a christian perspective on the world today

The National School Chaplaincy Program

Diane, 47, works part time at a state primary school in regional New South Wales. An articulate and friendly evangelical Christian with a Bachelor of Education degree, she is one of about 2500 people across Australia providing pastoral care services through the federal government’s National School Chaplaincy Program (NSCP).

On the day I spoke to her, Diane enthused about the program in general and her job in particular. “Fantastic!” was one of the words she used.

Diane said a pretty typical chaplain’s day might include: following up a local family whose children had been absent from school for an extended period; discussing with staff the well-being of another family and the charitable services that might be arranged for them; consoling a staff member having trouble “switching off” at home; and making arrangements for an upcoming anger management program to be conducted at the school.

All in a (modestly-paid) day’s work. And—let it be noted—no mention of religion.

The NSCP has been a legal and political football since its inception in 2006. It has attracted impassioned criticism from radical secularists, and equally impassioned justification from mostly Christian voices. There was an online petition in 2014 opposing the NSCP signed by over 180,000 people; and in May this year the Australian Education Union complained that the funds allocated to the program in the Budget (about $20,000 per school per annum) could be better spent elsewhere.

But are such partisans exaggerating the program’s inherent importance? There are several enduring myths concerning school chaplaincy that ought to be dispelled.

key facts

The first thing to understand about chaplains engaged under the NSCP is that they are not really chaplains at all.

As High Court justice Dyson Heydon pointed out in 2012, during the first of two legal challenges to the constitutionality of the program, in ordinary speech a “chaplain” is the priest, clergyman or minister of a chapel; or a clergyman who conducts religious services in the private chapel of an institution or household. So-called chaplains under the NSCP fit neither description.

It is true that all NSCP chaplains must be “religious” people; atheists and agnostics need not apply—a condition re-imposed by the Abbott Government in 2014, after Labor (in 2011) had permitted the employment of “secular student well-being officers”. Nevertheless, like the title “chaplain” itself, this condition of hiring is apt to mislead.

A chaplain’s role under the NSCP is to provide pastoral care; “social, emotional and spiritual support”, either through “structured programs” or “pastoral care conversations”. Such support may be provided to students, parents or teachers, but only on a voluntary basis; that is, if they ask for it.

Crucially, NSCP chaplains are forbidden from “proselytising”; they must not attempt to convert anyone to their own religious beliefs. True, caring for a student’s “spiritual” well-being is part of their role, but only if the student first raises such a matter. And even in those circumstances, at least in New South Wales, the chaplain must “respect”—and, more than that, “accept”—the student’s own beliefs.

Thus, as Diane puts it, she would never say anything to a student about Christianity in terms suggesting that they “should” believe what she does. If, for instance, she was dealing with a student from a Catholic family, she would be careful to conduct the conversation on the student’s terms—and quite possibly redirect the inquiry to a local priest. Likewise if the student was from, say, a Hindu or Muslim background.

I suspect that much of the heat generated by the debate over the NSCP results from confusion. Critics and supporters alike assume, or pretend, that NSCP chaplains are fully-fledged chaplains according to the usual sense of the word when, in fact, they are nothing of the kind.

critics’ arguments against the NSCP

Around the time of the Turnbull Government’s funding announcement in May, there was a brief flurry of articles about the NSCP in the mainstream media. Most contained harsh criticisms of the program, and quite a few fired-up readers followed suit in letters to the editor or online comments. Yet most of their arguments were, and are, bogus.

The NSCP flouts the principle of separation of church of state

This is a much-misunderstood concept. It certainly does not entail that Australians have a legal right to “freedom from religion”; that is, that religious voices should be heard only in places of worship and private homes, and otherwise be banished from the public square. Australians enjoy freedom of religion.

There is an old argument that, properly interpreted, section 116 of the Commonwealth Constitution (the “no-establishment of religion” clause) prohibits the federal government from funding church schools per se. This claim was categorically rejected by the High Court way back in 1981 (the DOGS case). Some hardline secularists have never gotten over this defeat.

the NSCP is illegal

It is true that twice, in 2012 and 2014, the High Court held that legislation setting out the funding arrangements for the NSCP (as then constituted) was not supported by a head of power in the Commonwealth Constitution. However, those problems have since been rectified.

Critically, in 2012, the High Court held by a 7:0 majority that the NSCP was not invalid by reason of section 116. That argument did not get past first base: NSCP chaplains do not hold office under the Commonwealth.

The NSCP is unwanted by the “silent majority”

All legal, statistical and anecdotal evidence is to the contrary.

For a start, participation by any school in the NSCP is voluntary. Schools decide, after consultation with the school community, whether to utilise a chaplain’s services.

An independent report by Kantar Public found, among other things, that 91 per cent of parents supported chaplaincy services and activities in schools. Eight in 10 principals considered the NSCP to be “extremely effective” in dealing with students’ sense of purpose, self-esteem, peer relationships, social inclusion and self-image.

Most tellingly, perhaps, the main complaint of principals was that chaplains could not work more days or longer hours.

Chaplains too often breach the rule against “proselytising”

No doubt breaches occur occasionally. But the evidence suggests that overt proselytising is rare. In 2013 there was only one official complaint on that score across Australia. Moreover, when complaints are made, they are acted upon.

Johnnygreig—Getty Images

Religion does not belong in state schools

Here we are getting closer to the critics’ core agenda. What they really want is for students in state schools never be exposed to religious content—or at least any information that might cast religion in a favourable light. But their position is based on some dubious and dangerous assumptions.

The Melbourne Declaration on Education Goals for Young Australians (2008), released conjointly by all Federal, State and Territory ministers for education, lays down as a central objective that students develop “intellectually, physically, socially, emotionally, spiritually and aesthetically”. To assert that state schools should be entirely secular is to disregard that objective. How can a student develop spiritually if he or she is taught nothing about religion?

Even more fundamentally, a school environment in which students are never (or rarely) exposed to information with a religious content is not neutral. It amounts to advocacy by default of irreligion. Despite the Melbourne Declaration, and the NSCP, this is effectively what happens today in Australian state schools. It has been so for decades.

The desirable position in state schools is pluralism. According to the European Commission on Human Rights, a pluralist approach to religion is one that “encourages respect for all world views rather than a preference for one”.

Christian arguments for the NSCP

It is one thing to refute the militant secularists’ arguments; it is another to justify the NSCP on a coherent Christian basis.

The NSCA has offered two “Christian” arguments in defence of the program.

The first is this: “[B]ecause chaplains have a personal faith connection they are able to better relate to and support students who come from a personal or cultural faith background—which is still more than 70 per cent of the population.”

Regrettably, this argument is flawed.

The 70 per cent-plus figure is very misleading. Going by the 2016 census, the true figure is 60 per cent and, in fact, only 7 or 8 per cent of Australians attend church on a regular basis. Even fewer read the Bible systematically.

It may be, then, that an irreligious chaplain is better placed to “relate to” the majority of students, in the sense of empathising with their existing worldview.

The NSCA’s second argument is this: “[A] key distinctive of the program is that the role expressly supports the. . . spiritual well-being of students. . . . A secular program would lack that spiritual dimension.”

This is true, but only up to a point, considering the very few opportunities chaplains have to utilise their religious expertise. Diane told me that “a very small percentage” of the problems raised with her concern spirituality.

where does the truth lie?

In my opinion, the institution of the NSCP in 2006 was a good example of John Howard’s hard-nosed political nous. The program was intrinsically worthy. But it also had the key virtue, for the Coalition, of appealing to the “Christian vote”, but in a manner that was defensible in secular terms.

From a Christian perspective, the most that can be said about the NSCP is that, on fairly rare occasions, a chaplain may help to embolden or reassure a student who already has some kind of meaningful religious faith. On even rarer occasions a chaplain may get a chance to answer questions from a student who is a genuine religious “seeker”. And perhaps there is the possibility of an individual chaplain performing their pastoral role so selflessly—so lovingly—that onlookers are impressed, and ask themselves, or the chaplain: “Why? What is your motivation?”

Such opportunities are precious. But the frequency of their occurrence should not be exaggerated. And cold legal realities should not be evaded.

Opponents of the NSCP in its present form have a single decent point. Why must all chaplains be religiously-affiliated? By reinstituting that requirement in 2014, and doubling down on it this year, the Abbott and Turnbull Governments have put the legality and credibility of the program at risk. Sooner or later a non-religious person, otherwise well-qualified, will apply for a job as an NSCP chaplain and be knocked back. A test case will follow.

There was good sense in the situation that existed between 2011 and 2014. Schools had the option of engaging a “religious” or a “secular” chaplain. As it happened, most opted for the former: the ratio was about 5:1. But the program became less controversial and less vulnerable to valid legal and rhetorical attack.

I have a humble suggestion for Bill Shorten. Well before the next federal election, he should confirm proudly and publicly that Labor will maintain the NSCP and match—better still, increase!—the Coalition’s promised funding. It is a popular program, entirely consistent with core Labor values of helping the underdog. But Shorten should also announce that Labor will restore the option for schools to engage a “secular” chaplain if they wish. According to my sources, Labor’s intentions on that score have already been conveyed privately to the Australian chaplaincy community.

It would be a good compromise. That way, those interested can focus on the vital issues. What’s more, great chaplains like Diane will keep their jobs and keep helping people—even if they don’t save many souls in the process.

Roy Williams is a Sydney-based author and lawyer, whose books include ‘Post-God Nation?’ In this piece Diane’s full name has been withheld to protect the privacy of the people she serves.

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