The term chaplains turns the mind to wartime. And while Australia’s schools may be embattled, we’re not in the trenches.
For those who are already up on the chaplaincy debate, look away now – this paragraph provides a bit of background for those who are not in the loop. A chaplain’s job is to provide pastoral care (supporting students in their welfare and relationships) and spiritual guidance (supporting students to explore their spirituality). The Australian government introduced the National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP) in 2006 to ‘support schools and their communities to establish school chaplaincy and pastoral care services, or to enhance existing services’ (from the Australian government’s website).
Not surprisingly, the program has been met with deep suspicion from people outside the church context (for which read, the majority of people). Most recently, a High Court challenge to the chaplaincy program was mounted, and is due to be heard in August. Because of the court case, there has been a flurry of articles about the scheme, debating the rights and wrongs of having a spiritual function (the chaplain) embedded in a secular context (the school).
This past weekend, four letters to the editor on the subject were published in QWeekend (the Courier Mail’s weekend magazine) under the heading ‘Faith, hope and clarity’. Two attested to the benefits of chaplains; another clarified that chaplains do not teach Religious Education (a common misconception); the fourth queried the ulterior motives of the organisations supplying chaplains to schools, including Scripture Union Queensland. Call me a fence sitter, but I agreed with them all.
I believe that if done sensitively and well, the work of chaplains should benefit schools and students. Their job is not to teach religious instruction, so they are not proselytising in that sense. Here’s the rub, though: Scripture Union and the other (mostly Christian) organisations that put chaplains in schools underestimate the antipathy that prevails towards Christian outreach organisations.
We struggle in Australia to provide any religious and spiritual service that is not essentially a Christian one. If the word ‘interfaith’ is used, it is mostly as a synonym for ‘interdenominational’ or an outreach from Christianity to other religions. There is simply no concept of anything that finds the fabric in common. The rare exceptions are found in the work of people such as writer and interfaith minister Stephanie Dowrick and the interfaith programs run by Pitt Street Uniting Church in Sydney.
Novelist Edward Docx described the Amazon’s Mashco-Piro women, one of the last ‘uncontacted’ peoples on earth, as being ‘terrified of disease, of being slaughtered, of their children being taken into slavery. In the past, every encounter has brought terror for them.’ The Christian church has similar resonances for many people in Australia today – but they just don’t seem to realise it.