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Put ideology to one side for a moment and look at the work chaplains do

Date

David Hastie

Along with many other Australian Christians who believe in social gospel, I have almost voted Green for years. Almost.

Old-growth logging, marine reserves, asylum seekers, indigenous rights: tick all the progressive boxes.

But just as my stubby pencil hovers over the ballot, the Greens say something silly about religion, every time, and the substantial demographic of Australian Christian progressives stampedes away in a panic, back into the arms of conservative politics.

This time it was the federal chaplaincy program. The fascinating High Court case brought in June this year by Queensland school parent and atheist Ron Williams ruled it unlawful for the federal government to fund the chaplaincy program, already operating in 2700 schools nationwide, with its promised extension to a further 1000.

Atheist bloggers around the nation celebrated. They shouldn't toast the un-spirit of Christopher Hitchens just yet, however.

The High Court ruled that all federal executive funding may be unlawful without legislation. Similar to the Dred Scott US Supreme Court case in 1857, ruling it unlawful to ban slavery anywhere in the US, the Williams ruling is being seen by many as a provocative ''anti-ruling'': designed to demonstrate legal weaknesses of a widely popular cause, with a view to provoking legal change.

Where there was disunity about chaplains before, now all sorts of strange bedfellows will clutch together: funding to roads, funding to private schools; funds, funds, funds.

The topic has drifted off religion in education, to the old federal versus state funding debate: a bad outcome for atheists wanting to focus on ideologies of secular schooling.

None of this complexity is filtering through to the Greens, however, with their leader, Christine Milne, welcoming the High Court ruling, saying that ''schools across Australia need the resources to employ properly qualified counsellors, student support officers and other non-teaching staff to help students through difficult times''.

I guess the ideological high ground is a beautiful place - for those with all opinion and no responsibility.

Look at the numbers: there are chaplains in 2700 schools, soon to be 3700. Most of these schools already have a school counsellor, overworked and underpaid, and filling an entirely different role to a chaplain.

School counsellors keep a strategically low (almost furtive) profile, and mostly deal reactively and formally to student trauma, abnormal mental health and mass school crisis. A school counsellor typically has a bachelor's degree, a post-grad in education, and a masters in educational psychology. This is (at least) an eight-year training process.

The Greens and any other opponent of the program would need to supply 2700 extra of these, come up with some other definition or source of a school counsellor, or suddenly and violently create chaplain-shaped holes in 2700 outraged school communities. Not good for votes.

Unlike school counsellors, chaplains tend to be public personalities, complete with antic dispositions, fulfilling a kind of community ''glue'' function.

In the 2011 Commonwealth Ombudsman's inquiry, hardly any schools complained about what their chaplains were doing. Where counsellors mostly deal with abnormal psychology, chaplains deal with positive psychology, wandering around bus lines and chatting to mums and kids. When a little boy gets cancer - which sadly happens all too often in all school communities - the chaplain might get up during a school assembly and say something comforting, yet not religious, just when something needs to be said, and just when the school counsellor is flat out counselling the traumatised little brothers and best friends.

Most importantly, most chaplains have beneficent and gregarious personalities and a capacity to connect with youth: things a formal qualification simply cannot guarantee. If they did not, under current arrangements the schools would sack them.

And yes, chaplains owe much of their beneficent impulses to their personal religious beliefs. Despite the euphemising of chaplaincy organisations and churches about ''neutrality'' and ''non-proselytising'', it is a no-brainer that the presence of religious chaplains in state schools is an unspoken endorsement of religious worldviews. On this Ron Williams is absolutely right.

But perhaps we have to live with that. After all, that much is true of the vast majority of NGOs and community-oriented volunteerism currently happening worldwide.

Whatever its claim to rational truth, it is an empirical truth that secular atheism just doesn't produce a larger quantity of community generosity than religion. I am not saying that atheists don't generously give to the lives of others: many manifestly do, and many better than religious folk. But as a cause celebre, secular atheism just doesn't seem to have the ideological muscle to produce 2700 bright-eyed serving volunteers overnight: religion does.

And so again my voting pencil will hover uncertainly over the Green box. Milne and Williams are right to note that this is about secular versus pluralist education: whether we can cope with the idea that religious world views can be socially present in state schools (I think we can, and they should). But ultimately for parents and schools, this is not an ideological question. It is a pastoral one. For those of us on the ground in education, when one extra child is comforted, when one extra class is helped, when a chaplain's extra smile is given, ideology can go and get stuffed.

David Hastie is head of English at Presbyterian Ladies College, Sydney, and a PhD candidate in education at Macquarie University.

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73 comments

  • Instead of complaining about getting rid of chaplains (I don't think they have a place in a secular school) why don't you put your efforts into finding way to create 3700 extra educated counsellors? You seem to be the one stuck on ideological grounds

    Commenter
    Franky
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 10, 2012, 9:57AM
    • At my children's school the Principal rejected using counsellors over chaplains because of the additional funding scripture union put into chaplains resulting in a full time person. The chaplain said its not about proselytizing its about the kids I asked if the churches would fund secular counsellors it was an adamant NO, why would we do that.

      All we want is the money to go to trained counsellors, its a flat out lie when they say they offer a non-religious service. We now have a room set aside for prayer sessions.

      Commenter
      Ken
      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 10:43AM
    • "I asked if the churches would fund secular counsellors it was an adamant NO, why would we do that.

      All we want is the money to go to trained counsellors, its a flat out lie when they say they offer a non-religious service. We now have a room set aside for prayer sessions."

      And this is why I oppose the current Chaplancy program. We are told that it isn't about proselytising but that gets said with a nod and wink.

      The program has been structured as a backdoor bypass to get around the separation of church and state so that favoured religious groups can established a permanent presence in schools. And it has been done to suck up to the religious right wingers.

      Actually, I wonder if Mr Hastie would still be so supportive if the alloction of Chaplains were randomised so that his Presbyterian Ladies College wound up with a nice Islamic Chaplin or a Scientologist. But I suppose he can still breathe easy since there is no chance of him getting an atheist - we're forbidden from even applying.

      Commenter
      Mathew
      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 12:10PM
    • "Actually, I wonder if Mr Hastie would still be so supportive if the alloction of Chaplains were randomised so that his Presbyterian Ladies College wound up with a nice Islamic Chaplin or a Scientologist."

      The schools get who they want. No-one forces them to get a chaplain.

      And it is incorrect that atheists are forbidden from applying - there is no requirement to have a religious chaplain since September 2011. Not really much to complain about now.

      We'll see over time how popular secular chaplains actually are.

      Commenter
      bigbird
      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 12:31PM
    • Bigbird

      "The schools get who they want.

      Why? I thought the point was helping the students and the school not the brand of the religion. Ideology can go and get stuffed. Wasn't that the final point of the article?

      "No-one forces them to get a chaplain. "

      Carrot or stick, does it really matter. If they want the money, and most schools are desperate for funds then they have no real choice.

      "And it is incorrect that atheists are forbidden from applying - there is no requirement to have a religious chaplain since September 2011. Not really much to complain about now."

      So you are telling me that the Scripture Union (or whaterver they call tehmselves) will hire atheists? That doesn't seem likely given their mission statement.

      "We'll see over time how popular secular chaplains actually are."

      I didn't realise that this was a popularity contest.

      Actually, I'd settle for an enforced code of conduct that prohibits proselytising and a higher level of training required.

      Commenter
      Mathew
      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 12:49PM
    • "there is no requirement to have a religious chaplain since September 2011"
      Go to Seek.com.au and have a look at the ads for chaplains. You'll find that every job ad for chaplains still asks for a religious background, biblical literacy or a recommendation from church - even if those things aren't a prerequisite they're still "highly desirable." So your average atheist applicant for a chaplaincy job isn't going to be preferred over a religious person.

      It's the nod and a wink thing again, same as the "Oh no, we won't proselytize" promise which is a complete sham.

      If it's all about the "feel good" factor while saving money, why not have mentors instead of chaplains? Get rid of the explicit religious element and you might actually have an argument.

      Commenter
      Karen
      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 12:59PM
    • "And it is incorrect that atheists are forbidden from applying - there is no requirement to have a religious chaplain since September 2011. Not really much to complain about now."

      Mathew: "So you are telling me that the Scripture Union (or whaterver they call tehmselves) will hire atheists? That doesn't seem likely given their mission statement."

      Of course not. The point is that the *chaplaincy program* allows the funding of secular chaplains. So there is nothing to stop a secular group providing chaplains for schools.

      "We'll see over time how popular secular chaplains actually are."

      Mathew: "I didn't realise that this was a popularity contest."

      People like Ron Williams have spent a lot of time and effort combating religious chaplains in schools. Now we can see whether secular groups will spend time and effort to get secular chaplains in schools, and whether there will be people willing to do this, and if schools and school communities are willing to take them on.

      It does make me wonder if secular groups will employ religious chaplains? I suppose they may not know.

      Mathew: "Actually, I'd settle for an enforced code of conduct that prohibits proselytising and a higher level of training required."

      The former has been in place for a long time. I don't have an opinion on the training requirements - the more the better obviously.

      Commenter
      bigbird
      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 1:09PM
    • Why not value the teachers? I assume that PLC has teachers, as do all other schools.

      Teachers in government schools often see and care for a child every day. Others have special roles in pastoral care. They are not furtive in asserting standards. Their schools are not exempt from those anti-discrimination laws which assert the dignity of individuals. They don't have the misogyny that lurks within so much of christian institutional religion. Indeed "they tend to be public personalities". Some are "complete with antic dispositions". All fulfil a kind of community "glue function". They wander around in playgrounds, chat with mums and dads, go on camps and excursions. Most have an inherent sense of the right thing to say or do.

      Secular education has been doing this without the need for chaplains for over a century.

      Commenter
      Priscilla
      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 1:27PM
    • "Go to Seek.com.au and have a look at the ads for chaplains. You'll find that every job ad for chaplains still asks for a religious background, biblical literacy or a recommendation from church - even if those things aren't a prerequisite they're still "highly desirable." So your average atheist applicant for a chaplaincy job isn't going to be preferred over a religious person."

      That is because the organisations currently providing chaplains are religious ones. It's now up to the secularists to get their own providers accredited and start supplying their secular chaplains to schools. Will all the people complaining get their act together?

      Commenter
      bigbird
      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 1:30PM
    • Bigbird

      "Of course not. The point is that the *chaplaincy program* allows the funding of secular chaplains. So there is nothing to stop a secular group providing chaplains for schools."

      And its there it is. Religious discrimination, and for a program in which proslytising isn't supposed to be on the cards.

      "Now we can see whether secular groups will spend time and effort to get secular chaplains in schools, and whether there will be people willing to do this, and if schools and school communities are willing to take them on."

      And I'm sure there will be. I still don;t see how that matters though, if the program is not about religious indoctrination then why should atheists be excluded from employment as Chaplains with any body contracted to provide them.

      "It does make me wonder if secular groups will employ religious chaplains? I suppose they may not know."

      Oh? So religious bodies can discriminate against atheists and that's okay but should happen the other way round it means something?

      "The former has been in place for a long time. I don't have an opinion on the training requirements - the more the better obviously."

      Glad we can agree on something BB :-)
      However as for this code of conduct, who monitors it? My understanding is that there is no formal monitoring process.

      Commenter
      Mathew
      Date and time
      August 10, 2012, 1:44PM

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