I have publically stated my own personal view (on this blog and at many ecumenical and interreligious meetings), that I cannot and do not endorse the current push to replace Special Religious Education in Victorian state schools with a generalised curriculum teaching all major religious traditions. I have nothing against the latter proposal at all, but I do object to the way in which the push for such an addition to the curriculum is in opposition to the retention of the current and long-running policy which allows every religious tradition access to schools to provide basic special catechesis particular to their tradition. The two are, it seems to me, both laudable and not to be opposed to one another.
I therefore applaud the decision of the Melbourne Anglican Synod reported in The Age in this article:
Anglicans reject multi-faith education in schools
Barney Zwartz October 24, 2011
Anglicans have rejected a call to introduce multi-faith general religious education into schools.
MELBOURNE Anglicans have rejected a call to introduce a multi-faith general religious education into all Victorian state schools, in a move described as a return to sectarianism.
Melbourne historian Peter Sherlock, who seconded the proposal, said Friday night’s vote at the Melbourne synod was “a stunning reversal of 140 years of campaigning for religious education in schools” and a return to 19th century sectarianism.
Supporters of the embattled religious education provider Access Ministries saw the vote as vindication, with Access chairman Bishop Stephen Hale saying to support the call would have endorsed what he called a campaign carried out by The Age.
The synod rejected, by 204 votes to 167, a proposal to ask the state Education Minister to develop a separate program of multi-faith and general religious education that could operate alongside the voluntary special religious instruction program. It passed without debate a motion commending Access and thanking volunteers.
Access provides 96 per cent of the volunteers and a third of those are Anglicans. But it has come under fire over claims that some volunteers try to convert children, because children attend unless parents ask to opt out, and because children who opt out are not given meaningful activities.
The Uniting Church’s state synod last month declined to endorse Access, preferring to set up a taskforce to explore how best to provide religious education.
Dr Sherlock said: “The debate about religious education in schools has returned to the divisive and self-defeating sectarianism of the 1860s and 1870s.”
He said the synod vote implied that state school teachers could not conduct themselves professionally in the classroom. “The position of Access Ministries in relation to general religious education is ambiguous at best and deceitful at worst.”
Melbourne Archbishop Philip Freier told the synod he was surprised that religious education in schools had become such a public debate for the church, but that the right to teach Christian faith – granted when the state withdrew support to church schools in the 1870s – should not be removed or replaced by the study of world religions.
Bishop Hale said it was nonsense to claim this was a move towards sectarianism. The opposite was true – the act under which Access operated was put in place to overcome Catholic-Protestant sectarianism in the 1950s.
He said he opposed the motion not because he opposed general religious education but because to endorse it now while Access was under such attack would be a signal to The Age that its “campaign was accurate”. It would also give succour to the humanists and education union who opposed special religious education.
“There have been significant accusations against Access – especially that we proselytise – none of which has been validated or upheld by state and federal government inquiries,” Bishop Hale said. The Age had asserted it twice as fact in editorials, and had run several negative articles, he said.
He said other faith providers – Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Baha’is and Jews – were more determined than ever to continue special religious education and that Hindus had seen demand for their special religious instruction in state schools rise four-fold thanks to the controversy.
I too reject the idea that this is a “return to sectarianism”. How can the support for continuation of a program that has been running continuously for so long be called a “return” to anything? The whole campaign against Special Religious Education – not entirely The Age’s own, but certainly fueled by The Age which has adopted it as editorial policy – must be exposed as unwarranted. In fact, it is this campaign which seems to me to smack of “sectarianism”, where the division is no longer “Catholic-Protestant” but “Christian-Secularist”. As the report above says in its conclusion, other faiths also have equal access to Special Religious Education. In my opinion, the continued provision of the right of all religious traditions in our community to have access to children belonging to their tradition in public schools is to be supported and continued, as the best way to ensure a non-sectarian level playing ground for religious communities in our society.