Anglican Church queries school chaplain program
Leesha Mckenny and Dan Harrison
July 2, 2011
THE legitimate place of religion in NSW government schools might be put at risk by the misuse of the National School Chaplaincy Program, the head of Sydney's Anglican Education Commission has warned.
Bryan Cowling, the executive director of the peak body for the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, said well-established special religious education preserved the secularism of NSW schools while providing weekly faith instruction for those who wanted it.
But he told the Herald that chaplains - with the term's religious connotations - might blur the distinction between faith and welfare, increasing the chance of misuse by proselytising, which might call into question access granted to schools for special religious education, also known as scripture.
''If it's a welfare position and a welfare role, why not call it that rather than call it a chaplain?'' he said. ''I just think it's a clumsy way to do things.
''Stepping outside the government guidelines leaves it wide open for people to say 'let's get rid of religion out of schools altogether'.''
Dr Cowling said there had been documented instances across the country where the role had been misused.
A High Court challenge, which contends the chaplaincy program contravenes the separation of church and state will be heard next month.
It has been mounted by a Queensland father, Ron Williams, who was concerned chaplains had delivered religious counsel rather than impartial advice.
Despite the definition on the federal government's website, Dr Cowling said that ''there are thousands of [chaplains] around the country and they're each defining it as they see it or their schools are defining it as they see it''.
The term might also mislead the religious community ''into thinking that these people are promoting religion when in fact they're not supposed to''.
The lack of any minimum welfare qualifications demanded by the federal program was also a concern, he said.
''In this particular area, we're pretty much saying, 'This is a pretty serious issue you're dealing with but you don't need to have any particular credentials'.''
Dr Cowling's comments reiterated the commission's opposition to the program when it was announced in 2006.
''Our view was, in government schools, the best response would be to put more money into more counsellors and particularly people trained in dealing with difficult situations,'' he said.
The funding, which was extended by $222 million in the federal budget, would be better spent if the debate were reframed around health and welfare.
''I'd like to see an informed and robust discussion occur in the community about the most appropriate ways in which to enhance the well-being of kids in schools,'' he said.
''I think that is the bigger issue, and that gets it out of the realm of a religious argument and that gets it into the realm of where the greatest needs are,'' he said.
The School Education Minister, Peter Garrett, told the Herald this week there was wide variety in the qualifications and experience among the chaplains. ''Schools deserve to have a national minimum qualification for their chaplains,'' he said.
Reverend Peter Robinson, the chief executive of NSW's largest chaplaincy provider, GenR8 Ministries, said they were waiting for Mr Garrett to respond to a discussion paper from February that proposed chaplains be required to have an associate diploma in youth work or a similar field.
Mr Robinson said the National School Chaplaincy Association already had minimum qualification requirements.
''There's no argument from GenR8 about the need for minimum qualifications that are important to the role,'' he said.
He said while there was a clear demarcation between special religious education and chaplaincy, the definition of the latter had shifted. ''The people doing it are coming out of a faith framework where the motivation is availability and help and support, not proselytising,'' he said.
''And in a secular school they have found that actually works … where you understand secular to mean what the Education Act NSW has always defined it as, which means non-sectarian, but not non-religious.''
A spokesman for Dan White, the executive director of the Archdiocese of Sydney's Catholic Education Office, said the relationship with parish priests or religious orders meant there was no need for chaplains in Catholic schools. There had been no reports of chaplains negatively impacting on Catholic scripture classes, he said.
It will be interesting to see how the High Court rules especially given the definition of chaplain we all know.
n. Abbr. Ch.
1. A member of the clergy attached to a chapel.
2.a. A member of the clergy who conducts religious services for an institution, such as a prison or hospital.
b. A member of the clergy who is connected with a royal court or an aristocratic household.
3. A member of the clergy attached to a branch of the armed forces.
Yes school should have somewhere that students can go and talk to a social worker type person but calling them a chaplain is not right.