The other evening I had the pleasure of being part of this year's inter-denominational service of commissioning of Religious Instruction (RI) teachers for Toowoomba. It was a typically up-beat and prayerful occasion, with fine inputs from local school principals and Stephen Urmston, the new Anglican Children & Family worker at St Barts Toowoomba. I was moved again by the genuine care and loving commitment of those involved in offering RI to children in our local state schools and do believe that, in some ways, they enhance both the spiritual and wider relational life of the children and adults they share and meet with. However...
Toowoomba has been at the heart of controversy over the provision of state school chaplains, with local resident Ron Williams driving the national legal case against. What a huge delight it was today therefore to hear from two local state school chaplains, speaking of the joys and deep challenges of their work. One had returned to school this year to help the school community face up to the murder of a child and mother from their midst. The other spoke of the challenges of walking with young people in the face of terrible scarring, self-harm and suicide. Sure, pastoral care workers also contribute immensely and heroically. Yet the chaplains contribute vital extra resources and dimensions in these situations, and in so many other, thankfully, less crisis relationships. This all takes place in an increasingly underfunded and undervalued state system. To hear their stories is therefore to rejoice in the ways in which, through school chaplaincy, many young people are helped to find their worth and purpose.
It was also encouraging to hear Scripture Union leadership reflect on how the legal case (back in court again on new grounds) has not only helped better law, but has also built much better understanding and community communication and ownership (including by MPs from across the mainstream political spectrum). On a wider level, school chaplaincy has thereby been a key issue in helping Australians, with various religious commitments and none, work out together how to live in a secular state without privileging any specific viewpoint, including that of secularism: not denying our communities the positive benefits of religious-based care, compassion and commitment, yet not opening the door to proselytism or favouritism. It is a case study in becoming a more post-Enlightenment society: no longer seeking to prevent long-gone 19th century battles of sectarianism, but enabling the energies of all, and encouraging every group (religious, agnostic and secularist) to value each other's contributions and to exercise appropriate self-restraint in the public realm. In my opinion, there is much more to explore, especially in terms of providing first-class education (rather than patchy provision of instruction) into different religious and secularist lives and outlooks. It seems very odd, and a significant loss to our shared community self-understanding, that Australian schools typically provide so little in helping children and young people understand what their different fellow Australians believe and live by religiously and philosophically. Perhaps we can all begin by valuing our school chaplains even more as part of the answer rather than as part of the problem?
Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.