School chaplaincy – sacred or secular?

The wedge drives even deeper as the school chaplaincy debate continues.
This morning’s Eureka Street article and the array of comments is illustrative.

There was a time when “religious” and “secular” were complimentary terms, rather than opposed. Some of the rub off of this was seen in a letter in this morning’s West where an opponent to the National School Chaplaincy program opined that even if chaplains did not overtly express their faith their nice and kind character would, nonetheless, unduly influence vulnerable children! Heaven forbid! Perhaps we better screen teachers in state schools whose Christian faith expressed through a “nice and kind” character have the same unfortunate effect.

“Secular” never meant opposed to “religion”. The most succinct distinction I can grab at the moment is from Wikipedia:

Secular and secularity derive from the Latin word saecularis meaning of a generationbelonging to an age. The Christian doctrine that God exists outside time led medieval Western culture to use secular to indicate separation from specifically religious affairs and involvement in temporal ones. This meaning has been extended to mean separation from any religion, regardless of whether it has a similar doctrine.

This does not necessarily imply hostility to God or religion, though some use the term this way (see “secularism”, below); Martin Luther used to speak of “secular work” as a vocation from God for most Christians.

Using this distinction and given that a lot of the work of chaplaincy has to do with negotiating temporal affairs and the day-to-day challenges of their charges, their work can be described in a historical context as “secular” (confined to this era). Of course, because Christians cherish a perspective that transcends the temporal, this work is also “sacred” and therefore approached with the appropriate degree of reflection.

All this shifts the goalposts for the debate and the High Court challenge, however, so I don’t expect to see much public discussion on these finer points.

Published by wonderingpilgrim

Not really retired but reshaped and reshaping. Now a pilgrim at large ready to engage with what each day brings.

8 thoughts on “School chaplaincy – sacred or secular?

  1. Yes, a teacher who is religious might influence their students by being nice. Those students might be inspired to learn more about religion because of it. That is all okay and all above board, because it was the student’s choice.

    A student might also be influenced by an atheist teacher who is nice. They might want to learn more about atheism because of it. That is all okay and all above board, because it was the student’s choice.

    Teacher applicants are allowed to be of any religion or none, but chaplains are not. Atheists cannot apply to be chaplains. That is discrimination.

    If you only allow religious people to apply for the positions, you must have a reason for it. That reason is simply because the people behind the chaplaincy program want children to beleive in religion as they do. They want to stack the deck in their favour.

    But it’s more than just stacking the deck with nice chaplains. By giving the positions and funding only to religious people and organisations, they are giving them a clear mandate to proselytise. If the work is truly secular, why can’t anyone apply to do it?


  2. Hi Daniel – I appreciate the points you make. The burden of my observation is that students don’t have a choice regarding the faith stance (whatever it may be) that forms the teacher’s character, thus nullifying the letter writer’s original observation. I question the general assertion that those behind the NSCP “want children to believe in religion as they do.” Those with whom I have regular contact (including head office and on the front line) would be aghast at the very idea. Proselytisation is antithetical to sound educational practice – exposure and open minded reflection are not.
    The CRE programs I participate in and support are respectful of the variety of faith stances present within the classroom. In WA, volunteers are not permitted to teach unless accredited to agreed DET standards. This accreditation must be renewed annually with continuing PD. The most overtly religious exercise that our two local high school chaplains have participated in is the invitation to offer the odd prayer at a school ANZAC or graduation service. Most of their time is spent being “present” to faculty and students in the way their school approved contract requires.
    My regret is that this whole conversation is taking place across a rift that has only emerged since government funding came into the picture, and I have expressed my ambivalence about this arrangement in another place.


  3. Thanks, Daniel, for the YouTube link to the mother’s perspective. She presents her case articulately and well. I think her school could respond more appropriately to accommodate some of her concerns. The classrooms I operate in are able to provide educationally appropriate activities for those who opt out. The question of “separation” does not really arise as there is coming and going within the classroom because of other specialised activities e.g. music, drama, and other electives. An adaptive learning environment can respond appropriately to such concerns, but these are best addressed at the coalface.


  4. There are certainly a number of issues to untangle. As someone for whom English Literature is one teaching area,(RE, French, ESL and S&E are the others) I know that those without an understanding of religious history and symbolism are at a disadvantage. Our literature is heavily imbued with mainly Christian symbolism. If children aren’t at least taught the stories, it’s very difficult to pick up subtle inferences. (This is more in response to where the comments were going, rather than the original post).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: