The Revival of Sectarianism

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.

* * * * *

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.’ (, published April 2011)



Filed under Anglican Church, education, religion

5 responses to “The Revival of Sectarianism

  1. I’m not a member of synod and wasn’t present for this debate but I am an Anglican in Melbourne – not sure whether that makes a difference to my comment or not! (Read this post via a facebook link someone put up.)
    There is no doubt that the political-cultural foundations of Anglicanism are shifting, the question is – how? I think this development is instructive because I think one of the main shifts we’ve not given enough attention to is the relationship between the Church and wider society. Sometimes it feels to me like we are still in pathological denial about the status of the Church!
    Rowan Williams has some wonderful things to say about Religious Pluralism (all available on the AB of Canterbury website) but when I read him I get the distinct impression the UK is in quite a different place to Australia. (An observation confirmed by my recent trip there.) Public theologians now talk about the UK as ‘post-secular’ – I’m pretty confident Australia is not! There is strong a secularising impulse in this church:state schools debate – and not just from those who want complete separation. Is not the need to maintain monopoly over the religious cultural space a codependent attachment to cultural universality? As if Christianity would cease to exist if it were not the only choice?
    Rowan Williams describes a Christianity that is much more confident than that. I’m pretty sure Jesus can look after his own Church. Anglicanism may die a slow death if it tethers itself to the Secular Enlightenment ship, but the Church will do well in a pluralistic environment.

  2. John Clapton

    I really don’t get Bishop Hale for opposing the motion. Having said that, from a national perspective, so far as I am aware all public school jurisdictions make provision for some form of GRE, but to my knowledge not one has taken up the subject at any level within the education system. YouthCARE in WA, where I work, spend more than 10 years of its early life in the 70s and 80s working with Education Department representatives trying to build a workable GRE program but it all fell by the wayside.

    I support your general disquiet about the way ACCESS Ministries is doing its CRE work as a new form of sectarianism that is not at all appropriate in a secular public school system.

  3. Leigh Mackay

    Thanks for this information and background. The defeat of the motion by Synod was discussed at my parish this morning after 8am service in the post synod debrief from Colleen, our vicar. We were all amazed and very disappointed. Can this be revisited by the Archbishop in Council to get a more positive outcome?

  4. I am a practising Melbourne Anglican with an academic background in religious studies. I am also a supporter of having a public square in which all can participate without being targetted for their religious beliefs or lack of them. I also have a strong political/governance background – from academic and professional/vocational viewpoints.

    I have strong views about church/state accommodations – from the political point of view and the religious entity point of view. I find, after a long lifetime in the Christian Church, that the church is not very good at taking a long hard look at itself in relation to power and humility. The Church loves to be noticed by politicians – and, just in case, they are very good at special pleading to seek indulgence of their “special” position. These days much of the special pleading revolves around education – to the extent that church and state connive to channel taxpayer funds to some of the wealthiest schools in this country.

    We have come to the situation where Rudolf Steiner Schools operate on government property side by side with government schools. We have the chaplaincy programs in schools – and in some other places I find surprising. It seems Christians are finding needs for chaplaincy anywhere they can fit. I attribute this, in part, to the great numbers of lay people exiting theological institutions with some qualifications and a strong desire for a ‘God Job’. In short, I regard many chaplaincy places as a form of job creation.

    I am old enough to remember the ravages of the Catholic-Protestant discrimination. As someone with a very Celtic name, I came to be ashamed of it in my teenage years because the mention of my name seemed to define me and categorise me in the minds of others. This remembrance undergirds my strong desire for the maintenance of the public square where there is equity and where we don’t speak to each other from behind the walls of our choice.

    The regular practice of the Christian religion is declining in our society – in spite of what some claim. In twenty years time, it will be interesting to see how the Anglican church appears when so many of its ageing congregations have gone from its midst. At the same time as Christian practice declines, we have large sections of the population who practice their religions strongly and we have people who have no religion who feel impelled to bring their case along to the barricades as well.

    I want governments that don’t buy votes from religious cohorts – simply because such cohorts can establish and influence significant numbers gathered in one place. I want a Christian Church willing to follow the simple, narrow and straight path trodden by its Master – not a special interest group filled with hubris and special pleading and dependent upon a modern form of Rome for its access to mammon.

    I want people to have an understanding of religion – all religions and the religious impulse that finds expression in apparently non-religious forms. It is clear that many commentators to-day “just don’t get it”. I want religion to be understood as one of the great ideas of the human condition irrespective of whether one accepts religious premises of any kind. This sort of understanding, in my view, will not come via Access Ministries. Nor will it come from a power-seeking, special pleading religious institution.

  5. maja

    Since noticing a potential risk in the system, I would rather religious instruction be carried out by parents, unless stringent protocols for the selection of a highly qualified, informed, experienced and educated real Christian expert, who is closely inspected, monitored and tested against a strong standard, can be guaranteed to instruct our students.

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