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Government kicks in for school chaplaincy

James Thorburn is School Chaplain employed by Scripture Union at Loganlea State High School
There has been a mixed response from churches, politicians and educators to the Prime Minister’s announcement of the National School Chaplaincy Program offering $90 million over the next three years for government and non-government school communities to engage the services of a chaplain.

The Federal Government has established the program to support the contributions that chaplains provide to the spiritual and emotional wellbeing of school communities nationally and to support school communities that wish to engage the services of a school chaplain.

The Government says that while chaplains will not be expected to have a religious background, they will be required to provide religious support to students.

School communities will be expected to contribute to the costs through cash and/or in-kind support.

The announcement follows a similar scheme in Queensland, when, during the election campaign, Premier Peter Beattie committed $1 million a year for three years, up to $10,000 for each state school, to help vulnerable students.

While the State Government is still drawing up guidelines it is expected that preference will be given in the application process to schools in lower socio-economic areas.

Prime Minister John Howard said the new Federal Government program was not an attempt to force-feed religion to children.

“Students often struggle to come to terms with the loss of school friends, and a chaplain would help them manage their grief,” Mr Howard said. “But I cannot stress enough that it will be up to the students themselves to seek help. There will be no compulsion.”

Response from the Labor side of politics was varied. Opposition education spokeswoman, Jenny Macklin, said Labor supported the chaplaincy program, but said: "Any new chaplaincy program must be flexible enough to take into account the diversity of religious beliefs in our school systems."

Former teacher and ALP senator Patricia Crossin did not believe chaplains were appropriate. "We stand for public, free and secular education so this is a misguided use of resources," Senator Crossin said.

Former NSW premier Bob Carr told the Sydney Morning Herald that the move was a retrograde and divisive threat to the separation of church and state and should be abandoned, as it breached the church-and-state principle

"There will be a steady diet of anti-discrimination actions as a result of this piece of Federal Government policy," he said.

Brisbane Anglican Religious Education and Chaplaincy in State Schools Officer Jonathan Sargeant said, “Because of the doctrine of the separation of Church and State enshrined in Section 116 of the Constitution, it is difficult to see how this policy can avoid controversy.”

According to the government, the choice of chaplain and chaplaincy services, including religious affiliation, is a decision for the school community, and the services provided by a chaplain should be appropriate to the school community and student context in which he or she will operate.

Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop told the ABC Religion Report that she would expect the school community to consult widely and deeply, particularly with parents, as to how this program would operate in that school context.

“The latest census I think will indicate that about 75% of Australians cite some religious affiliation, and the vast majority cite Christianity. Obviously there are recognised religions in Australia, and I would expect that chaplains from those religions would be the choice of schools who are proposing to undertake.”

The guidelines for the program are yet to be finalised but chaplains will be expected to provide general religious and personal advice and support to all students and staff, regardless of their religious denomination.

Uniting Church representative on the Queensland Government’s Religious Education Advisory Committee Rev David Macgregor said the reality is that all school chaplains will be working within the accountabilities and structures of the state school system.

“The soon-to-be-released Education Queensland chaplaincy policy acknowledges that while a chaplain will unavoidably bring their faith into their chaplaincy context, at the end of the day, their position is primarily a pastoral one.”

Director of the Queensland Synod Youth and Children’s Ministry Unit Michael Jeffrey was cautiously welcoming of the National School Chaplaincy Program.

“Having seen the work of chaplains in Queensland State Schools and in our own Uniting Church schools first hand I believe in the contribution Chaplains make in the lives of young people and the broader school community.

“Any move by the government to invest in the welfare of young people is a good thing but when the Government puts their money into a project they are going to expect something in return.”

Ethicist, Theologian, Social Commentator and retired Uniting Church minister Rev Noel Preston said the proposal to provide public funds to subsidise the employment of school chaplains warrants closer scrutiny.

“A cynic might be forgiven for sensing in this move an element of pork-barreling, wedge politics and even another battle ground for ‘the culture wars’.

He was particularly concerned about any possibility that this might be seen as a way “to enhance values in schools”.

“This is unfortunate, partly because it confuses the role of chaplains in any school who, if they become the champions of the school’s values and code of conduct program, might be slotted into the guise of ‘moral policeman’ or erroneously represent the fact that to be ethical one must adopt a certain belief stance.

“Credible, effective whole school ethics education, even in a church school, must equip a school community for living in a multicultural, multi-faith, pluralistic, liberal democracy.”

Scripture Union Queensland is the largest provider of chaplains in Queensland state schools and SU CEO Tim Mander welcomed the Federal Government announcement.

“The real cost of providing a full time chaplain is over $50,000 per annum [so] churches, communities, corporates and individuals will still play a critical role in supporting the full cost of delivering chaplaincy,” he said.

Photo : James Thorburn is School Chaplain employed by Scripture Union at Loganlea State High School