By Dr JOHN McCLEAN, Convenor of GS&C
Christians in NSW continue to be focussed on Special Religious Education (SRE) in school. The Department of Education and Communities (DEC) identified three books Your Sneaking Suspicions by John Dickson, You: An Introduction by Michael Jensen and Teen Sex: By the Book by Patricia Weerakoon; and instructed school principals to ensure that SRE providers were not using these books. Some SRE teachers were asked to sign a statement to that effect when they arrived at school on Thursday May 7.
The episode prompted some observations for me.
First, it is another example of how Christianity is now under moral suspicion, rather than being the moral guide. Once churches raised concerns with the government about the content of sex ed. We might still do that, but the position is often reversed. There are groups who are convinced that traditional Christian teaching, especially about sexuality, is not only repressive but dangerous and abusive. Some of this relates to homosexuality. Any suggestion that homosexuality is sinful or unnatural is seen as being homophobic. The issue is wider than homosexuality, John Kaye from the Greens was quoted as saying “This is dangerous stuff. Abstinence messaging and homophobia have real consequences for vulnerable young people”. We have to get used to hearing that Christianity is morally dangerous and develop responses to these accusations.
Second, the DEC seems to have reacted very quickly, and so over-reacted. In its apparent haste it did not even identify the banned material accurately. The material Your Sneaking Suspicions is based on the book by John Dickson, but is written by Simon Smart. John’s book is A Sneaking Suspicion. Patricia’s book is not even part of an SRE curriculum. What’s more, all these materials are used in High School SRE, yet the DEC required primary school principals to seek assurances that they were not being used in Primary SRE.
Beyond these incorrect details, the DEC acted without any consultation with SRE providers and seems to have over-stepped its power, since the content SRE teaching is the responsibility of providers, not the DEC (that’s why it is called “special” religious education).
All of this goes to show at least that there is some suspicion of, and perhaps even antipathy to, SRE in some sections of the DEC. At least sections of our society are quite ready to accept that Christianity is worse than irrelevant.
Third, the banning is a warning sign of developments which may come very quickly. The DEC is currently conducting a review of SRE (and the secular ethics alternative). If it has acted so quickly to ban these books, there is an obvious fear of what the outcome of the review will be.
Fourth, the ‘banning’ was especially shocking for evangelical Christians in NSW. We’ve had a long history of working in and with schools, it has been part of our ministries since the 1880s. Many churches and church members put a great deal of effort into SRE. Over the last few years High School SRE has expanded, with churches in many areas appointing paid teachers. And each of the authors and their books are well known to us. The books are widely appreciated and used. So the idea that we were being told that the DEC was censoring these books from schools was a great shock.
Fifth, within the evangelical community there are different stances to our place in the school system. Everyone hoped that the ban would be reversed and the situation clarified. However the style of approach varied. Some people seem to view SRE and its freedom as a ‘right’ which we can claim. They held that the DEC had gone too far and needed to be reigned in. It was time to exert all available public and political pressure and to make it clear that we expected to be given freedom to deliver SRE as we wish. Other were more cautious, seeking to preserve a good working relationship with the DEC and not wanting to antagonise authorities. They were ready to assure that DEC that SRE is conducted in a way that fits well into NSW schools and that it does not touch ‘dangerous’ topics. It is not “proselytisation”, since it is provided to children from families who subscribe to the relevant religion. It is simply educating these students in the faith of their family.
The more combative approach reflects a view that, at least because of historical precedent, churches have right to be present in state schools and to teach their faith. It may even go deeper to a view that Australia is a Christian nation and that we have a special right to be present in schools. I don’t think this is sustainable. Australian society is pluralist and at a government level operates in a secular mode. Christians can rightly point out problems with this, but nothing is gained by pretending that we live in some other situation. Churches are no longer a central institution in society, rather we are increasingly being moved the margin, and we will understand our mission better when we grasp that.
The other view sees SRE as a valuable opportunity to have Christian presence in NSW schools. It is worth preserving for as long as possible. To do that, we should try to maintain good relationships with the schools and the department and be as co-operative as possible with them. There may still be times for some political pressure and some publicity. Those opposed to SRE use these tactics, so we might consider them as well. Yet there are two reasons to be cautious about these tactics. One is practical. We are guests in the schools, teaching explicitly Christian content in an self-consciously secular setting. If we are seen as difficult belligerent guests, we can expect to have the welcome removed.
If we look at SRE this way, then the extent to which we push back on issues, like book bans, and the extent to which we comply will be a tactical one.There are times for pressure and publicity; and also for compliance and negotiation. It is possible that the Department could try to regulate SRE material more strictly. It could try censor basic Christian teaching such as the reality of sin and the exclusive claims of Christ. A path of compliance might make this more likely. Yet resistance and protest might mean the whole program comes to an end. We will have to make strategic decisions about those options.
On May 20, Adrian Piccoli, the minister for education, announced that the ban had been lifted. In a letter to Glenn Davies, the Archbishop of the Sydney Diocese of the Anglican church he acknowledged and expressed regret that there had been no consolation and stated that “the Department has now agreed that if similar concerns are raised in the future it will immediately discuss the matter with SRE providers as a first step”. The minister recognised that You: An Introduction and A Sneaking Suspicion and the accompanying student handbooks are part of the authorised SRE curriculum and he confirmed “that there is no ban in place on these books”.
Although this episode is over and may now seem a minor flurry I suspect that the heat will continue to be turned up on SRE. We should be ready for that and think carefully about how we will respond. Lets also keep praying for those who are talking to the DEC. Ask for wisdom and grace, and that the opportunity for this presence in the schools will continue.
Here is an opinion from Neil Foster from Newcastle University on the same issue.