Tag Archives: chaplaincy

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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.

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Hello chaps

“…this is our school let love abide here, love of God, love of mankind, and love of one another.” – School prayer, Maclean Primary School (possibly paraphrased)

Religion in government run schools is a flashpoint subject. There’s nothing that will get the blood boiling for your average atheist than to have religion try to eke its way in to the school curriculum. The issue has been hotly debated in the US for years and the debate has hit our shores with the PM’s decision to fund chaplains in State Schools. The issue has been in the peripherals for a long time – last year it was the proposal to teach intelligent design in the science room – France had an impassioned debate over the rights of students to wear religious clothing to school – the secular state/church relationship is peculiar to say the least.

Surprisingly for some, the chaplaincy scheme is almost as unpopular with Christians as it is with Joe Blow atheist, albeit for different reasons. Whatever your philosophical position on the matter – Australia is a country that celebrates religious freedom – and encourages diversity of beliefs – as a result of the s116 of the constitution (which rules out an official state church). This freedom is a result of the historical hard work of many Christian men and women who staunchly fought for that right – along with fighting for other notable causes such as equal rights for women and aboriginals, the labor union movement, the founding of the Liberal party etc… where there is political or social progress in our history there’s generally been a Christian involved (some would describe the advent of secular humanism and other small l liberal advents as progress – I would argue that they’re generally an example of the use of freedoms won earlier or blatant plagiarism of ideals from historical groups). There is a strong social and historical argument for the teaching of Christianity in schools – but the context it’s taught in is open for argument – should Christianity enjoy a protected position as the religion of choice taught in RE? Should Christians be given special preference in these newly formed government funded chaplaincy positions? The philosophical answer to both those questions is probably not – if we’re upholding a society where people are free to believe whatever they want (which is as important for Christians as it is for Muslims, atheists, Jews and Mormons) we possibly need to provide equal access to all the options (an all or nothing approach of sorts).

I’ve been having some conversations with Mr Benny lately on the issue – below are some extracts from the emails we’ve sent back and forth…

“I hate school prayer.” – Ben

So do I, but for theological reasons – I don’t mind the idea of a Christian praying for the school every day – that’s great – but forcing people to pray to a God they don’t believe in is ridiculous and should be offensive to all Christians because it belittles the idea of God.

“I’m happy to have the history of religion and umm i lack the ability to express this part – i think it’s perfectly good to have the “stories” (sorry i know that’s a real bad word I just can’t think of the right one) of religion to be taught in the same way as science, maths, Shakespeare etc. My concerns stem from the fact legislation is being brought in and it is moving towards what I just mentioned, but the ideals are then being raped by religious zealots intent on promoting religion in schools. $20000 goes to a school, the discretion on who to employ is falling within the schools, you have some religious people in positions of authority, a religious chaplain is employed, and suddenly you have $20000 of tax payer’s money to have a preacher in a school.” – Ben

This argument is interesting but somewhat contradictory. Who is going to get to teach the religious subjects? Suggesting an atheist teach religion is like suggesting a drama teacher teach physics because they have some grasp of the concepts involved but no understanding. A religious teacher should be just as free to promote religion as an English teacher is to promote the beauty of the English language – or a science teacher is to promote the complexity of a plant. That’s what education is – it’s being presented with a series of views and deciding which ones appeal. Because of the “wonderful” nature of postmodernism in education there’s no truth that can be taught as an absolute anymore anyway so children aren’t being forced to believe anything. I can deny gravity if I can justify it. The anti RE argument is also completely flawed – RE in state schools is an opt out system where parents who feel strongly enough can pull their children out of a class – in an interesting side note we don’t have opt out science, or opt out maths so clearly there’s already a distinction between the subjects. What we do have is an opening for anyone of any religious persuasion to come in and teach RE – in my primary school the JWs had their own religion classes – and I can only assume if a Muslim wanted to teach Islamic RE classes during that timeslot that would be a possibility under the current legislation.

The role of the counsellor/chaplain needs to be clearly defined – and Christians are just as concerned about the implications of this legislation as everyone else – nobody wants crazy people running around on school grounds converting kids to an obscure cult. And the last thing Christians want is for a government driven by a politically correct agenda to water down the gospel into a more palatable mix of peace and love – without all the nasty bits.

“I swear, if there are reports of school chaplains directing students to prayer and such if they are approached for counselling then I will go and punch them in the face myself (that’s just student X, not a student they have a history with and know is of their religious persuasion).” – Ben

What guidance can a guidance counsellor offer – when is a student allowed to leave school grounds to seek counselling from a church – a large number of community based, government endorsed counselling services (ie the Salvation Army) are church based anyway so you’re not solving whatever your perceived problem is by keeping counsellors out of school – unless your problem is that it shouldn’t be happening at school because of your political ideology – and that’s a rabid breakdown in rationality if the ideal is more important than the people impacted. People will not be forced to use these counsellors – they’re there for those who will – and in that case it’ll be $20,000 well spent – the fact is that $20,000 will only pay about a half of a person and the other half will come from the combined churches in an area – so the federal funding is probably ensuring chaplains have an obligation to act as counsellors rather than religious salespeople.

And therein lies the concern for Christians – in paying the chaplain, the government then essentially pays to have some control over their message/methodology – which is a breakdown in the separation of church and state in the other direction – ie the state should not dictate the practices of a church. Most Evangelical Christians feel strongly about the notion of the gospel being the only way to God – any watering down of this message fails to serve their purposes as much as it would be a failing if the education system was to employ a “preacher.”

I read Premier Beattie’s plea for churches to pray for rain with interest – particularly the paragraph referring to members of other faiths as “brothers and sisters” who should be encouraged to pray to their Gods – which God will get the credit now if it rains? Seems pretty confusing to me – not to mention the politically correct agenda being pushed and signed onto by the heads of Queensland’s major Christian churches… shame, shame, shame I say.