What do “Anglicans” want from Anglican Schools?

…and does the question even matter?

In 1991 a report was published in the Diocese of Brisbane titled “A rationale for Diocesan involvement in education – meeting the educational needs of Anglican families”. My guess is that this report wouldn’t be written today for the very reason that there are so few regular church attending Anglican families in most Anglican Schools. Certainly, like the census, many families may say they are Anglican and have some residual link to the Anglican Church but they are not Anglican in terms of belonging to or participating in a local congregation. I think in most Anglican Schools the percentage of families who are active members of an Anglican Church would be in the single digits. The low single digits.

How does this reality change the answer to the question: How can we meet the educational needs of Anglican families? Or even: How can we meet the educational needs of Christian families? Here again I mean Christian in the sense of actively belonging to a church and participating in its life.  I fear this number may also be in the single digits in most Anglican Schools.

The anecdotal evidence is that in many Anglican Schools church-belonging Christians are a very tiny minority. There may even be fewer church-belonging Christians in many Anglican Schools than in the local State School.

While I don’t have any statistical evidence for this it might be expected that a state school would be somewhat representative of religious denominations across Australia for the simple reason that it is the default educational option for people who cannot or choose not to pay for private education. Where Catholic, Independent Christian and other denominational schools exist near an Anglican example it is likely that the church-belonging members of those denominations will attend their own schools if they can afford it. On the other hand in some places, anecdotally, church-attending Anglicans will send their children to Catholic, Lutheran or other independent Christian schools because their schools fees may be cheaper and their children will still get a religious school experience.

Potentially this means that Anglican Schools are somewhat lacking in church attending Christians of other denominations as well as their own. I would love to see some real statistics on this. It is possible I am way off the mark but experience and anecdotal evidence tells me I am not. There are statistics with something to offer.

The anecdotal evidence is that in many Anglican Schools church-belonging Christians are a very tiny minority.

In 2001, whilst 50% of church attenders on any given week were Catholic, Anglicans represented only 12%. Keeping in mind that only roughly 8% of Australians go to church this means something like 1% of the population are church-belonging Anglicans. With this in mind how many students with a real connection to the local church might be expected to be found in an Anglican School?

At this point I hear some chaplains howl, “But the school is their church! The school is their parish!” I have some sympathy with this idea except for the concept of choice.  I wonder how many students would choose to participate in the religious elements of the school if they were given a choice. Certainly some schools have developed congregations within and through the school and I think this is an excellent missional strategy.

The reality is that Anglican Schools are full of, for want of a better word, secular students. It isn’t that chaplains or others in leadership in the school don’t know this truth. However, I suspect in some ways, Anglican Schools continue to act unconsciously like they exist in a time when the majority of students were assumed to be Christian. In many other ways chaplains, religious educators and others with a missional focus seek to communicate clearly with secular students. But it just might be  time to embrace the reality before us and re-imagine what the Christian mission of Anglican Schools should look like.

This school isn’t a Christian school in the sense that it is for Christians. It is a Christian school in the sense that it is seeking to live out God’s mission in the world.

My feeling is that too often we try to be nurturing and church-like for Christian students and at the same time be sensitive and evangelistic to secular students. This dual focus is problematic and at times the two strategies conflict with each other.

Two stories serve to illustrate.

I was standing behind some parents at a school speech night when the school prayer and a Christian song was sung. I heard the father say in reference to his primary-aged son who loved school worship, “We tell him it is all rubbish”.

It’s a stark example.  If we really want to evangelise effectively, then how are we taking parents into account in the current missional strategy of schools? It might be great that primary students love religious education and worship but in the context of a family that believes it is all rubbish what are we doing? Of course I realise we will never get everyone ‘on side’ but I wonder about effective ways to address this?

Another student once told me that he was leaving his Anglican School. He said it wasn’t Christian enough. I asked him what he meant in light of worship and RE and the many other things the school did to reflect the Christian ethos. He told me it was the other students. They weren’t Christian or at least there weren’t enough of them. His family was looking for a safe Christian school filled with Christian students. This isn’t what most Anglican Schools are. As a post script to this story the student never left. The intended Christian school turned out to be not academic enough, or so he told me.

What if the question we asked was: How can we meet the educational needs of secular families?

Can we nurture Christian students and evangelise secular ones at the same time? It is possible with the right strategies in place but at the level of things like religious education and school chapel I wonder if it is very effective. For example, I wonder what the impact is of making secular students sing hymns and Christian songs in chapel? I have heard the argument that we make them study maths and English therefore this is just another thing they have no choice about. The difference here is that maths and English are mostly publicly agreed truth. Students don’t go home and have their parents say that English is not true or rubbish and they shouldn’t believe what the teacher tells them. Students won’t say in future years they shoved maths down my throat. They are more likely to say they forced us to sing hymns or they shoved religion down our throat.

Don’t get me wrong, I have seen schools where students are very enthusiastic about singing. I just wonder what it is we are trying to achieve with chapel and religious education. I wonder if how we do those things reflects what we are trying to achieve.

If Anglican Schools are full of secular students who are potentially ambivalent about Christianity how might this shape and change our mission actions?

What if Anglican Schools (and more particularly the Anglican Church and Anglicans) gave up the idea that Anglican Schools are there for Anglican Students or even Christian students?

What if Anglican Schools decided that their Christian mission would be solidly focused on secular students and how to communicate the gospel effectively with them?

What if Anglican Schools said this to Christian parents: our main focus is on secular students and this shapes what we do. This school isn’t a Christian school in the sense that it is for Christians. It is a Christian school in the sense that it is seeking to live out God’s mission in the world.

What if the question we asked was: How can we meet the educational needs of secular families?

And, given those questions, how might we effectively do mission with them in the school context?

Would this change what we are doing today?

Maybe it is time to re-imagine the Christian mission of Anglican schools.

Stephen Harrison Written by:

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.


  1. Marcus
    February 3, 2016

    I know they may ‘only’ be in single figures, but what about those truly Anglican kids? My concern is that mission focus is often convincing those who haven’t chosen the path instead of encouraging those who have.

    • Stephen Harrison
      February 4, 2016


      Thanks for the comment. I would never want to imply that those who are committed aren’t important even if they are ‘only’ single figures. I guess my point is that often these young people are a minority in the school. It makes it more difficult for the school to speak to them in a way that might build them up while at the same time speaking to those that have no commitment. I don’t think this can be done at the chapel/RE level. I do though think that the chaplain or other staff could do many things to nurture these students in another context, like a lunch time group or after school group. Indeed I think these young people need extra support and encouragement.

  2. Anne Barker
    February 3, 2016

    Hi Stephen,
    I’m almost weeping with relief that you have broached this subject. Thank You…..yes yes yes long time overdue. I am a committed Anglican (even though at times I wish I wasn’t ), and we were fortunate enough to be able to send our two boys to […] School . The reason we choose this school (we had to move to […] for this opportunity) was because I thought it would be a beautiful thing for them to be “immersed” in the Anglican tradition and the love of God. (I was a complete innocent and I can hear you sniggering with cynicism !) Well, I can tell you I very quickly realised that God wasn’t to be found at that school …it was very much lip service…especially the pastoral care. They got great teaching and opportunities…..but no God. The school lived “in the world” but “not of the world”. I was very disappointed with the .Christian teaching….the poor old Chaplin , he did what he was told to do, but honestly it was crap. In fact my boys were turned off Church, which broke my heart because it was such a regular part of our family life. The best thing to come out of their schooling at this school, was that my oldest son met his wife to be there (and she and her family are very devout Anglicans) …so Thank God for that, but that was just ‘luck ‘. As to my youngest son…he is pretty much alienated from the church! But I do want to thank you and congratulate you on your article…you aRe 100% correct and I would love love love to see this issue addressed. Sincere thanks anne

    • Stephen Harrison
      February 4, 2016

      Thank you for your comment. Forgive me for removing the name of the school I think it would be best to keep it anonymous. It is sad that your boys had this experience. In my experience the majority of Anglican Schools, their Heads, chaplains and others involved in ministry do their very best to create a caring Christian environment. Some schools do this better than others. I do think it is hard to Anglican Schools to be the school that committed Anglican and other Christians might want. Of course there are many issues in this. I would say though that today most Anglican Schools are far more intentional about their Christian mission than in previous times but they also do it in a more apathetic or hostile environment..

  3. Ruth Edwards
    February 23, 2016

    A great article Stephen. I am only surprised that you still need to argue this point: as you say those in leadership in schools certainly do know it.

    It is, of course, a point I make in my book, Challenge and Choice: we need to run the schools in view of the reality that their inhabitants are not only not Christian, but usually completely unchurched and unaware of Christian beliefs. In other words, we need to educate students and families about what that means through both teaching and modelling. A good sermon will both nurture and evangelise, and in a similar way a school culture can meet the needs of both church-belonging families and secular families. Chapel, RE and moralising which assumes a Christian worldview simply makes no sense to most of the families, and leads to disengagement at best and accusations of hypocrisy at worst and has too often resulted in the sad experience described by Anne.

    • Stephen Harrison
      February 24, 2016

      Ruth – it does feel strange to be arguing this point – i guess I feel that the reality isn’t being enacted in the shape of mission yet.

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