An open letter to my Christian Facebook Friends about School Chaplaincy

My Facebook newsfeed is jammed full of articles, cause invites and petitions suggesting that the Christian sky will fall down if I don’t voice my support for the government funding of school chaplains.

For some background – the Australian government provides some funding for schools to employ chaplains (after consultation with the P&C and support from the local community (which means churches). This funding is generous and has allowed for many chaplains to be hired around the country. In Queensland these services are generally provided through Scripture Union (SU) who are an umbrella body, and a Christian organisation. Chaplains roles are limited because they offer services to people of all faiths, beliefs, lack of faiths, etc. An atheist from Toowoomba doesn’t like that government money is going to what is arguably a religious service, that arguably enshrines Christianity as a state religion (though the legislation is all very clear that chaplains don’t have to be Christian). This is the website for the High Court Challenge. Here’s a few paragraphs from a news story from September last year:

“Mr Williams said that while the rules of the program prohibited chaplains from proselytising, the Queensland provider, the biblical literalist Scripture Union, has as its aim ”to encourage people of all ages to meet God daily through the Bible and prayer”.

”It’s absolutely, totally out of control here. You can’t prevent your children being exposed to chaplaincy,” Mr Williams said.

In Victoria, state school chaplains are employed by ACCESS Ministries, the same group that provides non-compulsory religious education. Chaplains in Victoria are better qualified than in other states, and are required to have at least one degree in teaching, theology or counselling, as well as further training in another of those fields.”

I won’t be joining said causes, signing said petitions, (though I will read the articles).

I think government funding for chaplains is actually borderline a bad thing, for a number of reasons. I wrote something along these lines back in 2006 when federal funding was first announced, and nothing I have seen since has changed my mind.

In case you’re sitting there thinking “oh no, all the chaplains I know are lovely people, and should totally keep their jobs” – I agree. Entirely. One of my best friends really is a chaplain, several other close friends are too. Chaplains, on the whole, have had an incredibly positive impact on the lives of children at school – and somebody in the school community should be doing the job they’re doing, I’m glad the people currently doing the job are Christians. I really am.

I have a couple of problems with the scaremongering going on around this issue.

1. There’s an assumption that government funding of chaplains is a good thing.
2. There’s an assumption that this money is free.
3. There’s an assumption that chaplains would disappear if the funding was pulled.
4. There’s an assumption that chaplaincy, in its present form, is good for the spread of the gospel.

I’d challenge the first three, and suggest that in the case of the third this is no axiom, but reflects the exception, not the rule (indeed, I’d say for chaplains to be spreading the gospel they’d have to be putting their federal funding and positions in danger).

It’s this kind of approach to the interaction with church and state that I think characterises much of what is wrong with the church – we assume we have some sort of entitlement to special access.

Around the same time in 2006 that I wrote that post linked above, I wrote another post, suggesting that because of Christianity’s place in Australia’s heritage we do have a place in the educational spectrum. Particularly in modern history. And I think RE is appropriate – because all students have equal access to religious instruction, and religion is a huge part of life outside of school, and I recognise that there is a spiritual aspect to one’s development as a person that is rightly addressed in an RE program.

But chaplains aren’t even allowed to teach RE. What’s the point of having a Christian voice in a school if they’re not allowed to teach Christian things?

“While exercising their roles from within a Christian framework and promoting positive Christian values, SU Qld Chaplains will be sensitive to and respectful of people who hold beliefs and values different from their own. SU Qld Chaplains will be available to all students, staff and parents within their schools, regardless of religious affiliation.” – From the SU Chaplaincy site

The Queensland Government’s position on Religious Education in schools is quite clearly articulated here.

As is their position on what chaplains can do as part of their role

Whilst personally modeling and owning their own faith positions or belief, chaplains avoid any implications that any one religion, denomination or other set of beliefs is advantageous or superior to any other denomination, religion or belief.

Chaplaincy programs are compatible with policies and practices that apply to delivery of any service in a multi-faith and multicultural state school community. A chaplaincy program is inclusive of and shows respect for all religious and non-religious beliefs and other stances represented in the school community. All activities and events provided within a chaplaincy program are non-discriminatory and equitably available to students of all beliefs who choose to participate.

That earlier link spells this out a little further when it comes to the subject of teaching RE…

Teachers and chaplains are not to teach religious instruction. It is not part of their work duties. However, if a chaplain or a teacher works part-time, they may choose to teach religious instruction in their own time, outside of work hours.

Accepting government money, in a nation where church and state are separate (which is a good thing), creates a relationship of dependency and shifts the power dynamic in this separation to the person giving the money (I suspect this will eventually become a problem with regards to the tax benefits churches enjoy).

The “Save Our Chaplains” campaign is making this a do or die issue for school chaplaincy (and if you disagree with me, go there and sign the pledge – this post then becomes “awareness raising” so everybody wins). I think we can all acknowledge some truth to this campaign, an overturning of the federal funding may well see a bunch of chaplains out of a job – which is not the outcome we want. But if the church, as a whole, believes chaplains are worth keeping – then we should be paying for them ourselves. It’s great that the government wants to recognise the role that these guys play – but as soon as we take their money, they take control. And suddenly there’s a bunch of truths we can’t speak. Can a chaplain, funded by the government, be known to believe that homosexuality is a sin? Can a chaplain explain to a troubled child that Jesus is the only way to God? Can we make any claim that offends any other taxpayer? I don’t know. I’m not a chaplain – but I’ve been to a couple of SU Supporters nights and noticed that it’s all about “having positive impacts on children’s lives” and “being there” – and there’s almost never a mention of God at these nights at all. I once offered to pay $100 per year for every mention of God at one of these dinners, and it didn’t cost me a cent. And this is when they’re preaching to the converted. It’s not even “Scripture Union” anymore. It’s SU. Which is one of those branding decisions that’s made when you’ve moved away from the core product but want to keep your history… SU’s aims and working principles document is still thoroughly Christian, and commendable.

The guy launching the court action against government funding seems to be a bit of a jerk. But he’s a jerk with principles that are actually based in reality – church and state are separate. And we want them to be. Because we can’t afford to have the government controlling our message – look what happens to state churches in European (especially Scandinavian) countries. For a perspective on the issue from the other side (the atheist side) of the equation read this article – it’s long, and it makes some sound points, and some points from a “religious teaching is child abuse” kind of perspective.

Figuring out how to maintain the distinction between being on school grounds teaching Christianity as part of a religious education program and government funded positions for religious workers who can’t teach religions is tricky. One of the other spin-offs of this court challenge against chaplaincy in schools, and the introduction of ethics classes in NSW, and a host of other campaigns being driven by opponents of the gospel who conflate the two into one issue, is this attack on the teaching of RE in schools, or CRE, or RI, or whatever “scripture lessons” are called in your states. This is a period of time allocated for volunteers to come into a school to preach. There’s a campaign on Facebook that wants to keep RE taught in Victorian schools, which is a cause I’d support (not least because the guy running the Facebook cause is a friend of mine).

I won’t be signing anything to keep chaplaincy in its current guise in schools. I love my chaplain friends dearly. And I’d love to continue financially supporting them in the future so that they can get into schools and preach the gospel to kids without the shackles of government funding tying them down.

That is all.

3 Comments An open letter to my Christian Facebook Friends about School Chaplaincy

  1. Rocco

    Good article and fully understand where you’re coming from.

    Here’s some things to ponder:

    The funding from the federal actually gave very little change to how school chaplaincy operated in Qld. Chaplains are governed by Education Queensland – so regardless of where the funds come from, that policy isn’t going to change. Even when we move to 100% community funding – it won’t change how they operate in schools!

    Losing the funding won’t stop chaplains in schools.

    The campaign in fact is about awareness for both the public but also the people in government. These people at all levels need to be aware of the need and demand for this service.

    In fact, the funding allowed SU Qld to place chaplains in a further 350 schools, which would have simply taken probably about 20+ years to do on the growth that was there before funding kicked in.

    To date, 65% of the costs for chaplaincy are covered by government funding, so losing the funding in the future would essentially mean and overnight reduction of 250 chaplains.

    The priority for all Christians should be how we live – this should reflect God, but not our opinion or theology. Chaplains are an outworking of this through their action (caring, love, support). These kids, families and teachers will be impacted by this and will see God in it.

    1. Nathan Campbell

      Hi Rocco,

      Thanks for your educated comment (and it’s fun having two guys from SU Schoolies 2000 commenting (see the Facebook comments to know what I’m talking about).

      I’m not a big fan of the “preach the gospel, when necessary use words” model of ministry which, in a sense, underpins SU’s approach to chaplaincy. Especially when you’re not technically allowed to use words.

      I agree that our lives should reflect God. I agree that chaplains are having an impact on kids, families and teachers. I’m a little more optimistic about the possibility of community support for some of those 250 chaplains who would lose their jobs – but I’ve got to ask what most Christians would think if the government money was being given to atheist propaganda spreaders or muslims… church and state should be separate, it’s actually good for the church for that to be the case.

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