Anglicans to be applauded for level-headed common sense in Religious Education debate

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.

About Schütz

I am a PhD candidate & sessional academic at Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, Australia. After almost 10 years in ministry as a Lutheran pastor, I was received into the Catholic Church in 2003. I worked for the Archdiocese of Melbourne for 18 years in Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations. I have been editor of Gesher for the Council of Christians & Jews and am guest editor of the historical journal “Footprints”. I have a passion for pilgrimage and pioneered the MacKillop Woods Way.
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4 Responses to Anglicans to be applauded for level-headed common sense in Religious Education debate

  1. Peregrinus says:

    I think there’s a fundamental difference between

    – on the one hand, catechesis, which is essentially the presentation to students of a particular community which has a particular understanding of the world and our place in it, and a particular way of living out that understanding, coupled with an invitation to participate in that community; and

    – on the other hand, religious education, in the sense of education about religion.

    As it happens, I think education about religion (and about philosophy, ethics and spirituality generally) is important and if it isn’t already part of the public education curriculum then it certainly should be. And it shouldn’t be optional.

    But there is no sense in which religious education and catechesis are alternatives to, or substitutes for, one another, which I gather is what was proposed here.

    I think there is always going to be tension in accommodating catechesis, or anything like catechesis, in the public education system of a pluralist and secular state, but with a degree of common sense and good will I don’t think those tensions are unmanageable.

    I think this controversy highlights one of the ways in which the Australian education system has been a little bit distorted by its history (and the history of church involvement). In creating a space for churches to catechize, it seems to be the case that a slightly larger space has been left by the state. Not only does the state not catechize through its schools, but it doesn’t explicitly educate about religion – or, as the Sydney ethics education debate/experiment shows – about ethics or related issues. And that seems to me to be very unfortunate. The result is that it’s possible to grow up in Australia not only with no religion – which on one level is fine; it’s not the state’s business to encourage us to be religious – but also profoundly ignorant about religion, and wholly lacking the intellectual equipment to tackle moral/philosophical/spiritual issues in any coherent way.

    • Schütz says:

      In the main, you grasp my point, Perry. And vice versa.

      The only question concerns the role of history in this. The Victorian history may be a little different to the history in your own state. There is no real reason why education in this country had to end up a secular affair. That is the way it happened, but it happened because the State struck a deal with the Churches: support State provided, secular education, and we will allow you to have access for half an hour every week to catechise the children of your flock. At the time it was a “win/win” situation; today, aggressive secularism is not so satisfied.

      But you grasp my main point: catechisation (which is what “Special Religious Education” really is) is quite different from “education about religion”. I agree with you that in today’s multicultural society, our children need to understand that religion forms an inherant part of the many cultures that make up Australia today. I am thus not against “education about religion” (although I have my doubts as to whether we will be able to find teachers competant to teach “about religion” – I have been involved in interreligoius relations for 10 years and still feel like an ignoramus on many occasions about other religious traditions), but against pitting “educatin about religion” against “religious education”.

      • Peregrinus says:

        There’s obviously a good deal of history here, with which I have only a sketchy familiarity, and I suspect a good deal of politics as well, and possibly even a certain amount of theology. I note that this was a proposal advanced in the Melbourne Anglican Synod, presumably by members of the Synod, and that 167 Synod members voted for it. Can we really attribute this to “aggressive secularism”, or would a somewhat more nuanced way of describing the position of the 167 be fairer and more accurate? It must be possible for there to be different opinions within a church about the best way to engage in faith formation in the context of a secular and pluralist school system without one of the opinions amounting to “aggressive secularism”.

        I also note that there’s more than one way to skin a cat. As you point out, there is no reason why education had to end up a secular affair. Catholics were fairly strongly of this view when the mainstream Protestant churches reached the accommodation with the Victorian government which resulted in SRE. Catholics retained their own schools, and did not participate in SRE in state schools (and, at the time, probably everyone saw this, too, as a “win/win” situation). Decades later, they entered into their own accommodation with Caesar to secure state funding, and of course they did so on different terms. I think they would deny that they offer education which is a “secular affair”, but undoubtedly they have made compromises and commitments to obtain funding.

        Of course, you can argue about whether the relationship of Catholic schools to the state is a good thing, whether it works well, whether it could be improved, whether it needs to be changed, etc. And I don’t think there can ever be an end to arguments like this. The very fact that we are running in parallel two different models for the relationship between church and state in regard to education points to their being no one-size-fits-all solution. Diversity is good, and a degree of experimentation is to be welcomed.

        As for education about religion, you and I agree that it’s important, and that it is not an alternative to faith formation, and that it should be a core part of any civilized, humanist, rounded education. I’d possibly frame it even a little more widely; pupils should be equipped to think about the life of the spirit; about philosophy, ethics, values and meaning; and this should embrace both religious and non-religious approaches to these questions. (There’s absolutely no reason why students – not in primary school, of course – shouldn’t be introduced to the writings of Richard Dawkins and encouraged to critique them.)

        Yes, it might be difficult to find teachers competent to teach about this, but that’s because they are themselves the product of an Australian education system which has mostly shied away from addressing this area. But if you’re going to break this cycle ya gotta start somewhere.

  2. matthias says:

    Trust a academic ,obviously a revisionis and perhaps out of touch with what is happening in schools,to get histerical (LOL)

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