As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I spoke at City Bible Forum North Sydney in a mini-debate on the ongoing current issue of SRE and Ethics in our schools in NSW. As always, Dave “the Happy” Singer proved to be a worthy opponent.
Also present (and perhaps overly keen to make herself heard – she seemed unable to distinguish between a question and a 5-minute speech) was a lady called Teresa Russell who is the Ethics in Schools Project Coordinator for the St James Ethics Centre – ie she organised the trial in 10 NSW primary schools. You can read some of her material here and here.
The discussion itself was, I think, useful and the following issues arose for me out of that process and subsequent discussions with David, Teresa and other proponents of the “Ethics” course.
- Despite the rhetoric, the proposed “ethics” course simply isn't a “complement” to SRE in the plain sense of the word. I pressed David on this a number of times but he was unable to address the issue that any course run simultaneously to SRE cannot be spoken of as “complementing” it. During her “question/speech” Teresa Russell actually conceded the point.
- Opponents of Scripture/SRE still have very little understanding of what we are actually teaching in those classes, not least in terms of the basic Christian worldview in which we are educating those children under our care. It took a long time to persuade another of my conversation partners that afternoon that I was not simply teaching an alternate ethical system. That unbelievers simply don't understand the gospel is, of course, something that we should constantly be aware of. Let's never assume they know what we mean – rather, we should always be seeking to explain ourselves. In terms of SRE itself, it might do us the world of good to make our curricula more widely available.
- A common complaint I heard that lunchtime was “what right do you have to tell me what my children should and should not be doing during school?” by those who protested the “lack” of an option for their children during SRE time. However, it strikes me that we should resist such flawed reasoning. We all take part in the influencing of decision-making about education and every other area of our society. It is, ultimately, part of the democratic contract that all individuals and organisations in a society have the right, in general, to influence such decisions in a direction that they are convinced is good for society as a whole. Frankly, the more time I spend engaged in the teaching of SRE and enquiring about the “ethics” course, the more I conclude that the status quo should be maintained. Now, of course I am biased – as are the proponents of “ethics”. But we both have the right to influence how each others children are educated. We simply accept such influence as a necessary part of the democratic society that we live in, even when we do not agree with the outcome.
Interestingly, there have also been a number of recent opinion pieces in the newspapers pushing back against what is perceived to be an increasingly hostile move by some against SRE and religion in the public sphere in general. So, for example, “Altar Egos“,
Secular education was never intended to threaten religion in the colony, rather to formally take responsibility and therefore control of it from the church. That families had a right to see their children learn something of their religious heritage was never in doubt. All early legislation included provisions for such teaching.
At some point in history, the provision for clergy to access and instruct government school children began to be viewed as a right. A right to perform religious ministry, without competition from secular instruction.
This perception is a source of conflict in the current debate in NSW, regarding the ethics alternative to SRE.
However, there is no legal basis for converting the access privilege into a grant that conveys control over 3 per cent of the school year to ministries operated by churches. In NSW it is school policy (not legislation) that supports the church's monopoly in SRE time.
Not even a different interpretation of the secular principle defends this claim. The literal meaning of “secular” – a term based on the Latin, saeculum – is “of the times,” or “of the age” or even “in the world.”
It was first used to describe monks who did not seclude themselves, but engaged in business and other worldly matters, embodying how the sacred and the secular could co-operate.
Using this understanding, religion in school is part of the responsibility of education. To engage with these times, religion must be included in what children learn about the world.
However, learning about religion and being instructed into a particular religion are distinct concepts.
The comments are also well worth reading.
No doubt we'll be back to this topic in the future