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School chaplains and pink batts

  • 23 May 2011

This month’s Federal Budget provided $222 million to maintain the National School Chaplaincy Program for a further four years. Chaplaincy funding has proved to be one of the more controversial inclusions in this year’s Budget. That is because many state school parents don’t want their children exposed to religious proselytising, and no not trust chaplains not to proselytise.

Their skepticism was vindicated recently with the revelation that the group Access Ministries has been using the program for proselytising, contrary to the its Guidelines and Code of Conduct. The Fairfax press reported that Access Ministries CEO Dr Evonne Paddison told participants at a 2008 Anglican conference that the program was a ‘God-given opportunity’ to evangelise, and that they needed to use it ‘to go and make disciples’.

It is clear that Dr Paddison was encouraging conference participants to ignore item 9 in the Code of Conduct that chaplains are required to sign. Item 9 stipulates that ‘a chaplain should not take advantage of his or her privileged position to proselytise for [his or her own] denomination or religious belief’.

However those who conceived the program must take some responsibility for abuses that occur because their default position – expressed in the program guidelines – is that the chaplain must be a minister of religion, or at least a person who believes they have a religious calling. 

At least in the context of Christianity, many ministers of religion understand that their role is precisely to proselytise, in the spirit of Jesus’ command to ‘proclaim the Gospel to all nations’. It is a minority of ministers who would have the training and the disposition necessary to exercise the degree of impartiality required for a chaplain’s role in a state school. 

Moreover it is unlikely that the majority would be sympathetic with the principles of modern missiology, which has the immediate aim of building understanding between different faiths and cultures, rather than winning converts. Such wisdom has much to offer institutions such as state schools, which recognise and celebrate a diversity of faiths. But the program’s guidelines are very vague and do not allude to such principles at all, thereby leaving room for fundamentalist approaches to religion.  

While at first glance the 25 page Guidelines booklet may in fact seem comprehensive, it contains only one paragraph specifying what the program is and what the chaplains are required to do.

‘It is a voluntary Program that assists schools and their communities