Monday, 30 June 2014

Funding for the "School Chaplaincy" programme

was recently found to be "unconstitutional" after a High Court challenge.
It was the second time this has occurred. The challenge has also put at risk a great many other Federal Government programmes - programmes like the NDIS - National Disability Insurance Scheme.
It was not, as many people believe, found unconstitutional because the Australian Constitution does not permit laws to be made about religion. The reasoning was much more complex than that and now means the federal government has to find a way of funding many programmes which have the potential to be deemed unconstitutional if anyone cares to challenge them.
I know something about the school chaplaincy programme. It has been widely criticised by many people who claim that it is giving Christians a means of proselytising in schools. Such claims are wrong. School chaplains are not permitted to do anything like that.  Not all chaplains are Christians, some are of other faiths. They are there to provide a different type of support, a listening ear, a friendly face which is not official. Nobody is forced to approach the chaplain. They are not there to usurp the role of school counsellors or psychologists or anyone else.
In one of the local high schools the school chaplain has an office next door to the girls' toilet block. The location is quite deliberate. Her office door is left open at all times and the students know they cannot see her alone.
The students, distressed, unhappy, excited, eager and much more are in and out all day. The chaplain runs lunchtime activities - with an aim of participation - and listens to all comers. She sees students who go to church but most of those she sees are non-church goers. Some of them are Muslims. She has had Jews and Hindus as well.
The school wants to keep her.
Outsiders have said the school would be better off with another counsellor or some help from a psychologist. Perhaps. Perhaps not.
I remember "religious instruction" when I was at school. It was one lesson per week. Priests, nuns, ministers, pastors and some volunteers came in to teach a single lesson. Most of them were poor disciplinarians. They - and the schools - must have had a hard time of it.
Later I can remember talking to the students I was teaching about their behaviour in these same lessons. It worked - for a while. I think these same students would have happily gone to a school chaplain.
The armed services also employ chaplains - another programme under threat. I can remember hearing a chaplain being interviewed while the army was in Iraq. He did not see his role as a proselytiser of any faith but as someone whose job it was to listen when someone felt the need to talk - to listen in a non-judgmental way. He was not there to give advice but support. He was someone the members of the unit could go to when they needed a listening ear.
I don't believe in talking snakes and I have my own views about how some "miracles" might be explained but the chaplains are not - or should not be - teaching these things. What they are doing, if they are doing their job well, is teaching by example. They are teaching students about listening to others - about caring and compassion. Many students don't get that anywhere else.
Perhaps the school chaplaincy programme needs to be saved for that reason?

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