Archbishop Freier has defended Christian Religious Education in state primary schools, saying society would do children no favours by denying them access to knowledge that could give their lives meaning, purpose, value and hope.

Dr Freier, in an article published in The Age on 25 April, wrote that the debate about Christian Religious Education (CRE) in Victorian government primary schools needed to occur within a much wider cultural, historical and educational perspective. There was much more at stake than seemed the case at first glance.

“The values on which our society is built have been largely shaped by Christianity,” Archbishop Freier wrote. “While recognising that we are a multi-faith society, until recently Christianity and Christian values were readily accepted as being part of the community, regardless of personal faith.”

The Archbishop’s defence of Christian education in public schools (see article on page 17) came after weeks of controversy about such classes’ place in a system partly defined as “secular”, the capacity of parents and schools to opt out of CRE, the role of ACCESS Ministries and the qualifications of ACCESS’ volunteer teachers.

The debate flared on 24 March, when a complaint by three parents to the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission said religious education in state primary schools discriminated against children whose parents opted out of the program. The complaint said the Education Department segregated children on religious grounds and was discriminatory by forcing children to opt out rather than specifically opting in if they want religious education. Further discrimination occurred because no proper secular alternative was offered for children whose parents opted them out of religious education, the complaint said.

ACCESS provides 96% of religious education in Victorian State primary schools through more than 3200 volunteer teachers. About 130,000 students participate in special religious instruction (SRI) programs, about 124,000 of whom participate in the CRE program conducted by ACCESS.

But a statement on the ACCESS website said the very foundation of ACCESS ministries was being challenged and urged its supporters to write to the Premier, Mr Ted Baillieu, the Education Minister, Mr Martin Dixon, and MPs to ensure CRE continued.

“For over 100 years, ACCESS ministries and its predecessors have offered Christian Religious Education (CRE) to the state’s schools through a strong and dedicated body of carefully trained volunteers,” the statement said. “For many children, it is their only introduction to the values that underpin a biblical understanding of God, the world, themselves and others.

“It is these values that underpin our country’s legal, health, financial and social welfare sectors. They are at the core of our governmental structures and administration. These are values that have shaped the western world for centuries; values including love, serving others, integrity, looking after the poor, forgiveness and faith.”

Dr Freier wrote that the arguments for and against Christian Religious Education in state primary schools should include the notion of a good society, as expounded in the teachings of Jesus. Knowledge of the Bible, Christian belief and practice formed a vital part of understanding our humanity and our society.

The Archbishop also defended the volunteer teachers, writing that they received training and accreditation “and can demonstrate a love, care and dedication which should only enhance the lives of their students and society”.

He said there were alarming signs that all was not well with children, with a fourfold increase in depression among young people in the past 30 years in Australia and an estimated 100,000 young people now suffering depression.

“We do them no favours by denying them access to knowledge which can give their lives meaning, purpose, value and hope,” Dr Freier wrote.

The Chair of ACCESS Ministries, Bishop Stephen Hale, said ACCESS was only in schools because it was mandated by government.

Bishop Hale said that only five years ago, the previous State Government had a full review of the Education Act under which provision of Special Religious Instruction was considered. Submissions from the wider community indicated “overwhelming support” for the program to continue.

“We recognise that it will be a matter of contention for some people in our community who don’t believe there should be any religious education,” Bishop Hale said.

“We respect the fact that some people feel that way but we would argue that at the same time there is a pretty high level of support for what we do.”

He said schools that had Christian Religious Education were “in the main” very supportive, though he acknowledged there was some tension in the way it was implemented. The process of handling children who opted out “has not been handled as well as it could be”.

“We recognise that it will be part of an ongoing debate and in the context of a largely secular society, it will be seen to be anomalous by some people,” he said. “But a lot of people would like to know that their children get some exposure to the Christian story and to the values it promotes.

Bishop Hale said ACCESS was “not out there to evangelise kids”. “But at the same time, kids are being informed and that elicits a response sometimes.”

He said there were increasingly virulent attempts in some parts of the community to have any church involvement or influence expunged. But religious education had been supported by the previous Victorian Labor Government and was supported by the Baillieu Coalition Government.

The bishop said there should be no confusion between religious education provided by ACCESS, under which Christian instruction in state schools was given explicit permission, and the Federal Government-funding school chaplaincy program, which explicitly excluded Christian instruction.

He said an unfortunate aspect of the debate was the impression “that we invite anybody who turns up to go into a classroom — nothing could be further from the truth”.

Volunteers were thoroughly trained and the curriculum was very strongly supported by the State Government. And a teacher was present for every religious education class, and a supervisor for every school, so there was built-in supervision.

“I can’t say that there are not volunteers who have not overstepped the mark as to what they do, who have not become too enthusiastic, but there is a pretty clear procedure for dealing with that,” Bishop Hale said.

 “Schools are very dependent on volunteers to do all sorts of things, whether it be sport coaching or whatever, so it’s not as if we are the only ones going into schools as volunteers.”

But the Anglican position on the debate was not uniform.

An Anglican priest and academic, Professor Gary Bouma, expressed concern that ACCESS Ministries “seem to thrive on people having to opt out of RE”. In other states, there was ample evidence about proselytising, he said.

Professor Bouma, the Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Monash University and associate priest at St John’s East Malvern, said his main concern was to get education about religions in the curriculum “as a serious part of the curriculum and as an assessed part of the curriculum and as a respected part of the curriculum”.

He said people needed to be trained to do this “because Australians are religious illiterates and that is a dangerous place to be”.

“The Anglican Church has to get used to being one player among others,” Professor Bouma said. “Becoming one among others and respecting the others is a strong learning curve for what used to be the majority.”

He said state schools were not places where faith was safely developed but added that “the big players” (private schools) also did not “grow” Christians.

“To grow Christians in a multicultural society is very serious work, very hard work, and needs a lot of educated and well-trained, highly skilled and highly qualified people.”

Professor Bouma cited Hillsong in Sydney and the Melbourne Anglican parish of St Hilary’s Kew as examples of centres with the correct strategy for developing adult Christians who could be articulate about their faith.

“They have put a lot of effort into growing Christians,” he said. “I might disagree with it theologically, but strategically, it’s right on the money.

“You walk in and they say, ‘Have we got a program for you!’ In too many other places, they say, ‘Can you help save us?’”

And another Anglican priest, who served for 40 years in church schools in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, acknowledged that there was “no longer uniform confidence in the Access Ministries’ accreditation process” for religious education teachers.

The Revd Dr Brian Porter, in a letter to the editor of The Age published on the same day as Archbishop Freier’s article, said one way out of the “current disquiet” about religious education in state schools would be to require parents at all schools to opt into the program   instead of opting out.

“It seems as if this option is not uniformly available in all schools and that many parents simply assume that there is no option,” he wrote.

“There is also no longer uniform confidence in the Access Ministries’ accreditation process for teachers who volunteer to offer this service. It seems that some of the accredited instructors come from denominations or sects that hold to fundamentalist beliefs. Recent letters have offered evidence of strangely unorthodox opinions being presented to children, which are decidedly unacceptable to liberally minded parents who belong to mainstream Christian denominations or none at all.

“Parents need to be able to judge whether or not to permit their children to receive lessons after they are notified as to the qualifications and theological stance of the instructor who is time-tabled for their child. To be able to opt into an RE program once these details have been advertised would seem to be a way forward.”

An editorial in The Age on 8 April declared: “The solution is not to abandon education about religion; events of the past decade illustrate the dangers of religious ignorance and intolerance. However, the government should not rely on faith-driven volunteers instead of trained educators who teach to the same professional standards as in any other subject. The goal must not be to convert children but to ensure they have the general religious literacy they need to make sense of the past, present and future.”

But within the newspaper, the issue prompted diverse views.

Religion editor Barney Zwartz, while acknowledging shortcomings with the present system, wrote on 11 April that Christianity had had a long and profound influence on Australia “and Christians are entitled to require that this influence be fairly taught in government schools”.

But Education editor Jewel Topsfield, on 4 April, argued that too many volunteer teachers were motivated by the desire to convert students to Christianity rather than teach religion in an impartial way.

A website reportedly established by the Humanist Society, Fairness in Religions in School, calls for state schools to maintain a curriculum that that does not require any student to withdraw from class on account of pupils’ or their parents’ religion or beliefs; “formally cease the practice of volunteer-run special religious instruction (SRI) during the school day”; follow an objective, fair and balanced syllabus for education (sic) about religions and beliefs; and treat all religious organisations who wish to use the school facilities outside of the school day with transparent and equitable polices.

In a Sunday Age article on 3 April, the chief executive of ACCESS, the Revd Canon Dr Evonne Paddison, wrote that Christianity was not the only faith group represented. By law, all recognised religions had equal opportunity to present classes.

“The genius of the Victorian system is that the current spread of religious instruction programs reflects the religious demographics of our society with Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Greek Orthodox, Islam and Hindu faith groups all participating,” Dr Paddison wrote.

She said the recent opposition to Christian education programs did not come from non-Christian faiths.

“There is great respect and co-operation between the religious instruction providers of all faiths. We occasionally meet, share ideas and support each other in training volunteer instructors.

“Much of the opposition is being voiced by humanists.

“Wisely, the law makes provision for religious instruction to be taught as part of the core curriculum. This includes history, belief systems and cultural traditions of the major faith groups.”


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