It’s an interesting experience; being a temporary minor media personality. The sermon immediately below in this blog was picked up by The Sunday Age, a Melbourne-based broadsheet, and turned into an article with the rather disarming title “Priest urges end to ‘forced’ religious education”. I had been contacted by Jill Stark from The Sunday Age, who had read my sermon, and having realized that she had some pretty basic facts incorrect, I decided that it was better to speak to her than not. As always, what comes out in print is never exactly what you would have written yourself . . .
Nonetheless, although I was initially annoyed by the newspaper report, as time has passed I find myself much less so. I think that there are two reasons for this. First, because of the quite astonishing level of support for what I said both on this blog and in the newspaper. Apart from one rather intemperate phone call from someone involved at the senior level in Access and one pretty mild rebuking email from a person in Warragul, the response has been exclusively positive. I have also turned down several requests for interviews with radio and television. Perhaps it was flattering to be asked, but Geraldine Grainger on The Vicar of Dibley learnt her lesson on clergy in the media the hard way, and I had no intention of repeating her mistake.
Second, having discussed this issue so many times, I find myself even surer of the need for change than I was when I preached my sermon. I think, therefore, that there are two further points I would now like to offer in this debate.
The first point is that Access has backed itself into a corner, and needs to find a way out before the way is found for them. I have been struck – perhaps even a little astonished – at the level of community anger towards Access, even from many of those who teach its programmes. I think that some in Access have been living in a bubble, believing that reform is being urged exclusively at the behest of the radical atheist lobby. This is, manifestly, not the case. Both the general community and very many members of churches are equally of the view that change is necessary. In my view, Access needs now to ask the State Government to conduct a review of religious education in schools. I think it important that Access asks for this, before the review is called in spite of them. In the former case they will be in a position to advocate their cause, perhaps to save some face, and perhaps to reinvent themselves. In the second case, I suspect there can only be one outcome.
My second point is an expansion of my view that General Religious Education is the best way forward in schools. I believe that should such a system be implemented in place of the present one, teachers of GRE should be encouraged wherever possible to seek out practitioners from various local religious groups, so that students can meet them, and have the opportunity to discuss and encounter what people actually believe, rather than a set of abstract principles. I would love, for example, to be asked into my local school once a year to put the case for why a socially progressive catholic form of Anglicanism is worth the effort. With the younger children, I might simply want to make sure that they understood that religion can be fun!
The debate over the provision of religious education in Victorian schools is not going to go away. It is time that Access and the churches themselves actively asked the government not to back the status quo, but to look again at what our children are offered, and at how we might make that offer better.
25 May 2011