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Bishop teaches tolerance, respect

Religious education teacher named to national committee

James D. Holt has become accustomed to doing balancing acts.

As bishop of the Hyde Ward, Manchester England Stake, he must balance the demands on his time between his calling; his role as a 29-year-old family man with two daughters and a son ages 5, 3 and 1; and his professional responsibilities.

It is the latter that present a further balancing act. Bishop Holt was recently appointed to the National Executive [committee] of the Professional Council for Religious Education. As a teacher of religious education in a state secondary (high) school, he balances a fervent faith in the restored gospel of Christ with his responsibility to be balanced, professional and neutral in his classroom instruction.

His appointment to the seven-member panel — known as the "executive" — attests to how well he carries out his professional role; his calling as bishop indicates the strength of his faith and commitment to the gospel.

Fellow Latter-day Saints sometimes are puzzled that he can fulfill both roles adequately. "Comments range from, 'How can you do that?' to 'If I did your job I would stand at the front of the classroom and say the Church is true!' " Bishop Holt said. "If I did that, I could lose my job. The job is not a confessional or conversion process. I am [in a position] to teach about the religions of the world, the rich diversity of the world and how knowing of these can make us better citizens of the world with increased tolerance and respect."

But like the apostle Paul, Bishop Holt is not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. His ecclesiastical calling is well known to his students as well as to his professional colleagues, some of whom refer to him affectionately as "the bish."

"I hope that for the children I teach I am a good example of the restored gospel," he said. "Most know of my faith; it was in the newspaper when I was called as bishop. My sincere hope and belief is that as [I am] some people's first exposure to a Latter-day Saint they will dismiss any wild stories and have an interest at some future point. I feel that being a Latter-day Saint enables me to be a better teacher because I try and have my Savior's characteristics in all areas of my life, including the classroom."

He feels that religious education is important for young people, a view that is widely shared as evidenced by the fact that it is compulsory for all pupils in British schools. Parents do have a right to withdraw their children from religious education, "but it is sad when this is exercised," he said. "Sometimes pupils question the need for it, but as they realize the underlying aims it can be a force for good."

Thus, following the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, the school turned to Bishop Holt to put on assemblies to educate parents and children about the message of Islam. Similarly, following the death of a 16-year-old student recently, he was asked to direct an assembly to offer comfort and consolation.

"I feel that because of the nature of my job colleagues often ask about particular beliefs, and missionary opportunities are more available to me," he said. "One example of this was when I was teaching about religious attitudes to death. Another teacher came to ask me about the concepts in the lesson, and we ended up with a full-scale diagram of the Plan of Salvation because it had led on to a discussion of my beliefs."

Those beliefs bring him joy, particularly as he serves in his calling as bishop. "Being with people is the best part of my calling," he said, adding, "My greatest joys come through seeing changes and progress in people's lives in living the gospel; the lowest lows come from the opposite. Without my wife Ruth's support, my service would be so much harder."

Occasionally he teaches "Religions of the World" at the Church's Manchester Institute of Religion. "I really enjoy this because it combines my two interests and passions," he said. "The way to bring the Church out of obscurity and help people understand our faith is to build bridges and understand them and their beliefs." In line with this, he has taught enrichment classes on relationships with other faiths and has presented Latter-day Saint beliefs to Methodist and Moravian congregations.

Bishop Holt is studying for his second master's degree, a Master of Education in Religious Education. He had intended to focus his master's thesis on teaching spirituality, but his tutor had seen an article he had written in an educational journal on "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the Religious Education Classroom." The tutor, supported by the opinion of others in the class, felt he should focus on that topic in his thesis.

"So, building on my article and a resource pack I am designing for teachers, my thesis will be about the contribution the Church can make in the religious education classroom, in the wider context of a discussion of 'new religious moments,' " Bishop Holt said.

His article was published in the Summer 2002 edition of REsource, a Journal of the Professional Council for Religious Education, circulated to more than 2,500 Religious Education teachers. In it, he expressed the view that the Church "is one of the fastest growing religions in the United Kingdom and the world. If this is the case, why are the perceptions of Latter-day Saints in the U.K. still based on myth and sensation? This article is not a plea to accept the truth of 'Mormonism,' rather it is a plea to eradicate misconceptions about the Church, and to utilize its value in the R.E. classroom."

The article quotes President Gordon B. Hinckley's injunction to Church members to be good neighbors and friends and to be friendly, understanding, tolerant and considerate.

"This 'good neighbour' attitude is the goal of any R.E. teacher," Bishop Holt wrote in the article, "and so if The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is to be touched upon, let it be done sympathetically and accurately as with any other faith."

Regarding how the Church could be used within the classroom, he quoted from the Proclamation on the Family published by the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve and said it could be applied in curriculum on moral and ethical issues.

"The Church . . . has come a long way in the United Kingdom since missionaries first arrived in 1837," the article concludes. "Through some trying times of emigration and opposition the Church now has over 100,000 members in the U.K. At some point in our lives we will all encounter a Latter-day Saint; surely it is better to do so prepared with a knowledge of what they believe.

"Similarly, for a well-rounded experience of religious education a study cannot be complete without some mention of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

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