On 21 October 2011, in a stunning reversal of 140 years of campaigning for religious education in schools, the Synod of the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne defeated a motion which welcomed the provision for General Religious Education in Victorian State Schools made possible by a 2006 Act of Parliament.
Since 1872, when Victoria’s pioneering Education Act coined the phrase ‘free, secular and compulsory’, Melbourne Anglicans have fought for the right of state school children to receive religious instruction.
In 1958 this campaign led to the amendment of the Education Act to allow for Special Religious Instruction, by volunteers, during school hours, for no more than 30 minutes per week. Special Religious Instruction has been taught ever since almost entirely under the auspices of ACCESS Ministries (otherwise known as the Council for Christian Education in Schools).
Special Religious Instruction has always been a halfway house. Generations of Anglicans have asked, what if religious education could be offered to every single child in a Victorian state school, taught by professionally trained state school teachers, as part of an integrated curriculum?
Since the 1970s Anglicans have led the campaign for the legalisation and introduction of General Religious Education in Victoria.
This change was achieved in law, but not in practice, when the Education Act was amended in 2006. In 2011 the Australian Education Union announced it supported the introduction of a General Religious Education curriculum.
The unsuccessful motion was brought before Synod by John Baldock and Peter Sherlock as one response to the persistent controversy about SRI and the role of ACCESS Ministries in state schools. As the mover noted, ACCESS Ministries itself publicly supports General Religious Education.
The text of the motion was carefully constructed to ensure that Synod was not suggesting that General Religious Education should in any way displace or supersede Special Religious Instruction.
The Synod business paper was generously amended on the first evening, to ensure that another motion in support of the work of ACCESS volunteers and staff in Christian Religious Education and in school chaplaincy would be heard immediately following the motion on General Religious Education, despite being delivered too late to appear on the agenda.
The first speaker to the motion was, appropriately, Stephen Hale, an Anglican bishop and Chair of the Board of ACCESS Ministries. Contrary to the support for General Religious Education stated on the ACCESS Ministries website, Bishop Hale spoke against the motion, undoubtedly contributing to its defeat (the final result was 167 for, 204 against).
No attempt was made by the many representatives of ACCESS Ministries or their supporters present at the Synod to amend the motion to facilitate its passage, or in any way avoid a wholesale rejection by the Synod of its significant first clause that welcomed the introduction of legal provision for General Religious Education.
Meanwhile, a number of members of Synod spoke against the motion, alleging that government-accredited state school teachers were incapable of teaching General Religious Education in an engaging or fruitful manner.
The results of this decision are far-reaching. Melbourne Anglicans have now distanced themselves from the new legal provisions for General Religious Education. Synod has implied without censure that state school teachers are unable to conduct themselves in a professional manner in the classroom. The position of ACCESS Ministries in relation to General Religious Education is ambiguous at best and deceitful at worst.
The debate about religious education in schools has returned to the divisive and self-defeating sectarianism of the 1860s and 1870s.
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The motion brought before Synod read as follows:
That this Synod:
a) welcomes the provision in the Victorian Education and Training Reform Act 2006 allowing for general religious education to be taught in state schools as part of the overall curriculum;
b) welcomes the Australian Education Union’s stated support for general religious education in all schools;
c) calls on the Victorian Minister for Education to facilitate the introduction of a program of multi-faith, general religious education into all Victorian state schools as soon as practicable;
d) and in so doing envisages that this would supplement and not replace Special Religious Instruction as provided for in the Education Act.
The website of ACCESS Ministries states that
‘Wisely, the Act makes provision for General Religious Education to be taught by specially trained school teachers who teach the history, belief systems and cultural mores concerning the major faith groups.’ (http://www.accessministries.org.au/news/id/11, published April 2011)