Strange Week One Way or Another

Been a bit of a week. In fact, it’s been one of those weeks that you’re glad is over, more so than usual.

Twitter has been full of the Access Ministries debacle. Spearheaded by the amazingly persistent Mike Stuchbery who performed some progressive revelation of his own. Access Ministries through their own incompetence and lack of self-awareness, has single-handedly brought about the beginning of the end for Special Religious Instruction (SRI) in Victorian schools.

Mike picked up on a comic on the Access website that not only had pretty suspect doctrine (painting prayer as Universal Ordering) but ragged pretty hard on teachers. Mike was upset about this, said so, and got a story in The Age. This is the sort of thing Mike does and he’s very good at it.

Access, being the morons they are, spent too long saying nothing and while they did that, hung the artist out to dry. Access really don’t understand that when you’re a Christian organisation you are, rightly, held to higher standards than the rest of the world because the standards set for Christian behaviour are high. So things gathered pace.

As so often happens, people came out of the woodwork with horror stories. One was of an appallingly ham-fisted sacking of a teacher. I read the whole interview and felt conflicted.

Thing is, I’d have fired her, no problem. She is, and this is a technical not an emotional term, a heretic judging by her own summary of her beliefs. She is welcome to her beliefs, I happen to disagree with them and they are not mainstream. I’d have thanked her for her hard work but said that her beliefs weren’t in line with Access Ministries.

You can read her story here.

It kept snowballing. Mike’s campaign became a rally point for the anti-SRI mob. Again, these people are more than welcome to their views, so please don’t feel I am going after them. There’s a view that parents have chosen a secular education for their children by sending them to a public school and that there shouldn’t be SRI in schools. I disagree with this view in the sense that it’s not mandatory. It gets mucky because there is no alternative for the parents who don’t wish to have their children in SRI. So the kids either stay in class (more on that later) or sit the class out in the playground or whatever. Harsh and stupid.

So what started as a fair complaint about a comic turned into a war on SRI in schools. To be absolutely fair to Mike (he’s a top bloke judging by his Twitter stream most of the time) he had some very good questions about the oversight from DEECD about the curriculum of Access.

There is none. At all. Access are free to do as they please, with certain legislative restrictions.

These restrictions are to my mind stupid. Stupid in the sense that if Christians can’t teach the Bible freely, then there is no point in doing it at all. The teachers are Government-funded (Access receives funding from the Federal Government in the form of the Chaplaincy program) and therefore have legislative conditions placed on them. Just like the Catholic Church in China.

Now I’m not suggesting the Government has taken the China approach to control of religion but Access, in accepting the funds and the conditions has. And this is unacceptable in my view. Separation of church and state is not a constitutional imperative but I appreciate its real worth – it works both ways. The church should not accept the conditions of the state on SRI and withdraw.

I’m also not saying that the church should teach what it likes. Access’ workbooks are littered with terrible, terrible doctrine that reveals a lack of intellectual engagement and seeks either to scare or somehow impress kids. I look back on my Anglican upbringing which was gentle and careful and find much of what I see and hear of Access distasteful, inappropriate or even heretical. A bit scary, really.

As a practising and, I would say, a mainstream Christian, I have strong views about how Christianity is portrayed and characterised by others. The derisive ‘New Atheism’ will pass but in the West, the church is on the decline. The last 200 years of tolerance of Christianity is passing too although we are a long way from the horrors of Nigeria, Egypt, Iraq or even China. So little to complain about and it’s not as if we weren’t warned by Jesus himself.

Which brings me to something of an epiphany.

I now believe, the more I read, SRI should be removed from schools. It makes me sad because it means it will be more difficult for children of indifferent parents to learn about Christianity and know about the love, peace and grace I believe Christ brings. (You may disagree with that view, you may reject that view entirely – we are both entitled and may very well both be wrong. But this isn’t my point. A post like this needs lots of context to avoid me getting my message wrong, so apologies for its apparently over-detailed nature…)

The reason it needs to come out of schools is because I don’t believe it is being well-taught which means kids are getting the wrong messages. The message of Christianity is, of course, double-sided. I have chosen to accept that I am sinful and my relationship with God was therefore broken. I have also chosen to accept that Christ’s death has saved me from separation from God. It’s nothing I have done, I don’t deserve salvation any more than Christ deserved his death (I also accept Christ is divine and sinless).

Various parts of the above summary of my beliefs are rejected by many, Mike included, as repugnant.

And this is the real motivation for many who are against SRI. It’s a pretty hard-hitting message and if not delivered at the appropriate time and place, Christians do themselves and Christ a great disservice.

If we can’t, as Christians, teach the message of Christ sensitively, then we shouldn’t do it at all, something that is certainly covered in the New Testament. So while I don’t support the rabble that has formed over the years screaming for the end of SRI for various reasons (I think the reality is the majority of parents are indifferent or happy enough for their kids to go to SRI because they did), I think it is time the Church gracefully withdrew and directed their own funding that goes into SRI (not the $222m of Federal funding) to opening more financially-accessible schools for those who range from indifferent/agnostic to committed Christians to send their children. This won’t please everyone but I think it will generate some respect from many who will be happy to see SRI gone for their own reasons (whether I think they’re valid or not) and, hopefully, the matter will be mostly settled.

I think only those who really despise Christianity, or religion in general, will be unhappy. So be it.

The Church cannot run with the Government as it suits them because it seems opportunistic to be taking the money from a secular government. The Chaplaincy funding is a double-edged sword the Church has the potential to find sticking out of their belly. I think, while well-meaning, too much is going wrong within Access, SRI and the government arrangement. The Church needs to stand back and re-evaluate mission, how it communicates with and in a secular society (Evonne Paddison needs to understand that some words are hugely loaded and don’t play well) and adapt its communication to the times while maintaing the integrity of the Bible and Jesus’ message.

At the same time, it upsets me that some people are characterising the Church’s mission to evangelise as predatory and all about ‘notches on the altar.’ That isn’t the case for Christians the world over – our beliefs obviously drive us to want to tell others. Evangelism isn’t just Bible-bashing, it’s the way we behave and that behaviour should be modelled on Jesus himself, a figure that commands respect and nodding agreement on his teaching on all sorts of issues from outside Christianity as well as within. Life has changed and the old ways (often terrible ways) don’t work and we have to change. Getting off the Government teat, while difficult and possibly ceding ‘a great opportunity,’ I think it will create a better environment for evangelism and stick true to the core of Christianity – it cannot be forced on anyone and when the Church is given a leg-up the way it has in Australian schools for so long, it generates resentment.

Like I said, strange week with an interesting shift in my thinking. Thanks, Mike. You’ve educated me and the Church and I think good can come of this.

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2 thoughts on “Strange Week One Way or Another

  1. As a practising (although lax) Christian, I am not opposed to chaplaincy in schools, as such. I am happy to have them there for children to access if they want to talk about religion & spirituality. I have no objection to the equivalent Muslim, Hindu or even Wiccan ‘minister’ being present or the children having access to spiritual leaders of the community. What I object to is those whose main aim is to convert young children using the ‘chaplaincy’ placement as way of accessing children without their parents direct and explicit permission. If perhaps we used another example of radical Imam using the chaplaincy program to convert young minds to fundamentalist Islam, the outrage would be huge. Surely, if one objects to Imams coming to the school with the aim to convert children to fundamentalist Islam, one should object *on the same principle* to Access attempting to convert young minds to a radical and fundamentalist form of Christianity?

  2. I wish that we heard more articulate and reasonable Christian viewpoints like yours in the media. Perhaps then I wouldn’t feel like I need to stand in front of my family snarling and waving a lit torch whenever the subject came up.

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