeek in the Netherlands have created a tradition which is continued to this day on an entirely voluntary basis for a ceremony that honours the British and Polish war dead of Operation Market Garden each September. During the ceremony Dutch schoolchildren lay flowers at each of the graves and, upon turning round to do so, are enjoined to think of the young man who lies there. It is a deeply moving and most potent moment. Having witnessed this, I do not believe that anything can be gained by forcing children to wear a poppy. If they choose to do so, that is a far more eloquent statement.

Is not the phrase ‘suffer the little children to come unto me’ rather than ‘make them come unto me’?

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