16 May 2011

Oh Chaplain My Chaplain

In the days since the announcement of the federal budget, many writers, bloggers and journalists have been quick to criticise the Government’s proposed increase to funding for school chaplaincy. Critics have been upset on two fronts; firstly the amount of money being invested in the program and secondly on the notion that federal funds should be used to give religion a place in public schools in the first place. And while these concerns are certainly worth discussion, I suggest that this week the role of the school chaplain has been given a bum rap.

There are a number of points to be made here. The first is to highlight the distinction between chaplaincy and religious education. Chaplains are not teachers; they are employed as counsellors and advisors. The notion of a chaplain coming into a classroom and proselytising to your children is utter rubbish. Chaplains are employed to serve, encourage and to provide advice and/or guidance where it is sought or needed. They are not employed to impose, indoctrinate or even (heaven forbid) promote religious values in schools.

Some public schools do allow religious groups to run religious instruction classes. These are always optional; parents who would prefer their children not to receive RI have the right to ask for their child to be excused. Every RI program I’ve ever been involved with has been run under strict guidelines under the watchful eye of a school staff member in order to prevent any hint of “brainwashing”. And fair enough too. But teaching children a few bible stories and encouraging them to obey their parents and treat others as they want to be treated themselves doesn’t constitute the insidious threat to liberty and democracy that is being touted by opponents to the new funding.

Besides which, that’s not what school chaplaincy is about; school chaplaincy is a completely different occupation.

Chaplains are on hand to meet the needs of students or staff who have problems or questions of a spiritual nature.  Whether Australia claims to be a secular society or not, it stands to reason that those seeking answers to spiritual (or philosophical, if you prefer a secular term) questions, especially in the formative years, should have access to those able to answer their questions, or at least provide some direction for finding the answer for themselves. Whatever your personal position, the realisation of a spiritual identity (of any faith, or no faith at all) is an aspect of education to be encouraged, not sneered at.

Some have suggested that a religious chaplain couldn’t possibly provide any valuable help for students of a differing religious background. That’s nonsense. A skilled chaplain will recognise and respect the diverse beliefs of any who come seeking guidance. As has been pointed out numerous times, sermonising, proselytising, evangelising and any other forms of religious promotion that so incense the guardians of liberty in our society are strictly off limits. But you don’t have to promote your own religion in order to guide a young mind towards finding the answers they are looking for, or at least towards asking the right kinds of questions.

This is the part of the discussion where someone jumps in with a moving and impassioned testimony of how some RI teacher sent him to stand in the corner because he said he didn’t believe in God, or some crazy fundamentalist tried to cast a demon out of her after playing some rock and roll at music class, and asks how we can possibly spend government money on ramming religion down the throats of those who don’t want it.

I don’t have any defence to that. That sort of vilification, where it occurs, is unacceptable in any society, religious or otherwise. But the answer isn’t just banning religion from schools altogether. Students need to have access to resources to guide them in finding answers to questions that are just as important (some might argue even more so) than anything on a NAPLAN test. It’s not the role of teachers to provide this support, nor should it be. And while the single most important role to be played in the moral upbringing of a child is that of the parents, it’s important for parents to be confident that their children have access to the appropriate support mechanisms while they are at school, which is the majority of their time during their upbringing.

Yes. The system needs work to make sure that all chaplains are properly trained, qualified and experienced and to ensure that all worldviews are being respected and catered for. I don’t pretend to know the best way to do that, but it seems to me that an increase in Government funding – if properly handled – couldn’t possibly be a bad start.

Make of that what you will.





Garry with 2 Rs
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