From the first we attributed considerable importance to the religious life of the children but in spite of this, and in spite of the work of quite a large number of people, Priests, Ministers and Laymen, the number of “old children” who are practising members of a church is, I believe, very small - always excepting those who came to us as Roman Catholics.
The children did, however, show a considerable degree of tolerance and the devout were not subject to ridicule.
As in most institutions, the great majority of the children were labelled “C of E” because that is the universal reply of people with no religious affinities when asked to state their faith. (Few are sufficiently interested to call themselves Humanists or Agnostics.) “Presbyterian” had the same connotation for Scottish children. When parents claimed to be Methodists there was a greater probability that there was some chapel connection, and those claiming to be Roman Catholics were almost always genuinely concerned about the religious upbringing of their children. During my residence we had no declared Jews, Muslims or Hindus.
Attendance at church on Sunday had always been compulsory and up to 1948 there had also been daily prayers after tea for all children aged five to sixteen and, once a week, mass religious instruction for the same age range given by the Chaplin.
Prayers under these conditions could, we felt, be blasphemous and the instruction was obviously useless. Both were discontinued.
Attendance at church on Sunday morning continued to be compulsory, but instead of being marched in crocodile to the Parish Church, those over the age of eleven were allowed to choose any church of any denomination. The younger children were taken to Sunday School unless they preferred church. This freedom of choice was only possible because St Christopher’s happened to be in the centre of a large town. In practice the choice of the older children was to a large extent influenced by the member of staff they wished to accompany or, in one particular church, by the brevity of the service! On one occasion we found that a Roman Catholic and a Methodist were going on alternate Sundays to the other’s church!
Some of the children attended church alone or in pairs. When a number attended any one church we found it safer to ensure that a member of staff was there also.
This system led to individual children forming quite a close connection with their own church. They became known as individuals to clergy and congregation. They joined Church Youth Clubs and attended church ‘socials’.
Several of the boys joined church choirs. Some boys, and the majority of the girls, joined confirmation classes and were eventually confirmed. Churchmanship ranged from the Evangelistic to the extremes of ritualistic.
‘Youth for Christ’ rallies were at one time very popular with the girls, even those who were supposedly High Anglicans. This diversity of opinion was, we believed, healthy and we never prevented children from going in the evening to a church of another denomination as, for instance, Benediction in the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1949 we made an undenominational chapel in the house, where we held very brief evening prayers, just before bedtime, for the Juniors and, immediately after supper, for the Seniors.
‘Chapel’, which generally included a hymn, a period of silence, prayers and a reading or a very brief address, was not supposed to last more than ten minutes. Sometimes it was shorter. It was conducted either by myself, the Chaplin, clergy from one of the various churches which the children attended. It was on the whole accepted without resentment and was, by some, greatly appreciated even if only as a period of quiet in a place of beauty. Some members of staff always attended, some never.
The religious life of the household was dependant to a very large extent upon the staff and, on looking back, I realise that the climate was not always the same. It was always tempered by the presence of a House Master who happened to be an agnostic. He also was tolerant.
The one religious activity in which everyone shared, irrespective of age, came to be the Christmas play. This started as a very simple nativity play based on the Bible narrative and performed by boys and girls of Junior School age. It was the outcome of “Junior Chapel”.
The caste included a Narrator, Gabriel (always a boy), Joseph and Mary (always a brother and sister), Kings, Shepherds, an Innkeeper and his Wife (who provided humour). The action was accompanied by carols sung by the older children. The audience was, at first, restricted to the household, visiting parents and an occasional schoolteacher. There was no applause and the brief performance was accepted as a piece of religious symbolism. It was presented and received without ribaldry.
Boys who had taken part in one play almost invariably wanted a part in the next, so the age level rose and the plays became proportionately longer and involved more people. The singing improved and we were able to use the younger children in processions and crowd scenes. The audiences also became larger but the atmosphere remained the same.
When we felt that we had attained a reasonable standard of production, the play was used as a means of raising money to help refugees, a project in which the children were keenly interested. Taking part in the play involved definite sacrifice on their part. Rehearsals absorbed much of their time and it was sometimes necessary to refuse invitations to Christmas parties. They were sometimes asked to give additional performances and churches in the town and also in the county.
By 1959, Nativity plays were being produced at so many local schools that we decided that, while continuing our tradition of presenting a religious drama at Christmas, it should be an entirely different play each year. We started with an adaptation of “The Fourth Wise Man”, followed by a play about St Christopher and a series of biblical plays based on Old Testament narratives, each with a heroic theme.