Government compromises Christian school culture

It has been reported that the Victorian Labor Party has introduced a bill into Parliament that would require religious groups to prove that conforming with the beliefs and doctrines of their religion is a necessary requirement for employment.

Legal questions aside and assuming that this wouldn’t apply to leadership, chaplains or religious educators, would this change have any impact on most Anglican Schools apart from impinging on their perceived sense of liberty?

For Anglican Schools that conceive themselves as covenantal enclosures, taking very seriously the hiring of only Christian teachers and staff, and are even selective about students, it will bite. If you wish to create an effective plausibility structure for the Christian faith in a school, it has to be strong. This means being uncompromising about the beliefs of those employed.

But what about Anglican Schools that have a more relaxed attitude to the hiring of non-Christian teachers or who accept the reality that it can be hard to find excellent Christian teachers. Would these laws make a difference?

Ink in water isolated on white background. Rainbow of colors

Firstly, I think it would be hard for anyone to make a case against most Anglican Schools that a religious test for the employment of staff is enforced. You only have to look at the composition of many schools to realise that the majority of teachers are nominally Christian at best. In the modest amount that has been written about Anglican Schools in Australia this perceived problem has been stated time and again.

Anglican Schools might like the idea of employing only Christian teachers, maybe even see the sense in it, but by and large they can’t bring themselves to do it. There are number of reasons for this. Supply seems to be one problem. I have spoken with a number of Christian teachers over the years who don’t see Anglican Schools as their ‘mission field’. They want to work in a State School. Alternatively, some teachers don’t see Anglican Schools as Christian enough, choosing to work in an Independent Christian School.

Another problem is that Anglican Schools have a brand that is based very much on excellence in education.  Therefore teachers with better qualifications are often given the job over those who are Christian. Again in conversation with Anglicans who are teachers I have been told a number of times that they were overlooked for interviews at an Anglican School.

openness is part of our DNA

Most significantly, for many Anglicans, the idea of openness is part of our DNA. Our history has produced this: trying to hold opposing ends together and not leave anyone out. We also have a historic link with the Church of England, a state church, which saw itself as being for everyone. This openness means that many Anglicans are opposed to the idea of excluding people from their schools, students or staff, because they don’t have the same faith them.

But, despite our desire to be open to all, Anglicans also see that schools serve an important purpose. Part of that purpose is to share our worldview and vision of humanity: to proclaim the message of Jesus about the kingdom of God.

There are a number of direct ways Anglican Schools try to achieve this. These include through teaching religious and Christian education, through chapel and worship services, by engaging students in community service activities and through chaplaincy.

all these things create an immersive culture

But there is another strategy Anglican Schools use: socialisation. Socialisation includes the activities listed above but also adds a myriad of things that build a distinctive Christian ethos or culture. Some examples of this are the words and actions of leaders, rituals, stories, regular rhythms of prayer, the importance placed on particular ideas, values and activities, and teachers who role model the Christian faith and mentor students. All these things create an immersive culture that intends to make the Christian worldview and way of being both plausible and attractive. The intention to socialise students into Christianity in this way is often discussed quite obliquely. Anglicans tend to talk more about formation and community and less about socialisation or enculturation.

Much has been written by Bishops and leaders and those working in Anglican Schools about the necessity of Christian teachers and staff in creating this Christian community or culture. If you are to create a Christian ethos within the school there needs to be a core of teachers and staff who are active, engaged and energetic Christians.

Ink in water isolated on white background. Rainbow of colors

The question is: how large does that core need to be to have a discernible impact on the school culture and consequently the students.

I can’t answer the first part of the question. Probably the more Christian teachers you have the more Christian the culture will be. But it isn’t that simple when it come to the influence it has on students. Unfortunately, there is little evidence from the research that the culture or ethos of a Christian school no matter how strong has any significant positive impact on the faith of students. It would appear it is more significant that there are a high number of Christian or religiously active students in the school.

No doubt this is a gross oversimplification of the research but it still stands that little evidence exists of a strong influence of school culture on student faith once family and other variables are factored in.

Christian teachers, role modelling the Christian faith

But…and this is a very big but…

Individual Christian teachers, role modelling the Christian faith, mentoring their students, and building a culture in the classroom where there is a freedom to ask questions about faith and explore spirituality? This may make a world of difference. On this count Anglican Schools should have the freedom to employ Christian teachers if they choose for no other reason than that they are Christian.

But I think Anglicans have something much more powerful to offer by being very open in who we employ and welcome into our schools. We can offer a model of how to get along and work together despite having all kinds of differences. We can show how to dialogue with those we disagree with. We can demonstrate what generous hospitality looks like. We can show that tribalism and borders are not the solution to our perceived problems and that diversity can be embraced.

We aren’t there yet but maybe if we worry less about who is in and out we might be one step closer.

Stephen has a passion for exploring mission and ministry. He has worked for the Anglican Church for the last twenty years mostly in the area of youth and children’s ministry. In this time he has worked for two churches, two Anglican schools, as a university chaplain and for the Brisbane Diocese as the Youth, Children’s and Families Officer. Currently he is the Director of Mission for the Anglican Schools Commission. He has degrees in Science, Theology, Community Welfare, Education and has completed a Doctorate in Ministry, focused on the church’s mission in Anglican schools.

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