Synod affirmed the roles of volunteers and chaplains in schools.

 

Synod rejected a motion calling for a program of multi-faith, General Religious Education to be introduced in state schools as soon as possible.

Bishop Stephen Hale, the chairman of ACCESS Ministries, warned that if the motion were adopted, the Victorian Government might have to make a choice between GRE and Special Religious Education (SRI), also known as Christian Religious Education (CRE).

The motion, proposed by the Revd John Baldock of St John’s East Malvern and seconded by Diocesan Council member Dr Peter Sherlock, welcomed the provision in the Victorian Education and Training Reform Act 2006 allowing for GRE to be taught in state schools as part of the overall curriculum, welcomed the Australian Education Union’s stated support for GRE in all schools, called on the Victorian Minister for Education to facilitate the introduction of a program of multi-faith, GRE into all schools as soon as practicable and, in so doing, envisaged that this would supplement and not replace SRI as provided for in the Education Act.

It was lost 204 votes to 167.

During the debate, Bishop Hale said passage of the motion would mean that the Editor of The Age would feel totally vindicated about the position of his newspaper on SRI, as would the Humanist Society of Victoria and Fairness in Religions in School for the “incredibly aggressive and coordinated campaign” against SRI, and ACCESS in particular.

“We have to ask ourselves if we were to pass this motion, ‘What are we saying to the Minister for Education?’” Bishop Hale said.

“How would he interpret this motion?”

Bishop Hale said it would be the wrong time for Synod to adopt such a motion, however well-intended, given concerns that SRI would suffer if GRE were introduced and in light of the campaign that had been directed against ACCESS’ work.

Mr Baldock, in his mover’s speech, said the goal of GRE was religious literacy.

“While I reject many of the criticisms levelled at SRI, I agree that religion is too important to leave to optional classes taught to students by volunteer teachers,” he said.

“In that sense, GRE is an important complement to SRI, which rightly remains the responsibility of individual faith groups. It was not out of place for ACCESS Ministries to express a hope that those who attend CRE will grow in faith and respond positively to the Gospel. That is the clear intent of Christian Religious Instruction, in the same way that other SRI providers hope their students will grow in their own chosen faith. GRE does not supplant SRI. It adds to it.

“Which is why, I imagine, ACCESS Ministries itself expresses support for GRE.”
Mr Baldock acknowledged that some Christians would be concerned that GRE might detract from SRI by providing an alternative stream of religious education in government schools.

“I would also argue it is likely that many parents will be more supportive of SRI, if they know their children are receiving a broad religious education as well,” he said.

“As such, this motion helps bring important clarity to the differences between SRI and GRE, to the role of providers like ACCESS Ministries, and hence to the confusion that exists among many inside and outside the churches.”

Mr Baldock said with a national curriculum for kindergarten to Year 12 students being developed, it would be a mistake to exclude religion from that curriculum.

“The Victorian Government has discretion to tailor the national curriculum to the priorities and identity of this State. I hope that students will be able to explore and understand the diversity of religious views and practices present around them – especially those that may differ from their own.

“There are good reasons for wanting this. For a start, General Religious Education promotes good citizenship.

Our communities are diverse, and understanding how religious and cultural factors influence those around us counteracts prejudice and misunderstanding and helps interaction.

“British and European studies show that children with some education about religion are more tolerant than those without it. Studying religion helps develop inclusive attitudes and promotes a climate of respect. Starkly put, without education about different faiths, conflict and disharmony are more likely.”

He said studying a diversity of religious ideas and history had wider value. “Religion continues to have a profound effect on individuals and communities and has been a major influence on the development of ethics and philosophy, law and politics.”

Dr Sherlock said GRE taught a little about a lot of religions to most children, while SRI taught a moderate amount about one religion to some children.

“We have the law and we have willing teachers,” he said. “All that is missing is a curriculum. Such a curriculum would not discharge us from our mission to proclaim Christ crucified. Such a curriculum would mean, however, that – for the first time in our history – all Victorian state school children would be able to explore the fuller story of the world in which we live, a world which cannot be understood without attention to religion, to sacred texts and God-talk, to beliefs and rituals, the sacred as well as the secular.”

The Revd Chris Appleby, Vicar of St Thomas’ Burwood, said he feared that if schools had the choice of teaching GRE or SRI, the latter would be shifted to lunchtimes or after-school hours.

Mr Appleby said it was very rare to find a teacher who had any Christian background or any religious background at all. “We will end up with a GRE which is so general that it’s actually of no use,” he said.

Mrs Diana Summers, of St Michael’s North Carlton, cited the experience of comparative religion courses in
Britain, saying it was important they were taught well. She recalled that the Christian content of one class was children learning how to design stained-glass windows.

Mrs Summers said any class on Christianity should explain what Jesus did, why He died and how to become a Christian.

On the same night as Mr Baldock’s motion was debated, Synod endorsed a motion affirming CRE and ACCESS and acknowledging the historic and continuing contribution of  Anglicans in schools.

The Revd Craig Ogden, the Priest-in-Charge of St Matthias’ in Mernda, said in proposing the motion that governments and school principals had supported religious instruction and chaplains, so there was every encouragement for the Church to provide CRE and school chaplains.

“It’s not easy being at the coal-face, engaging in a work that’s often misunderstood or even misrepresented,” Mr Ogden said. “But through this work, the Word of God is being made known all the more fully in our parishes through word and deed... with the increase in secularism, fewer and fewer people encounter God’s people by stepping through the door of our church buildings. Instead, we need to be all the more ready to meet people where they’re at in their world, engaging with gentleness and respect.

“A tremendous opportunity to do this exists in the provision for CRE and chaplaincy in our schools, an opportunity that has long been supported by the Anglican Church.”

The Revd Tracy Lauersen, a member of the Diocesan Council and an assistant priest at St Hilary’s Kew/North Balwyn, said in seconding the motion that volunteering was a relied-upon method of community support in Australia, citing the Country Fire Authority, St John’s Ambulance and surf lifesavers.

“Starkly put, without education about different faiths, conflict and disharmony are more likely.”
 

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