Features Australia

Not so splendid chappies

The schools chaplaincy program pits government funding against religious freedom

3 October 2015

9:00 AM

3 October 2015

9:00 AM

Another day, another Fairfax article on the omnipresent risk to the mental health of homosexual teenagers. A fortnight ago it was because the NSW government disallowed the screening of Gayby Baby in public schools during normal class times. If I had my way there would be no videos during class times, except for ones which tell students – of all sexual orientations – to toughen up. Kids, there will be people in your lives that don’t approve of your choices (and not just your relationship choices), that hate you, and even think that you’re grievously sinning (I assume my Muslim friends think that about me as I put away a stein of weissbier and a pork schnitzel this Octoberfest).

This week’s Fairfax instalment details Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson’s concerns that federally funded public school chaplains – or ‘chappies’ as they like to be known – may give unhelpful advice to homosexual students. As someone concerned about what children hear in public schools, I think Wilson is right. But as a Christian who once served on a local chaplaincy board, I would argue that this is only one of many problems with the program.

Discussion of these problems is difficult, in part because the terminology is deliberately misleading. That the chappies are officially called ‘chaplains’ is regrettable because they bear no resemblance to the chaplains commonly found in the military, police forces, hospitals and gaols. Traditionally the chaplain is an ordained clergyman, almost always with a recognised theological degree, not to mention many years in the trenches of parish ministry. In recent times many have sought additional qualifications in secular counselling, but they have always been known for their down-to-earth wisdom and ability to interact with all comers. Their religious convictions were never unclear or in doubt, however there was always a practical understanding of the secular ministry context. During the world wars, military chaplains received bravery awards, and still today they are highly regarded, even being accorded the rank and privileges of a senior commissioned officer.

In contrast, the so-called chappies are typically recent high school graduates recruited from Pentecostal churches and appointed by ecumenical chaplaincy boards after attaining a Certificate IV in a vague discipline like ‘youth work’ or ‘pastoral care.’ Evangelising or the more sinister sounding ‘proselytising’ are strictly forbidden. While military chaplains are frequently treated as part of a commander’s senior leadership team, chappies are frequently treated as underpaid, underqualified teacher’s aides, or low level clerical workers whose chapel is the photocopy room.

And this confusion in terms is where the problems start, the first being the issue of religious freedom. Amazingly, many Christians don’t see the red flags that government funding should raise. To be fair, this is a risk in grown-up chaplaincy as well, but proper chaplains have been doing this a long time, and they started back in the day when churches and other religious groups were more strident – and perhaps more confident – in the importance of their own doctrinal distinctives, and less tempted by Caesar’s money. For the chaplaincy program, the opposite is true. John Howard’s federal money came first, inciting churches and religious groups to rent-seeking and the scramble for funding as the program was driven into local schools. From the start, it has been a political tool of government, with the chappies, churches, and chaplaincy boards playing the role of the ‘useful idiot.’ Obvious questions around government influence, control of the message, and quid pro quos just didn’t get asked. The government wants to pay us and give us access to captive audiences – what could possibly go wrong?

Christians are finally beginning to wake up (in part through the efforts of Tim Wilson) to the existential threats to religious freedom, and yet they appear blind to the clear risk that government funding poses. But you simply can’t have them both; the chaplaincy program puts religious freedom at risk.

The second problem is one of doctrine rather than public policy. Here I can’t speak for other religious traditions, but for the Christian, the chaplaincy program is a risk to the Gospel message. The agnostic satirist H. L. Mencken once wrote that ‘Religion, if it is to retain any genuine significance, can never be reduced to a series of sweet platitudes, possibly to anyone not actually in jail for felony. It is, on the contrary, a corpus of powerful and profound convictions.’ And yet, our supposedly religious chappies are allowed to dispense – in the words of the federal policy guidelines – only ‘general spiritual and personal advice.’ Or as Mencken would say, sweet platitudes. These may be nice but they are rarely helpful, and they certainly don’t constitute Christian ministry.

Some states education departments do allow chappies to engage in religious discussions but only when the students initiate the conversations. But, not to worry: as one primary school chaplain I knew put it, ‘I have a whole bunch of creative ways to get the kids to ask me about Christianity.’ I wasn’t even game to ask, but it seems to sum up the whole problem of seeing the chaplaincy program as Christian ministry: either no actual ministry was taking place, or it was being conducted by way of deception. The specifics of Christianity and the content of the Gospel are replaced by ‘sweet platitudes’, ‘general spiritual advice’ and a collection of clichéd one-liners that can be shoehorned by creative Certificate IV holders into any unrelated conversation.

And so we return to Wilson’s main concern – the mental health of homosexual children, which I would expand to the welfare of all children. Are the chappies needed at all? If they weren’t religious appointments, would we think it’s a good thing to have unqualified nineteen year olds roaming the playgrounds, befriending the students, and dispensing ‘personal advice’ based on their nothing-in-particular? Perhaps gay and lesbian students are most at risk in this regard, but who’d know? I certainly wouldn’t want an unaccountable public school chaplain from another faith having access to my kids. In fact, I don’t want the Christian ones hanging about the school either.

Another Fairfax piece ran that same day, this one an angry, anti-Abbott, anti-Christian op-ed entitled ‘Malcolm Turnbull poised to end improper influence of religion on government.’ Not renewing chaplaincy funding past 2015 would be a way the new PM could do that, while at the same time ending improper influence of government on religion, and removing this clear risk to the welfare of all students. Gay, straight or whatever.

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