Category Archives: Anglican Church

Second to None: A Tribute to Barbara Darling

Barbara Darling died last Sunday, 15 February 2015, aged 67. Like so many others, I am mourning the sudden and untimely loss of a friend, mentor, colleague and bishop.

For me, Barb Darling had always been there. She is the first person I remember outside the family, as she lived across the stairwell from us at Ridley College when I was three. Barbara the Queen’s Guide was there for my first day of cub scouts. Barbara the historian was there for my first book launch. Barbara the Senior Canon was even there to present me for installation as Lay Canon at St Paul’s Cathedral in a moment neither of us could have foreseen. To me it seemed only natural that Bishop Barbara was, if not my godmother, my Mother-in-God.

Because of who she came to be, Barbara’s life is inextricably linked with the extraordinary story of the ordination of women in the Anglican Church, a theological event that defined her vocation and ministry. Some twenty years ago I interviewed Barbara as part of research I was conducting on the early ordination debates. I am still struck not only by how ready she was to tell her story, but also by how articulate she was about what it all might mean.

Barbara was deeply conscious of being first. Yet, in a world obsessed with women who came first, it is worth recording that Barbara Darling often came second.

In 1986, she was in the second group of women ordained to the diaconate in Melbourne. The ceremony, held on Ascension Day, was mercifully free from the bomb scare that disrupted the first ordination of female deacons. And as this second ceremony was less likely to be subject to yet another legal challenge, Archbishop Penman was daring enough to whisper ‘and sisters’ every time he addressed the ordinands as ‘brothers’ .

In 1989 when she became deacon in charge of the parish of Ascot Vale, she was the second woman in Melbourne appointed to run a parish, following in the footsteps of Marjorie McGregor at Northcote. And finally, in 2008, she was the second woman to be consecrated a bishop in Australia, just a few days after Kay Goldsworthy was consecrated in Perth.

As I reflect on the years that led to these life-changing events, I see that Barbara was second to none in facing up to the great challenge of the first generation of ordained women. It is difficult to explain how profoundly challenging it was for these women to respond to God’s call on their lives when for so long the Church was unable to understand and then to honour that call. This calling flew against the received wisdom of both Church and world. Receiving a renewed wisdom required an extraordinary degree of openness, a preparedness to question assumed truths about the scriptures. This process of discernment pushed Barbara and her sisters into leadership roles for which there was no precedent.

Barbara was unusual in being willing to discuss her own struggle with the question of the role of women in the church with others in public. When the newspapers came around to Ridley College in 1975 and 1976 to ask why on earth highly educated women in their 20s were studying at theological college with no prospect of ordination, she was prepared to answer honestly their well-meaning but baffled questions. This honesty set her on the path to becoming a role model. This was a ministry she fostered and grew throughout her life, and an identity which empowered her to step up to new challenges for the sake of those who might follow.
In 1995 Barbara offered me this observation:
I didn’t have any role models of women within the Church, and I think that’s something about the whole early group of us … there were women around, but it wasn’t that you saw women in parishes … And I see that as one of my roles, of the roles of the others of us who were also first, to be role models, for the other, younger ones that are coming through. And that’s exciting.

Being a role model was at the centre of Barbara’s ministry. Since her death, many women have spoken of her encouragement, her support, and her criticism in the hard work of discernment. But crucially, Barbara understood that the Church was not a place to stand still. The point of being a role model was not to turn future generations of women into clones of herself, but to open the gate to new possibilities, new ministries, and new ways of proclaiming the gospel. Barbara was open to what the second, and third, and fourth generations of clergywomen might be called to be:

And they’ll be different, and they are. And they often want to go a lot further than we did, because we think it’s extreme to get to certain places and then they take that for granted and they want to go further on. That’s interesting.

I have no doubt that one of the most devastating aspects of her untimely death is the knowledge that the Church has lost a role model, a mentor, a great encourager of others. We know in our hearts that new generations of women – and men – will now be deprived of the benefits of her counsel, her challenge, her support.

Barbara’s commitment to being a role model flowed directly from her own experience. Like her sisters in ministry, she took an incredible risk to study theology full-time without knowing where it would lead. She was a school teacher and librarian with a promising career ahead of her, and yet at the beginning of 1975 she resigned her job to move to Melbourne, away from family and friends, to take up a place at Ridley College. As she put it:

It was a real step of faith … I was giving up a really good job with really good pay and nice holidays to go off to pay to go to College to learn about, you know, Sunday school stuff.

Within two years, she found herself with a ThL and on the first of a series of one-year contracts as a lecturer and librarian at Ridley, that led to another ten years working in theological education. As a staff member of the College, the Principal, Dr Leon Morris, expected and encouraged her to preach, a new experience for her – and for the College.

Barbara took up the task of preaching with a humble authority, willing from her earliest sermons to reveal her own hesitations. On 22 August 1976 she preached at Ridley College Chapel on 1 Corinthians 12, and took as her theme the role of women. She reviewed the well-known New Testament texts on the role of women in the Church and home, and on the relationship between husbands and wives, men and women. It is one of the earliest surviving records of her theological reflection on the issue of women’s ordination. This is what she recorded in her speaking notes:

I can see a role for women helping men by exercising gifts of preaching, teaching, and encouraging others and to me this does not go against the great Biblical principles of Genesis 1:22 and Galatians 3:28 – that we have been created by God in His image and that we are all one in Him. I can see a role for team ministry – but husbands have authority over wives – wouldn’t deny that – but joint together in Christ. Not denying Pauline passages within a family situation. Need for the freedom to trust and submit. Therefore culturally and socially I together with many others wouldn’t like to see a woman over men in control of a parish single handed – but no theological reasons against it.

Barbara’s views on these matters continued to develop and change in future years, not least before she herself first accepted the call to be in charge of a parish, single handed and with authority over men. The significance of this sermon is that Barbara was willing to express her doubts, to criticise her own cultural assumptions and to work through a rigorous theological process, even in the earliest days of her preaching ministry. As she put it on that occasion, ‘Still thinking this through – pray you will do so too.’

Barbara was passionate about searching out and proclaiming the gospel – the good news – for women and for men. Her sermon on the role of women began and ended with this passion, providing the context for her consideration of the New Testament injunctions concerning women in the Church. This is how she began:

[We are] created male or female – like to look tonight at the gifts God has given the church: to men and women – for upbuilding of church.

And this is how she ended:

Pray that above all we may be united in the spirit, working together to build up God’s kingdom using the talents or gifts God has given us.

The challenges faced by Barbara and her sisters are evident in the story of her 1981 selection conference for the Diocese of Melbourne. Melbourne had been selecting women as ‘candidates for ministry’ since 1974. The problem was, no-one really knew what they were being selected for, and what they would do once the period of training was completed. As Barbara put it:

I really prayed that by that stage the diocese might encourage and tell me where to go. Then I had a sense of call but didn’t quite know what it was, and they didn’t quite know what it was either, so in the end I became a trained woman worker which as we tell people is better than a “licensed lady” which is what they were going to call us … It was a two-day selection conference, and they really didn’t quite know what to do with the women … I remember going to see the Archbishop … and he said “well, what are we going to do with you?” and I said “well I was hoping you’d tell me that” and he said “I was hoping you’d tell me that”. So we sat and looked at each other and he said, how about trained woman worker.

Ordination was not possible for another five years. The faithfulness of Barbara and her generation is exemplified in this willingness to enter uncharted waters, confident only in the belief that God called all people to build up the kingdom using their gifts no matter how strange or new the means.

After ordination as a deacon in 1986, and accepting the parish of Ascot Vale in 1989, Barbara faced a period of waiting. She waited for the Church to decide if and when it would ordain women as priests. She waited for the day when she no longer had to call on a team of ‘rent a priests’, male priests who could say the ABCs (absolution, blessing, consecration) at the eucharist. In the end she waited for four years, displaying an incredible patience with the Church she loved.

Barbara was proactive in this long period of waiting. Besides taking her part in synods and councils, making the case for change, she made waiting useful. Barbara learned how to be a leader, a team player, an enabler of others, a focus of unity. The visitor to Ascot Vale had no doubt about who was in charge, even as the awkward shuffle took place at the holy table every Sunday when the vicar briefly stepped aside for the male priest. She rejoiced in the fact that the campaign for the ordination of women brought together Christians of a wide variety of backgrounds – feminists and traditionalists, catholics and evangelicals, men and women – who discovered a deep unity in Christ as they changed the way the Church did business.

Throughout her faithful ministry as a trained woman worker, as a deacon, priest, and bishop, Barbara showed us that the ordination of women truly was God’s gift to the Church. Barbara’s greatest gifts were her willingness to take risks, to expose her hesitations, doubts and struggles, to encourage and enable others to find and grow into their calling, and always to be hopeful, focussed on the gifts and talents God was giving to the Church. Admitting women to the priesthood and episcopate made it possible for an even greater abundance of talents to be offered in the service of God, and opened an astonishing, unexpected avenue for giving glory to God.

I will miss her terribly. While we wait to meet her again with all the saints, I know that the best way to honour her memory is to follow her example: to wait fruitfully, to encourage others, and above all to be open to the amazing new things God is doing through us and around us every day of our lives.

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Giving up for Lent

A homily for Christ Church South Yarra (John 12)

Monday in Holy Week, 25 March 2013

This year I gave up two things for Lent: FaceBook, and chips.

When I say chips, I mean potato crisps out of a bag. Corn chips were forbidden, rice crackers were allowed. Biscuit-like snack crackers (baked not fried) were borderline but permissible on weekends. French fries were definitely out, but sauteed potatoes in a restaurant were acceptable.

As you can tell, giving up FaceBook was comparatively easy.

I have been reflecting in the last week on whether giving up something for Lent made any difference. I didn’t lose any weight, but I did recognise that my body is noticeably aging. I didn’t lose any friends – although, not having checked my FaceBook page, I don’t know if anyone has virtually dumped me.

So I beg your indulgence, at this late stage in the season, to question the whole practice of giving up things for Lent.

I think most of the things we give up seem incredibly trivial.

I don’t care whether you drank alcohol or not this Lent (though I do care if alcohol is destructive for you).

I don’t care whether you exercised more this Lent (though I do care if you hate your body).

I don’t care whether you put money in a mission-box this Lent (though I do care if you went hungry).

I don’t even care whether you had sex this Lent (though I do care if you feel unloved).

But I have noticed how deep-seated and profoundly ingrained are the great and weighty sins that we commit every day.

Why are people so profoundly horrible to each other, whether in the corridors of power in parliament or in church, or in the everyday interactions of friends and strangers?

Why do Australians find it so hard to even imagine giving up some unnecessary luxuries to make room for others to eat at the table?

Why are we twenty-first century Pharisees so obsessed with security, with compliance and with risk management?

So I come tonight to muse on what can cut through our apathetic, self-indulgent little sacrifices before the idol of inestimable wealth and unending plenty. Perhaps I am asking too much, but how do we stop the cycle of temporary purity, resumption of filth, to achieve real transformation?

Tonight John’s account of the gospel gives us three guides, Mary, Judas, and Jesus.

Mary pours out her dignity, her security, her money, her body on Jesus’ feet. It is costly, it is deeply embarrassing, and it is a sign of things to come.

Jesus responds in kind, knowing who and what he is, and pointing us to the value of the eternal over the immediate, while living completely in the here-and-now.

Judas is the reasonable one here. He objects to this waste. If Mary wanted to give up something of value, why not feed the poor?

The evangelist’s accusation that Judas was a two-faced, hypocritical thief seems unnecessary. Judas’s reasoned defence of the mortal world as it exists, poor and needy, warts and all, fails to take account of the world as it could be: the kingdom of God, where boundaries are broken, the dead are raised, and all are expected to come in to the banquet.

It’s still not too late to give something up this Lent. Give up your allegiance to your own thoughts, your hunger for affirmation, your desire for security. Open your heart to sudden change, mindful of the inestimable cost of Jesus’ call to true repentance.

Finally, as you truly deny yourself, welcome the transformation that will sweep across us all as we first stand at the foot of the Cross, then find ourselves crucified with Christ.

Postscript: To FaceBook friends, no I’m not on FaceBook, this automatically delivers to my feed 🙂

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Living with contradictions

Homily for UFT Worship, Friday 16 March 2012 (Matthew 5:1-12)

I wish to begin by thanking Jan Gray and Jesuit Theological College for their generous invitation to deliver the homily today. As you may imagine, my mind has been preoccupied with giving up responsibilities at the United Faculty of Theology, and being burdened with new ones at MCD University of Divinity.

It has therefore been a gift to be asked to meditate on the Beatitudes, these sayings of Jesus to his disciples gathered on the mountain. This entails standing back from the immediate, from the next meeting or the next decision, in order to look down from the mountain and see the whole truth in all its incomprehensible complexity and simplicity.

To most of us, who live in an industrialised, resource-rich, and highly developed society that exists at a high price we are all too willing to pay in ignorance, to us the Beatitudes constitute what many preachers used to call a hard saying.

We are students of theology and ministers of the gospel: many would claim we are wealthy in intellect and well-formed in ministry. Yet Jesus tells us ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ What is our place in that kingdom? Is it merely enough to recognise the poverty of our spirit?

We are here to celebrate our unity in Christ, to speak words of welcome and farewell. Some of us have just enjoyed lunch together, and we will soon move to celebrate a new book. Yet Jesus tells us ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.’ Should we then be sad, in order that we may enjoy comfort, or should we be afraid that celebration only comes at the price of tribulation?

We are lecturers and professors, yet we are told that it is the meek who will inherit the earth. I don’t know about you, but I’m not exactly meek. What then is my inheritance?

I do hunger and thirst for righteousness, although I’m about to get on a plane to a rather expensive holiday destination.

Mercy, purity, peace – surely we all admire these qualities, though they are difficult to maintain. As for persecution, well who in their right mind would actively seek it out?

Where do these words leave us? Full of guilt for our well-being? Newly conscious of the wisdom of others, born of harsh experience? Mindful in this season of Lent of the extraordinary earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, who somehow was fully human and fully divine? Who in the New Testament is illuminated as an exemplar not of earthly power or wisdom but of amazing grace?

When I hear this scripture, the Beatitudes, as a whole, I am struck by the apparent contradictions – contradictions between what we are meant to value, and things on which we set our hope. The Beatitudes seem to abandon our understanding of justice, excluding the included, and embracing the excluded.

Yet it is in these very contradictions that I find truth.

We human beings live in a state of constant contradiction.

We say one thing and do another.

We believe in mutually exclusive truths.

We criticise others but lack the will to reform ourselves.

We praise humility and simplicity but seek out power and wealth.

I make these claims not only as a Christian who observes sin at the root of our ills, but also as an historian trained in the sciences of human observation.

I frequently used to tell my undergraduate history students that history is the art of identifying and understanding the peculiar mix of contradictions that defined an individual or a community.

How, for example, could a Christian leader in sixteenth-century Europe who knew the scripture of Matthew chapter 5 intimately, persecute other Christians, meting out ill-placed punishment in the place of mercy?

When I hear this scripture, then, I am confronted by the contradictions in our world, in our society, and in my life. This is part of what it is to do theology, moving away from the neutral objectivity of logic to the apprehension of truth, away from the mere correction of error to the transformation of being.

What are the contradictions I see today?

Well, most obviously for me, I am completing my time with you as Dean, though it’s not quite a farewell and I’m not leaving altogether.

I am heading off to run a Specialist University, something I once thought an impossible entity. MCD University of Divinity, moreover, is coming to existence in a time and place when divinity, the mother of all disciplines, is largely seen as something oddly distinct from, not integrated with, other forms of higher education.

We are gathered here in this church to study theology and worship God together as one body, even though we are not one and are all too conscious of the barriers to our unity, both personal and institutional.

You continue to struggle with what it means to study theology – is it practical?; with what it means to be a theologian – is anyone in the church listening to you?; with what it means to be a United Faculty of Theology – is this unity?; with what it means to expend precious resources on advanced learning – is this purity of heart?

Each of you will carry your own and your corporate contradictions in your heart.

In this season of Lent, search out your contradictions and know them. Do not ignore them, do not suppress them. Examine them. Reread today’s scripture and let the contradictory Christ call to you.

Above all, as we approach Easter look to the cross and the empty tomb. Hold fast to Jesus Christ who lived out the greatest of all contradictions, dying at our hands to redeem us, and rising to new life to give us true hope.

Learn to see yourselves and your neighbours in the light of this God.

As you go forth today, take with you these scriptures that do not make sense, that do not conform to our human logic.

Let them be a source of comfort and challenge.

Allow their contradictions to shine light on our darkness and to lead us to hope.

Sing them in your heart, and share them with all you meet in word and action.

‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy!’

‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God!’

‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God!’.

‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven!’

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

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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.’ (http://www.accessministries.org.au/news/id/11, published April 2011)

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Count me in

In my professional work as an historian I frequently use census returns. Theologians well know the role the census played in determining the place of Jesus’ birth some 2000 years ago. For genealogists and social historians, the census has long been a key tool of research for understanding the nineteenth century – at least in those nations which retain original census returns.

The advent of the digital age has seen most available censuses published on line, usually for a fee, and this has transformed our ability to interrogate the past. One can subscribe to sites such as ancestry.co.uk or findmypast.co.uk and actually discover how many blacksmiths there were in England in 1861, or how many farmers had slaves in the United States of America in 1850.

Sadly, the only complete census which Australians can access is the 1828 Census of New South Wales, as the convict stain and the fear of our ancestral doings has long restrained colonial, state and commonwealth governments from retaining more than statistical summaries of population data.

The new search engines allow me to pursue individuals in the past as never before. A paper I am currently writing on Australia’s first Anglican deaconess (hi Marion) has allowed me to identify facts about her upbringing and religious life in England solely because of the decennial census which tells me where she was and what she was doing in 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871. The picture these returns have painted is one I could never have uncovered by any other means.

So when it comes to census night, 9 August 2011, I relish the opportunity to record for posterity who I am, where I live, and with whom I share my life. (If you haven’t done so, for heaven’s sake tick the box that allows the Australian Bureau of Statistics to record your details. The future will thank you.)

Paradoxically, the census is the only way I can say to the Australian people that I live in a same-sex relationship, and the only place where I can record the longevity of that relationship. We laugh about census night, which seems to bring a moment of extraordinary privilege in the form of wealth and happiness each quinquennium.

In 1996 we had just moved into the same dwelling, and could celebrate the relative prosperity of tax-free postgraduate scholarships after years on Austudy.

In 2001, we were freshly reunited after two years living in separate countries. I was in the middle of the only 12-week period of full-time work I had for the surrounding five years, and we were living in what must be Melbourne’s most luxurious curate’s flat.

In 2006, we were living in Melbourne’s second-most luxurious curate’s flat, and both working full-time.

This year, our fourth census, we are again reunited after three years on opposite sides of the globe, and I am now in a permanent full-time job that I love.

Still, the census brings regrets. First, it doesn’t count our faithful companion Pusey who, I suspect, provides comfort and joy in a form found in households around the country.

Second, why on earth does the census allow us to identify as ‘Anglican (Church of England)’ when the Church of England has never existed in this land? The temptation to identify myself as ‘Other: Episcopalian’ or even ‘Other: Jedi’ was strong.

 

 

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The Fourth R? Religion in Schools

[This is an edited extract from an address given at St John’s Camberwell, Tuesday 19 July 2011.]

One of my clearest memories of primary school comes from early December 1980, when I was in grade 2. It was one of the few times I was in trouble at school. Usually known as the clever kid who was always well-behaved, I was in trouble because I had disrupted my weekly Religious Instruction class. Miss H., a well-meaning volunteer who, at the time, I imagined must have been at least 80, was trying to shepherd a few unruly Protestant children at one of Melbourne’s most multi-cultural schools into performing a nativity play. Unreasonably, I wanted to know why. There was no-one to see the play except ourselves, and I had heard the Christmas story a thousand times before. I misbehaved and disrupted the class, because I was bored. RI, ‘AARGH AYE’ was boring, even more boring than the mundane attempts at religious education we did in a cold, damp vestry that went under the name of Sunday School. I still owe Miss H. an apology: I know you were doing your best, and that it was intimidating to try to instruct a child who insisted to his theologically educated parents that instead of using a lectionary for family prayers, we read the Bible from start to finish. (For those who are wondering, we read a chapter a day, beginning with Genesis 1 in 1978, and finishing somewhere in Proverbs in 1982.)

By the time I got to grade 5, things had improved. The RI teacher was the local Anglican priest, and the lessons were a lot more interesting and far more skilfully delivered. There was less focus on saccharine pictures of a blond, smooth skinned Jesus from the 1930s, and more on moral and ethical questions about life. But our regular classroom teacher looked bored and ill at ease with this interloper who came into our class for only half an hour a week then disappeared.

At high school there was no religious instruction at all. Well, there was some, but it came in the form of trying to work out why all the Greek kids got an extra day off a week or two after what I thought was Easter, and why the Turkish, Lebanese and Palestinian kids weren’t at school on some days and turned up with coloured hands or empty tummies on others. I did receive some religious education outside school through various youth ministry groups run by Anglican agencies, for which I am grateful – although my brother and I always seemed to be the only children from a state school. I still can’t work out the politics and symbolism of the Anglican grammar schools.

I now work as a professional educator, in the field of theological education at university level, and with experience as a lecturer and researcher in history. As an educator, an Anglican, and a citizen of Victoria I care deeply about the religious education of our primary and secondary school children. It distresses me that religious education is seen by most children as a marginal topic taught by strangers, a topic that disappears entirely in state secondary schools. While there are two units accredited for VCE in the area of religion – ‘Texts and Traditions’, and the increasingly popular ‘Religion and Society’ – only one state school is offering one of these subjects this year.

Based on the current controversy about ACCESS Ministries, it is clear that many others in this state are equally passionate about religious education.

I make a few observations from the long history of religious education. Victorians still proclaim the cardinal values of ‘free, secular and compulsory’ education enshrined in the 1872 Education Act, though we are still debating whether ‘secular’ means ‘no religion’ or ‘no sectarianism’. Meanwhile, we are rapidly heading into older territory. The increased funding provided by both state and federal governments to non-government schools and changing patterns of parental aspirations have seen the re-emergence of a dual system of government schools and church schools not unlike that which existed in the 1860s. Although Special Religious Instruction continues to be offered in the form of Christian Religious Education in ways that are continuous with the practice of the past century, community expectations have changed in our multicultural society. To speak as ACCESS Ministries does of how ‘CRE teachers are sharing God’s love with over 130,000 young Victorians’ is interpreted in 2011 with a level of community hostility that would not have been seen in 1961. Alongside all of this is the complete death of the Sunday School movement that for over 150 years provided a further, church-based opportunity for the formal schooling of children in Christianity.

The fundamental question is whether education in religion is at all necessary to the health of contemporary Australian society. If it is, we must then ask, who should provide it – the school, the parent, or the church?

In Victoria we have four options in relation to the religious education of our children:

  1. Abandon all religious education in state schools.
  2. Abandon any interest in state school education and press for the creation of low fee church primary schools that can teach religious education.
  3. Defend the present system of special religious instruction, taught by volunteers for 30 minutes per week on a non-compulsory basis, and seek to expand the program so that all schools – even independent schools – are covered.
  4. Press for the Minister of Education, the churches, and the Australian Education Union to agree to the implementation of a general religious education curriculum across primary and secondary school, as part of the National Curriculum if possible.

My preferred option is the final one. As a citizen and as an Anglican, I support the ideal of a general religious education, in the context of social and historical studies, an ideal that can best be achieved at school under the guidance of professional, fully trained teachers. Religious education will never be without controversy, for religion is concerned with our deepest beliefs, some of our most inexplicable behaviours, and our sense of communal and individual identity. Yet I have every faith in our school teachers at primary and secondary level, in the government, Catholic and independent sectors, to do the job well. Frankly, if teachers, whatever their personal views, can teach Australian history, the subject of culture wars and intense division in relation to the colonisation of the continent and the character of our nation, they can teach religion.

I believe we can take the negative energy of the current debate about ACCESS Ministries, and turn it to a positive end. Few in our schools, churches and community realise that in the last five years an unprecedented opportunity has emerged. For the first time since the rancorous debates of the 1860s and 1870s over the very introduction of compulsory education, in fact, for the first time in the history of this state, there is a growing community consensus for the provision of non-sectarian, multi-faith religious education in Victorian schools. I am broad-minded enough to hope such a curriculum might actually include the study of secularism, athiesm and the rejection of religious belief as a significant part of our history and society.

Even the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union, which has historically been in favour of preserving the secular character of state schools, now advocates a program general religious education. At a resolution passed in May this year asking the Minister of Education to remove ACCESS Ministries from state schools, the AEU branch council nevertheless affirmed that:

Victoria is a multicultural society, which is reflected in the student population in our government schools. It is important, as part of a comprehensive curriculum, that students gain an understanding and knowledge of the role religion has played throughout our history and its influence on human society. As such, the AEU does support teaching about religions from a cultural and historical perspective, by qualified teachers, as part of an accredited curriculum program approved by the VCAA.

Most significantly, the most recent revision of the Education Act created a legislative framework for the provision of general religious education by professional teachers at section 2.2.10.4, a provision which did not previously exist. No longer do Anglicans need to pass motions in synod, nor must we press for a Royal Commission or a referendum or even a simple amendment to the Act. The legislative provision sought by Anglicans in this state ever since the 1860s now exists. This is what Lynne Kosky, the then Minister of Education, told Parliament in relation to this provision when introducing the present Act into Parliament in February 2006:

In a democratic and diverse society such as Australia, there is a widely held view that schools should enable their students to understand the religious perspectives, beliefs and cultural understandings of the people who constitute the society in which they live. This will inevitably involve an exploration of various religious beliefs. This does not mean that teachers can promote a particular religious view, but that they can discuss and explore different religious perspectives as part of delivering the Victorian curriculum.

The barriers have all been removed, and all that remains is for the churches to advocate for reform, in the institutions like ACCESS that we ourselves created, and in partnership with government and teachers.

It is time, at last, to seize this opportunity and implement the recommendations the Russell Committee handed down in 1974, allowing school teachers to teach an agreed program of religious education. Special Religious Instruction has served us for over a century as best as such a system ever could, whether in regular school hours or outside them, and we should be grateful to the Council for Christian Education in Schools, now ACCESS Ministries, for the herculean, ecumenical efforts that have ensured at least some religious content found its way into state schools. It may prove that RI continues to have a role alongside general religious education.

But let us not hang on to the past and the ways which have become ingrained, and in so doing, fail to grasp the extraordinary opportunity we now have. Yes, Christianity and the Christian scriptures’ view of God would be set alongside those of many other faiths, but I have every confidence in the capacity of my God and my church to stand up to scrutiny and comparison, and confidence in the value of a robust and diverse education to shape inquiring, discerning minds.

Let us instead imagine a world in which religion was seen as a mainstream, legitimate topic, not something that belonged on the margins, in which beliefs and spiritualities were taken seriously by teachers and students and were not an optional extra, a world in which faith was no longer relegated to thirty minutes a week.

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Time to take a stand

Last week I received several email copies of a letter calling on Australia’s federal Parliament to reject legislation that would permit same sex marriage. The authors, the ‘Ad Hoc Committee for the Preservation of Marriage’, are seeking the support of the major Christian churches in Australia, on the reasonable grounds that without vigorous and well-argued opposition, moves to introduce same-sex marriage are likely to succeed in Australia sooner rather than later. It was suggested that I might like to provide some feedback to various Anglican leaders and groups. Having sponsored an unsuccessful Melbourne Synod motion on the topic in 2009 I was not initially inclined to say anything.

Three issues, however, have struck me about the controversy this letter represents. First is the surprising inconsistency of much theological examination of marriage, especially in light of the church’s changing history in relationship to the appraisal, regulation and promotion of marriage itself from Jacob, Leah and Rachel to the Reformation of clerical marriage. I find myself frustrated with the assumptions made in the defence of heterosexual monogamy as God’s plan for humanity. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the claim that the sexual union of one male person and one female person in the context of a voluntary, lifelong commitment represents the triune nature of God’s own being, Three Persons in One God. I’ll leave you to figure out what’s odd about this.

Second is the gradual evolution away from the vapid discourse ‘heterosexual marriage is the foundation of human society and without it all will be lost’ to the far more engaging question of children. This is a good thing; weak generalisations benefit no-one. Today’s opponents of same-sex marriage point on the one hand to the natural order of procreation (for humans), requiring a man and a woman, and on the other hand to a concept of marriage that must be inextricably tied to child-bearing and child-rearing rather than to romantic love or companionship alone. These are conversations worth having, and I admit to being more conservative than many of my friends on the topic of marriage and children. If I could have my way and ignore the needs and passions of others, I would probably recommend that we promote marriage as an institution only for people while they are raising young children (including single parents), and invent other forms of relationship recognition for everyone else.

Third is, of course, my own personal stake in all this, which is not unrelated to the first two issues. To use postmodern terminology, I have ‘been in a relationship with my partner’ for almost 18 years. Although it’s insanely complicated, I am assured that there is sufficient legislation in place to protect our ‘rights’ in relation to medical treatment, superannuation benefits, wills, and so forth. There are cultural similarities to the wedded state; when we moved in together (another bit of postmodern terminology) my father took my partner aside as his own father-in-law had done in 1970, and told him to be sure I got my sleep.

I can attest that we have no desire or intention to bear chidren – though if my work circumstances were different I would consider fostering children. I can also attest, at least on my part, that I have no desire to walk down the aisle of St Paul’s Cathedral wearing white to the tune of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March. After so many years, the only reason to hold a wedding ceremony would seem to be for the presents, and we have too many possessions already.

To get married now, or even to take advantage of a civil partnership arrangement were one made available, seems a bit like Charles and Camilla getting married. There’s no way they are ever going to have children, everyone knows they’re an item, and they certainly don’t need presents.

Hmm.

And so we come back to the human desire to give and receive love, to grow old in companionship with one another in community. If marriage is primarily about the rearing of children, then why do we marry people who are beyond child-bearing age? If human society is to be modelled on the inner life of the Triune God, why do we continually advocate the codependency of the two over the communion of the three? If Christians really do teach that the deepest of human relationships is that of heterosexual monogamous marriage based on sexual union, placing sex-for-reproduction at the heart of the human vocation, who is responsible for our unhealthy obsession with sex?

If same-sex marriage becomes possible in Australia (and it seems likely) I will be happy to celebrate with my friends. In the meantime, I would be grateful if my bishop did not sign this letter, though I would understand if he thought he had to do so. All I seek from the church are the proud and open smiles from my fellow Christians that say, your relationship is a sign of God’s grace to all humankind. This blessing means a great deal more than a registry office ceremony.

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