Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and Daniel Andrews could do the same for Christian schools

In 1536, King Henry VIII began the legal process referred to historically as the ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’. This took place in the political context of anti-Roman Catholic sentiment, fed by the wider Protestant Reformation. Over 900 religious houses were disbanded, with the property sold off to provide income for the Crown. Henry, as the new Supreme Head of the Church in England and independent of papal authority, saw this as a way not only to fill the royal coffers but also to loosen the influence of the Catholic church in communities across England, Ireland and Wales.

While historians and theologians still debate the detriment and merits of Henry’s dissolution, almost 500 years later we appear to be seeing attempts at a historical revival by the Victorian Government. It is not, however, the nunneries and friaries this time, but rather the faith-based educational institutions spread across our land.

This move comes in the form of proposed changes to the Equal Opportunity Act (2010), which would attempt to remove currently available religious freedom protections for communities and schools to employ according to their fundamental religious and moral values.

Faith-based school numbers have grown every year for the last 20 years. Victoria now has the highest ratio of private to public schools of any state, the vast majority affiliated with religious movements. These approximately 800 schools and tertiary institutions are central to the education and well-being of students, along with their parents and the wider communities in which they reside. They offer not only learning, but also a rich and diverse system of values focussed largely on service, compassion, and excellence.

However, in a recent editorial in The Age, it was argued that it was only fair that the allocation of taxpayer funds, even those coming from religious citizens who wish to educate their children according to their beliefs, should be conditional on the Government proposed restrictions. That is, unless the schools are willing to employ staff who live and advocate for moral choices that contradict that religion, they should have all their funding dissolved.

Despite media obsession, there is no evidence of wide-spread discrimination in schools offering education from a religious framework.

Now, it seems odd for the Andrew’s Government to make such a scrambled and drastic move such as this in the middle of one of the worst moments of the pandemic – but maybe that is the perfect time. The Federal Education Minister described it as an ‘attack by the Labor Party on Christian schools’, and a recently conducted PureProfile poll found 60% of respondents against such a move.

Despite media obsession, there is no evidence of widespread discrimination in schools offering education from a religious framework. The occasional isolated case trotted out are almost always primarily due not to the gender identity or sexual preferences of the former employee, but rather the simple fact that the individual was no longer willing to uphold the ethos and culture of the institution – the purpose for its very existence.

Faith-based educational institutions generally subscribe to a ‘family’ model of organisation. In this structure, there are clear expectations of shared communal values. The Government has tried to argue that some protections would still remain around employment where religion is an ‘inherent requirement’ of the position. However, this shows a gross misunderstanding of the nature of religious institutions as ‘communities of faith seeking understanding’.

Most of the faith-based schools I visit do not have any sacred-secular divides for their employees. The math teacher delivers devotions for the children, the janitor leads prayers in staff meetings, and the front office staff are the first point of call for a range of pastoral care issues. Plus, it begs the question of what secular Victorian tribunal or court would have the ability to determine conclusively which theological beliefs and practices are inherent or not within the institutions?

The reality of this proposed amendment is that, intentionally or unintentionally, it undermines the ability of faith-based institutions to exist according to their mission. Some people, like in King Henry’s time, may celebrate the removal of such religious institutions – viewing them as bastions of outdated and unenlightened morality.

However, even the dissolutionists might find it hard to deny that the uniquely pluralistic education system that has evolved in Australia, providing greater choices to parents, has resulted in a stable and diverse system. Faith-based educational institutions play a deeply significant role in many lives, and threatening their freedom of association with rushed legislation during COVID will surely have unintended consequences.

The great irony is that the original dissolution of the monasteries did bring with it vast wealth from the pillaging and sale of the cloisters and chapels. In the case of Premier Andrews however, the dissolution of faith-based schools that can no longer ask staff to ‘practice what they preach’ would actually cost the State dearly, removing the private fee subsidies of thousands of parents.

When it comes down to it, any attempt to diminish faith-based educational institutions – through funding, accreditation, or recruitment – ultimately lands on the shoulders of the dedicated teachers tirelessly equipping our next generation. They may not be monks and nuns, but in these dark ages, they are certainly beacons of light that should not be forced under a restrictive government bushel.

Professor Stephen Fogarty is the President of Alphacrucis College and representative of the Australian Christian Higher Education Alliance (ACHEA)