Opinion  |  

The battle for Christian schools

David Hastie on how the culture war went to school

The religious freedom debate is heating up with a series of key developments:
 
• Labor will introduce a bill removing discrimination against LGBT students this week. Mark Dreyfus, the shadow attorney-general, announced this on ABC radio this morning.
• Negotiations with the Government broke down this morning.
• Liberal senators won’t back removing the legal exemptions that allow schools to discriminate unless they are replaced by other protections.
• Removing the legal provisions that allow discrimination against LGBT students was recommended in a Senate Committee report tabled on Monday night.
• Labor wants provisions that allow schools to preserve their “ethos” while removing discrimination.
• The Ruddock report into religious freedom will be released “very soon” according to Attorney General Christian Porter.
 
What the debate looks like from within faith-based schools has been captured in an opinion piece for Eternity by David Hastie, Associate Dean for Education at Alphacrucis College.

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There is a broad and noisy public square in front of our churches: our schools.

We have invited Australians to gather in this place, and they have gathered willingly, in great numbers: Australia now has the fifth highest non-government schooling sector proportion in the world. Tony George, Head of The Kings School, observes that Christian schools effectively have asked the community “to belong, and then believe.” I would observe that this is pretty much the opposite business model of our churches: believe and then belong.

That millions have found belonging in a profound way is clear. Some already did believe, and many find new belief. Many still, however, are quite content to mill about the open square and not enter the church door. And yet they remain in the warm light of its portico.

Christian schools have had to become a kind of reluctant de-facto peacekeeping force between two, mutually unintelligible, parties.

Many of these people are not Christians. Most are two generations removed from the church. But they have still gathered outside the church door for education, love and connection. They gather in far greater numbers than in the shrinking congregations of the traditional Australian Church. In so far as they are invited to gather in this way, Christian schools cannot expect their populations to behave – or live – like de-facto church members, apart from the usual ethical expectations relating to orderly running of a school within cultural specifics. Jesus was also well aware of this balance in his first contact with non-believers. Jesus first met people’s needs, physical, psychological and social. Then he invited them to follow, and they came, saw, and believed, not because he insisted they change but because his reckless and unstoppable love made change irresistible.

For about 100 years, Australian society and civic Christianity – including Christian schooling- were roughly aligned. In post-Christendom, however, the huge Australian Christian schooling sector now unintentionally finds itself betwixt the Church and society at large, in a mediating space with no instruction manual. The day-to-day work of Christian schools is always stretched between these two increasingly distant groups. On the one hand there is the owner – the church or a Christian parent board, with a religious, missional agenda. On the other, the paying parent and (often) involuntary student audience, and a strange new hybrid of education, religion, capitalism and society. This group utters the proto-sounds of the emerging language of 21st-century Australian Christianity, for which a clear grammar does not yet exist, and which finds no precedent in history. At times – such as in the same-sex marriage debates and the current anti-anti-discrimination exemptions campaigns – Christian schools have had to become a kind of reluctant de-facto peacekeeping force between two, mutually unintelligible, parties.

The conflict between these parties has been spurred on by a third, much more clinical combatant, or some might say profiteer: hard secularism. Hard secularism is tweet-feeding the confusions about the role of the Christian school and its relationship to society at large, with a very specific goal: to drive religion out of the public sphere altogether. The tactic is simple but ingenious: control the human resources pipeline.

It is not a new tactic. The Soviet church operated on a very straightforward principle: you can have your church, but we shall appoint your priests. If you control the staffing pipeline, you control the organisation. Simple and deadly.

In the midst of these recent controversies, schools have discovered a genuinely frightened and hurt section of parents, students and alumni among their communities.

Recent attempts by legislators and activists to remove the current exemptions to the anti-discrimination acts, relate directly to the employment and appointment of staff on religious grounds in religious schools and tertiary colleges. The exemptions are widely seen as archaic but, problematically, remain the only existing protection.

They have hardly ever been used in this country. As far as I have been able to find, no case of discrimination against a student or staff member on the ground of sexuality or gender has ever been tested through a judicial process, although trial by media has had an occasional go. Hard secularists have nonetheless deliberately and skilfully manipulated the issue through premeditated social media campaigns and a series of often wilfully misleading media articles, aligned to parliamentary action. At the sittings of the 2018 federal parliament in late November, these have been a hot and highly divisive issue.

But beneath these shrill noises, something else has been happening. In the midst of these recent controversies, schools have discovered a genuinely frightened and hurt section of parents, students and alumni among their communities. People who have gathered in the open square. Many of those who signed recent petitions were not hard secularists but deeply concerned and confused alumni and families. Many were suddenly afraid they would be sacked, expelled or have their children expelled on the grounds of sexuality. When push comes to shove, Christian school principals and staff are not hard-nosed politicians. They are big society people, big hearted. Over the past few weeks many have attested to a common theme, both publicly and privately: they are deeply distressed by the hurt caused among their communities.

Most of those getting hurt are not activists. Most parents and alumni of non-government schools actually don’t want the college splashed across the front of the papers. They will seek to protect the reputation of the college, and pursue their grievance via direct contact and internal meetings. The public activists have been largely alumni, many clearly genuine and well-motivated, but many more thousands of other alumni are remaining silent on social media. They have kept well clear.

On the flip side, many other Christian and conservative parents across the schools have indicated support for defending the exemptions but have not counter attacked in the social media campaigns, for fear of recriminations and pressure on their own children.

How did it come to this?

Having for many years pursued open enrolment policies, and for many fairly open staffing policies, the schools have found that their populations are actually a reasonable snapshot of the general population, albeit a rather well-heeled one. It should come as no surprise, then, that a similar spread of ideas should be found in the parent and student populations of Christian schools, alongside more conservative views.

Up to this point, there has been no flashpoint to bring the conversation to the fore. Christian schools have been inclusive of gay students, counselled and cared for students facing gender dysphoria, and walked alongside the often frantic families of both. I’m going out on a limb here and say that – almost without exception in recent times, across a massive industry with well over a million students – Christian schools have done this with exceptional success. Many students who were isolated and bullied in other schools for being unusual or different have found profound refuge in Christian schools.

When grace has thrived in community throughout history, it has been politically irrefutable, and its social benefits irresistible. An explosion of delight will bring ultimate and enduring life to Christian schools, if we invite the population to first belong, to join a flourishing community in a great banquet of high-quality education and interconnection. In so doing we commend the Christian gospel, and people can make up their own minds.

Given these practical realities, Christian educators now know that their Christian mission should not  be safeguarded simply by the peevish right to “discriminate.” That is why most are now advocating for a positive religious discrimination act, or even a type of religious bill of rights. Hard secularists would be understandably horrified by this unintended outcome of all their clever manoeuvring. They would much prefer to classify in Orwellian categories: secularism  “four legs good,” religion “two legs bad.” To give religion a positive legal protection – as in the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights – gives it human legitimacy in the nation state, a secularist’s worst nightmare. No wonder they are rushing the issue through the parliament.

Given these kinds of pressures, it is perfectly reasonable to expect that Christian schools’ capacity to appoint ethos-aligned staff should be protected. And those protections will come through necessary and clear-minded political action. However, such rearguard action is not, and never will be, the beating heart of Christian education, nor guarantee its social licence. If the open arms and reckless grace of Christ walks among the big open square that is our schools, Christian schooling will not only survive the censor’s knife; it will flourish. For when grace has thrived in community throughout history, it has been politically irrefutable, and its social benefits irresistible. An explosion of delight will bring ultimate and enduring life to Christian schools, if we invite the population to first belong, to join a flourishing community in a great banquet of high-quality education and interconnection. In so doing we commend the Christian gospel, and people can make up their own minds. Whatever they decide to do, it remains a good, true and beautiful thing to do in the world.

Dr David Hastie is Associate Dean of Education at Alphacrucis College, and Research Director for the Alphacrucis Centre for the Future of Schooling. He was previously Education Strategist for the Anglican Schools Corporation, and taught across NSW urban and rural schools for 18 years.

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