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...
Has the time not come for Australia finally to grasp the nettle of genuine Religious Education in schools? Due to modern Australia's foundation in understandable Enlightenment suspicion of religious conflicts and denominational rivalries, Australian education has sought to avoid the mistakes of European church involvement. Whilst mainstream Christian denominations, have therefore been given access, by the respective Australian States, to opportunities for providing input to children of their tradition, this has been provided (as with today's volunteer RI teachers in Toowoomba) essentially as an add-on, dependent on the vagaries of local supply and resourcing. From some points of view, this can even become a form of Religious Inoculation, giving children just enough (fundamentalist tending) religion to prevent them getting the full dose. In recent times, this approach has then been weakened further by the decline of mainstream Christian numbers and the rise of secularist opinion, sometimes with reasonable queries about the quality and standard of such religious education. In the meantime, religious diversity has flourished, with increasing numbers of adherents to other faiths and philosophies in the rich mix of what is now contemporary Australia.
Queensland is more honest in terming such religious input to schools Religious Instruction, rather than, as in New South Wales for example, Religious Education. It has however also been slower to act than some other States who have begun to remove even this limited, and somewhat narrow, Christian provision, introducing other general 'ethics' and 'values' education. Yet it too must, I feel, now begin to address a broader approach and look at other models. The answer is not to ditch religious education at all. In a world blighted and blessed by such varieties of religious formations, we need more understanding rather than less. The danger in Australian State education is that we will end up with students learning nothing of what is deeply important to so many of their neighbours, never mind what is at the heart of both difficult conflicts and deep compassion in our wider world. How odd, and problematic is that, in a country which is still united in advocating multiculturalism and providing a model for the world? To that extent, although I remain, on other grounds, unhappy about the lack of Australian support for state schools, I do feel that many mainstream Christian schools offer much more encouraging examples. More substantially, whilst I am sure that the UK system of religious education has many weaknesses, it does at least offer a broad-based introduction to religion for all students, with an understandable emphasis on Christianity (as the dominant historic form of religion in the UK) but with engagement with other major religious traditions. Crucially, this also both provided by trained and resourced professional teachers as an integral part of the whole curriculum (cf that of my old secondary school De Aston in Lincolnshire) and based on a genuinely educational rather than instructional method. Increasingly I find many Christians, as well as people of other faith, of the same mind in this. Can a political will therefore be constructed to make such a change - not undermining the positive motives of existing RI volunteers but taking them into much more effective, enabling and enlivening places?
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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.