Monday, May 16, 2011

A different sort of Access

Sermon for Easter 4
15 May 2011
Preached at St Mary’s Anglican Church, North Melbourne

“A different sort of Access”

When I became vicar of St Mary’s, I discovered that one of the duties I had inherited with that title was to teach and coordinate religious education at Errol Street Primary School. I’ll be up front and admit that I wasn’t a duty I relished, but over a month or so late last year I took up the task, and enjoyed the interaction with the grade five and six students, as well as the younger students who were involved in the final Christmas session of the year. Fr Philip, who has taught RE for several years, was intending to take over these duties this year, freeing me up to do some other things. Things have worked out somewhat differently.

Doubtless many of you will have seen in the papers and elsewhere over the last few months – even this morning in fact – that there has been quite a kerfuffle about the teaching of Special Religious Education in primary schools. What you may not realize is that Errol Street Primary has been one of the trigger schools for the current unrest. At the beginning of this year the principal informed the SRE teachers that the programme would be timetabled at 8.30am, outside school hours. This is against education department guidelines, and one of the SRE teachers complained to Access Ministries, who brought in the education department to oblige the school to comply with the law. Several months later negotiations continue, but the school has not changed its position, and there has consequently been no RE taught at Errol Street so far this year. Frankly, I see little sign of this state of affairs changing soon.

This is the point at which I need to lay my cards on the table. Having seen the programme, albeit briefly, at first hand, I am not a supporter of the Special Religious Education system presently in place in Victoria. I have three reasons for holding this view. First, because I believe that, educationally, students would benefit more from a General religious education, where they would learn about a variety of the many forms of religion that co-exist in our multicultural society. In Special Religious Education they learn only about one religion, in most but not all cases Christianity. Second, because I believe that the schooling of our children is too valuable to be left to amateur volunteers, however well-meaning, and that religious education is a subject of sufficient importance and nuance that it should be taught by qualified and properly remunerated teachers. But my third reason is theological, and it may be summed up in a line from today’s Gospel: “anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” For those of us who teach SRE whilst holding a church office that encourages us, or for the ordained actually obliges us, to be evangelists, there is a conflict of interest. In a real sense we are there under false pretenses, and it’s time we admitted it.

The current debate has centred around two things – the quality of the programme on offer, and the question of whether or not RE teachers are there to proselytise the students. Although I have a view, I am not qualified to pass judgement on the quality of the material prepared by Access ministries. On the second question, I can speak only for myself.

I am a priest in the church of God, and as such, it is part of my calling to teach people about Christ, to encourage them to explore belief, to engage with the church and, through the church, to encounter God. It is not, actually, my job as a priest to be an impartial or disinterested interpreter of Christianity, whether to school children or to anyone else. On the few occasions when I taught at Errol Street I did what was required and put my personal belief system somewhat to one side, but I have to confess that it went against the grain. It felt to me that I was there under false pretenses. I was climbing into the sheepfold over the fence rather than walking through the gate.

Those who teach SRE under the current regime are almost inevitably committed Christians who are there because they believe that it is important that kids learn about Christianity, and because the RE programme is the best chance – the only chance – to reach out to otherwise unchurched children in our schools. To claim that we are there for any other reason is, in my view, disingenuous. Yet, in order to justify our presence we are obliged under the legislation, and certainly in the current media climate, either to pretend otherwise, or to compromise our own belief that Christianity is a story worth telling in a way that excites interest and participation.

Let me be clear – I would love to be invited in to Errol Street primary, or any other school, to explain to students about my understanding of Christianity, why I am a Christian, and why I think being a Christian is a wonderful thing to be. I am much less interested in going in pretending to be an objective outsider in order to teach a watered down version of my own faith as an abstract “they” believe “this”. Indeed in the latter case I’m not quite sure why committed Christians would want to perform the task at all.

There are, nonetheless, many SRE teachers who are committed Christians who also believe that the current programe is worthwhile and a good use of their time. I don’t want to “dis” their position. But, over time and with prayer, I have reached the point that this is not a view I can hold or support. I have been praying long and hard over this for several months, and have now come to the view that if the education department does decide to play rough and hard with Errol Street school and force them to accept SRE teachers back I will not be one of them.

Whilst I have no sympathy with the militant secular humanism that is driving some of the current newspaper debate on this issue, I think that the parents, teachers and others who object to the SRE system on the grounds that it is an amateur programme being taught by well meaning people who are, actually, there for different reasons than those advertised, are correct. I would like the churches and the education department to embark upon a different discussion entirely – about how we might make available to those families that want it an option to learn about Christianity as practiced rather than in the abstract, and about how we might help in the compilation of a general religious education curriculum that places Christianity into its broader socio-religious context, and teaches students that religious people are not generally nutters, not generally corrupt, and not generally out to brain wash kids. If the media sometimes portrays Christians teaching voluntarily in schools in any of these ways we have only ourselves to blame, because of how we have allowed the system to develop in a desperate attempt to hold on to the little opportunity that we have left in schools.

It is, I believe, time that we found a new method of access – but it needs to be access granted to a trusted friend, through the school front gate, and at the invitation of the gate-keeper, not surreptitious access, climbing in quietly over the back fence.