Category Archives: Politics and Religion

Is the Pope Catholic?


Christopher Lascelles, Pontifex Maximus: A short history of the popes, Crux Publishing 2017.

404 pages

ISBN 9781909979468

E-book $AU 8.99


Years ago, while teaching French, I showed my Year 9 students some slides of the Popes’ Palace at Avignon. ‘This,’ I declared, ‘was where the Popes lived when there was more than one Pope.’

Two girls, my best students, were aghast. ‘But the Pope must live in Rome,’ they said. I


Le Palais des papes, Avignon. Image courtesy tourisme-avignon

knew that these students were Roman Catholics, so I suggested they should check the story out with the nuns that visited the school. Next lesson, they returned with an ‘official’ list of Popes, and were intrigued that this list did show that Clement V, Innocent VI, John XXII and Urban V, all ‘proper’ Popes established their Curia in Avignon.

Rome has good reason to police papal history. The papacy has been a fallible institution, and Rome would prefer an official list that presents the story that God was working through sinful men.


Christopher Lascelles

Christopher Lascelles’ new book, Pontifex Maximus, is not the story that Rome prefers. Lascelles is the author of A Short History of the World, and in both books, he gives evidence-based history. The style is journalistic and accessible, but it is not flattering to the papacy.

Popes are shown to be quarrelsome, ambitious and self-serving. Some rode at the head of papal armies. Some sponsored their children and nephews into rich positions as Cardinals or Archbishops. Some, like Pius XI (1922-1939), supported Mussolini. Lascelles shows how Pius was even implicated in the rounding up of Jews, naively believing Mussolini was a good Catholic because he had promised favourable treatment for the Church. Once trapped into the deal, he continued to believe that the advantages to the Church outweighed the evils of Italian Fascism.

Lascelles rightly makes the Gospel of Jesus the standard by which he judges Popes. He identifies three only that lived the Gospel and had the opportunity to reform the Church – Gregory I the Great being the prime example. Gregory refused to accept the title of Universal Bishop, and exemplified Christian values as he saved Rome from a series of disasters.

He believes that the new Pope Francis may also serve the Gospel well.

There were times when I felt that Lascelles was unduly critical. For example, he criticises the political power that Innocent III (1198-1216) amassed for himself, without showing the good for the Gospel that he also achieved.

Overall, this is an entertaining and informative run-through of the history of the papacy. I considered myself reasonably well-informed and learned many new things in the reading. Above all, Lascelles makes the story of the papacy interesting.

It is clearly written for a general audience, for readers who would rather not be fobbed off by pious propaganda. I doubt there would be teachers brave enough to set it as a text in Catholic schools or tertiary institutions, but it would be a rich resource for senior students.

In all, to cram so much history into such an accessible book is a praiseworthy achievement.



The Bussells & Molloys and the local Wardandi people

The Bussells, Molloys
and the difficult relationship with local Noongars

I salute John Bussell and Georgiana Molloy as the founders of our church. When they landed at Cape Leeuwin in 1830 and camped on the beach, Georgiana Molloy and John Bussell made a commitment to meet every Sunday afternoon for Evening Prayer. John Bussell and John and Georgiana Molloy, as far as we know, met every Sunday for worship while they were in Augusta, when they moved to the Vasse in 1834, and when Bussell married the widow Charlotte Cookworthy in 1838 and brought his bride back to Australia. Charlotte was excommunicated from the Plymouth Brethren when she married John, and her three children were kidnapped to join them on the Montreal back to Western Australia.

The worship continued when St Mary’s was built in 1845, and so until today. We celebrate 186 years of continuous Sunday worship. That’s quite an achievement in Australia, and a credit to the Bussells and the Molloys.

On October 4, we celebrate St Francis of Assisi. We remember St Francis, firstly for his love of Jesus, and then for his love of creation. For him, every creature carried its own story from God. Jesus was the Word of God, with a capital ‘W’. Every animal, every plant, was a little Word of God.

Georgiana Molloy committed to worship because of her strong personal faith. She had been influenced by the revival in Scotland and had arrived in Western Australia as an enthusiastic Christian.


Georgiana Molloy

Life turned out to be hard and it tested her faith.

She sent plant seeds and specimens from Busselton back to England to the botanist Captain James Mangles. Plants were her passion that comforted her in her difficult life. She had to put up with the arduous conditions of being a settler, her eldest daughter dying at birth, and her son drowned in a well at 19 months. Her husband John was resident magistrate and he often spent time away from home. Plants became a solace for her. She thanked God for them as part of creation. In her diaries she deepens and develops her theology of plants and creation.

John Bussell had a slightly different take on faith. He had trained for ordination in England but his father died before he could be ordained, and migration to the Swan River seemed an excellent idea for the family. Bussell saw establishing a farm in the colony as a missionary activity. In his mind, the aborigines were uncivilised and living in poverty because of that.  His farm would grow food and provide employment for the aborigines. They could be labourers on his farm and he would turn them into English Christian men.

In 2016, we can be critical of this idea of mission, but in 1830 Bussell’s ideas were praiseworthy and mainstream.

It’s hard for us now to imagine how difficult it was to settle this colony. It may have been an adventure, but the Bussells and Molloys were often hungry, often on the edge of exhaustion, just on the edge of surviving, or not surviving.

So the local Wardandi people, the Noongars, became a complication for the incomers. The Noongars probably had a better idea of what the Bussells and the Molloys were experiencing than the Bussells and Molloys had of the aborigines.


Goomal – Western Ringtail Possum

The Noongars had a very different idea of animals. They lived in nature alongside yongar, the kangaroo, goomal, the possum and all the other native animals. The yongar, the goomal and  yorrn, the bobtail, were there to feed them, so they hunted and killed and ate, but they respected the animals, and limited how many they could take. Where I grew up in Tambellup, the yorrn had a special value; it was a kind of tribal totem.

The animals and the people lived in the land, and the land was the natural system that held it all together and sustained the people. The land didn’t belong to people. We know now that Noongars believe people belong to the land.

In John Bussell’s mindset, the Governor of the colony had granted him Cattle Chosen, so he, John Bussell was the rightful owner of the land, responsible to develop it along with all the other colonisers, so that the whole Colony could grow and prosper.

But the Noongars’ different beliefs meant there were clashes. The fact that the Noongars roamed the land at will meant they didn’t respect the property of the Bussells. They would turn up at the house – not meaning any harm – but frightening anyone who came upon them suddenly. Because this happened, the Bussells and the Molloys were even more on edge. We could compare their emotional state to suddenly coming upon a dugite at our back step.


John Garrett Bussell

The white men needed the yongar to supplement their diet, and hunted them. The Noongars would take cattle, usually taking one cow for one kangaroo killed by the white fellas. The Bussells reacted, on two occasions at least, by shooting several Noongars. Something similar happened at Wonnerup as well after George Layman was speared. His grave, as well as the Bussells’ graves are outside St Mary’s. There are no Noongar graves.

The Noongars were dumbfounded at these reactions. It’s easy with hindsight to see what an over-reaction murdering seven people was, and then another seven, ‘with more women and children than the first time,’ as Mrs Bussell wrote home.

For me, it is important to remember these things about the people who founded our church. They were people of their time. They were frightened and on the edge, but their intentions were to build the community of Christ. They didn’t set out to be evil.

What we haven’t done, I don’t think, is to acknowledge the actions of our ancestors. Noongars today regard this history as unhealed, unreconciled. One aspect of mission I would like to see at St Mary’s is reaching out to local Noongars in a spirit of confession and conciliation.



Survivors in Common


first published in TableAUS, July-August 2016

I was scared when three Aboriginal kids asked me to come with them to the bush just outside the Tambellup school yard. It wasn’t the bush near the Tambellup (W.A.) school in 1957 that was scary. The sandy soil did not produce many tall trees. Instead there were thickets of parrot bush among degraded mallee. The spiny-leafed parrot bush was quite good at attracting small birds like endemic honeyeaters and exotic flycatchers. The sand teemed with ants and beetles and the greatest fright might arise from coming suddenly upon a bobtail or a snake.

The Aboriginal kids made their approach to me with a mixture of aggression and conspiracy. I was eight years old. I didn’t like doing what the teacher had told us not to but I was intrigued by the Aboriginal kids. They lived in tents on the town reserve or in humpies on our farm and they had darker skin than mine. They had a great sense of fun but they also smelled of danger. From my parents I sensed strong ambivalence as to whether or not I should have them as playmates.

On this cool sunny day, I just wanted to know why they had approached me. As Playtime always seemed to go on for ever we slipped over the fence with no concern about time, and the four of us trekked about 50 yards into the bush out of sight of school buildings.

Though as a farm kid I was accustomed to the outdoors, I sensed that the Aboriginal kids were more at home here than I was. They stood around me in a little circle and began to tell me a strange story. It was about their grandparents, they said. I thought of my adored Nan and Grandad snug in their little cottage in town. Their grandparents, they assured me, had run away from some nasty people. They had hidden behind trees, and still some of them fell down. Some of them swum across the river. They were very brave. They lost the fight but we remember them. I wondered if it was a bit like Anzac Day, but I didn’t have time to ask, because the piece of railway line which served as the school bell was being struck and it rang out calling us back to class. We scrambled to be back in line before the teacher noticed we had left school grounds.

This story stayed deep in my memory. I dreamed of tall white gums and my Nan and Grandad running with the local Noongars and swimming in our local river and holding their breath where there were branches under the water. I woke up holding my breath with the images strong in my mind’s eye.

The story was revived about three years later. Again I was beguiled into leaving the school grounds. This time I understood a little more because the Headmaster often asked me to help the Aboriginal kids with their sums and stories. I could remember times table and grammar and they forgot from one day to the next. I always took them out of class to help them with their school work, and I noticed how they relaxed once they were no longer imprisoned by the cream walls and the ceiling of the classroom. Outside was their place.

So when they asked me to come with them to a place out of school, I was intrigued and went more willingly with them into the bush than I had the first time. I noticed again that they were more comfortable among the parrot bush and lizards and insects than I was. This was their country. They told me the same story. The guns of the nasty people shooting at their grandparents. The bravery of their old people running away, hiding where they could. Some of the women and children in the river hiding in the reeds under the water breathing through reeds and watching the water turn red with blood. The courage of the warriors throwing their spears and killing sticks. The screaming of the white men’s terrified horses, and panic erupting when one of the wedulahs was killed. It seemed that the old people had won this battle if only because the story was passed on.

There were strong images in my dreams after this. A brown river running red with blood, the red flow surrounding me. The screams. Then the silence underwater, and the breathing through reeds, and the difficulties of breathing as fear and nature conspired to reduce the efficiency of the straw snorkels. The cracks of fire from modified muskets and pistols. The acrid smells of cordite, gunpowder and burning. The horses rearing and screaming, their riders clinging to their halters and necks.

Thus planted in my dreams I lived this story frequently in my teenage years.

I heard it told again when I was teaching at Brookton Junior High School 120 kilometres north of my home-town. On a friend’s farm, three or four of my Aboriginal students, Year 6 boys, took me aside – outside – and told me the same story with the same pride. The narrative was a little clearer to my adult ears, and so was the urgency for me to understand and share the story.

This was an Aboriginal story, a Noongar story, that I had been given three times with pride and energy. I was told that I had permission to pass it on to others, encouraged, in fact, to share it.

Years later I read the academics’ account of the Pinjarra massacre. In 1834 – I had thought the events must have taken place in 1934 because of the immediacy of the story I heard outside the school yard in 1957 and 1959 – Governor James Stirling led a detachment of 25 heavily armed soldiers, policemen and settlers against 80 Noongars, Pinjarup people. There was ill-feeling between the settlers and the Pinjarup people, who had stolen some of their cattle and damaged their crops. The settlers were constantly moving the indigenous people on, and out of the most fertile areas.

Governor Stirling, in an effort of good-will had started to issue a ration of flour to the indigenous people. Stirling had then returned to England. Calyute and other Aborigines believed that this food supply was their right. They went straight to the source and took half a ton (about 450 kg) of flour from the South Perth flour mill and carried it all the way to Mandurah 42 miles (68 km) away. Calyute, Gummol, Yeydong and others were captured and brought back to Fremantle for punishment in a cart loaned by Thomas Peel. Calyute, Gummol and Yeydong were flogged.

Blaming Peel for this humiliation, Calyute decided to attack Peel, and stole a horse to draw Peel away from his Mandurah house. But Peel sent two men, Hugh Nesbitt and Edward Barron, instead. These men were attacked. Nesbitt was killed and Barron wounded and escaped to report the incident.

On Governor Stirling’s return from England, he decided to help Peel and his efforts to open up settlement around modern-day Pinjarra 12 miles (20 km) further on by offering military protection and if possible finding Nesbitt’s killer.

Stirling set out with his force of 25 men, each armed with a modified Brown Bess musket or a pistol or maybe a new Baker rifle and with a good supply of ammunition. Early on the morning of October 28 in 1834 they made contact with a group of Aborigines, but were unable to establish whether these were Calyute and his associates. No-one is sure who started the fighting. Some say the Aboriginal warriors let loose a volley of spears. Others say Captain Ellis fired. In any case, the Governor’s men, with their superior weapons killed 30 or more – or fewer – of the Pinjarup people.


Used by permission of the artist

One of the witnesses of the carnage was the colonial chaplain, the Reverend John Wittenoom, who watched from horseback a little apart from the mêlée. He apparently approved the killing.

I recognised this story as the story I had been told so often that I had lived and breathed it. I had turned and stood my ground with the Noongar warriors. I had run till my heart could not beat so fast, then held my breath under the water of the Murray River with the women and children, and I had held my head high as a survivor of the massacre.

I am a wadjelah. Just another whitefella. It was my great-grandparents who were protecting their cattle and possessions from Noongars. I should have no part in this story except shame. But this story had been bequeathed to me by the Noongars as a gift.

This event is correctly described as a massacre. Archbishop Peter Carnley addressing a packed St George’s Cathedral in Perth about this event called it the ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. He kept calling it the ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. Every time he used the word ‘Battle’ there was a hiss in the congregation. I was perplexed. Who would dare hiss the Archbishop on this sensitive subject? ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. ‘Hiss’. ‘Battle of Pinjarra.’ ‘Hiss’. The hissing took me back to my dreams, and the frightening images of blood spreading through water, spears and bullets targeting the soft vulnerability of human flesh, the gasping for the breath of life hidden among the reeds.

Then I realised that it wasn’t a hiss. People were saying a word. They were all saying ‘Massacre’.

Archbishop, ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. Around the Cathedral, ‘Massacre’. Archbishop, ‘Battle of Pinjarra’. Around the Cathedral, ‘Massacre.’ They were not dissing His Grace; they were correcting the Archbishop’s designation of the slaughter of the Pinjarup Aborigines.

I looked more closely. It happened that the people who were saying ‘massacre’ were all people I knew quite well. They were all West Australian born and bred. They had all grown up in the bush. This could not be coincidence, so I made a point of asking as many as I could find afterwards firstly, if they had been saying the word ‘massacre’, and secondly, if they had heard the story as children. ‘Oh yes,’ they said, ‘Aboriginal kids made a point of taking us into the bush and telling us.’

Rob from Narrogin in Balardong country; Peter from the Perth Hills in Whadjup; John down in Bibulmen country at Bridgetown; as well as Bill from Pinjarra, and me from Koreng country – from all over Noongar Boodjar, wadjelas, we whitefellas had been seeded with this story.

As I’ve reflected on this extraordinary story-sharing, I’ve come to realise what a generous act of reconciliation this has been.  Noongar people had invited us into the story, into its horror and into its pride, so that we become not only the descendants of murderers, but fellow-survivors as well. The Massacre of Pinjarra is also a story of the old people of all of us and our common history in this land.

Education, education, education! What the kids who join IS need to know

First published on the Starts at 60 website.


Kids join Islamic State (ISIS) because they are hungry for a passion. In the grey world created for them by their adults, they want something exciting to believe in, some dramatic good they can achieve, something great they can create, a cause to give their whole life to. Of course they do. They are adolescents.

And they are also ignorant.

Teenagers these days know so many things, and they can Google what they don’t know, but we have failed them dismally in teaching them about religion and about the religions expressed in cultures around the world. For various reasons, we have been afraid to have any religion taught in schools, and yet this is the very learning area that would prevent the radicalisation of young people.

I mean, of course, religion taught well, and taught by competent teachers. This is so urgent as to be the fourth ‘R’ of the 21st Century: young people need to know about religion alongside reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.

They need to know why billions have embraced religion and found that religion provides wisdom, comfort and direction for their lives. They need to know what motivated Mother Theresa of Calcutta, and what produced the luscious religious art of the Renaissance. In a word, they need to know something of the passion, commitment and engagement in life that religion brings to many people.

They also need to know why millions reject religion. Religion is not just passion. It’s not just a response of the heart. It requires thought and discernment as well. Agnostics have reasons for questioning, and atheists have reasons for believing that religions have got it wrong, and students need to grapple with those reasons and see if they too are convinced.

It’s our fault that our young people don’t know about religion, don’t know its complexities, don’t know how rule of law, democracy, and science all came about through the work of devout Jews, Christians and Muslims, and how the modern world could not have come into existence without religion.

They have not been introduced to the proposition that morality, morality like reverence for life, arises from the pages of the scriptures of the great religions.

It’s our fault as a community. Rectifying that error will not be easy. When he was Minister for Education forty years ago, Kim Beazley Senior proposed a National Curriculum with nine Learning Areas, one of which was Religion. He foresaw that Religion needs firstly to be taken seriously as a curriculum area.

Countries such as Denmark that seem to be doing better in embracing minorities, including Muslims, are currently strengthening their ‘identity-carrying subjects’ such as history and Christian studies. Australia will get a similar result through serious teaching about all religions.

Politicians, principals and academics should publicly champion the teaching of Religion Studies as a national priority.

The Year 11 and 12 courses that now exist like ‘Religion and Life’ in WA need boosting into greater visibility in order to create a bigger demand.

We need to identify competent teachers to mentor other teachers who, though highly trained in other areas, feel inadequate to teach religion. There are such master teachers, particularly in church schools and in professional associations like the Australian Association for Religious Education.

Universities should review teacher training programs to make sure that they prepare teachers thoroughly to teach Religion. Sadly, the Universities I know have dropped successful courses because administrators have been indifferent. That should change!

The aim should be to make the teaching and learning of Religion as engaging and fascinating as religion – and the debates about it – are.

Schools need to make sure that there is sensible space in the time-table for Religion. Students cannot take seriously a subject that is allowed only 45 minutes a week. Imagine if Science or Maths had only one period in a week! ISIS has had runaway success in meeting its educational aims. As a community we can do better than ISIS.

In other words, our community needs a plan to end the ignorance by creating and nurturing a new, a ninth, Learning Area. Every student who sees through the extremism of ISIS because she learns that Islam is something different altogether is a treasure saved for Australia.

Ted Witham is Immediate Past President of the Australian Association for Religious Education and a retired Religious Educator.

Tags and Ayrabs: Welcoming the stranger

In hindsight, I can see that I didn’t take the graffiti on the church seriously enough. I certainly remember seeing it when I arrived last Thursday to collect the gear for a bedside communion. I even remember thinking how sad it is that our society values its young people so little that they feel compelled to do things which annoy adults. Like graffiti. Like tags. This was a tag, and tags seem to function the same way as ‘dares’ did when I was a kid.

At boarding school, just for an example, we had a dare to run naked after lights out from the dormitory to Matron’s lemon tree and back. The object of the mission was to collect a lemon: this proved that you had not cheated on the dare but had carried it out to the full. Tagging a lemon had a lot in common with writing a tag on a public wall. Firstly, it had the thrill of avoiding being caught. If you are caught tagging, you will be punished quite severely. But on the other hand, it’s hard to catch a good tagger, so the odds are good and the thrill level is high. In reality, when we did our run from dorm to Matron’s tree, most adults would probably have gone out of their way to not catch us!

Secondly tagging leaves a mark in the public adult world. Whether the mark is the place where the lemon was picked, or the signature graffiti of the tagger, it’s proof that you were there, desperately seeking to be noticed.

I did pass some pleasant time reflecting on these things as I drove to the hospital. When I came back I stopped and examined the tag more closely. It was quite a simple tag, but beautifully executed. It was calligraphy on a large scale, perhaps 40 cms high and 60 cm in width. The upstrokes were uniformly thin; the downstrokes straight and thick. The letters, whatever they were, and I couldn’t read them, were beautifully stylised. I wondered what implement had been used. This tag was not the work of a hastily pointed paint-spray. This tag was done by one who took time to choose the best tools and to care about artistry.

The truth is, it didn’t even cross my mind to report this tag. I knew it should eventually be erased from the front porch of the church, but I thought a Warden or some other official would discover it in good time and have it removed.

Surprise becoming anger

So on Sunday I was surprised that the erased tag was the main conversation as the congregation shook the hand of the celebrating priest. Surprised that people could live such sheltered lives as to be so offended by minor vandalism. After all, there are tags everywhere you go – on bus shelters, advertising hoardings, freeway flyovers – you would have to be really stuck at home in an upper-class suburb not to see them. Well, actually, many of our parishioners do live in the upper-class suburb where the church is situated, and many of them do not need to venture out of their garden suburb.

Even so, had I missed something? Was this tag outside the church such a desecration that I should have been outraged on Thursday?

But my surprise that some parishioners had mistaken the tag for Arabic and then drawn the conclusion that ‘the terrorists are here’ soon turned to anger.

Politicians and media

My anger is directed towards those who succeeded so amply in creating fear. I am angry at the media who fail to report terrorism in its proper perspective: they know better. I am angry at the politicians who exploit fear for political ends. The Labor Party could never have won with Mark Latham as candidate for Prime Minister when people are frightened. No new Opposition leader could ever have won while Howard painted himself as our rescuer from terrorism, our continuity, our sure-point in the storm.

But the storm, as the media knows well, is a falsification of reality. No doubt terrorists are dangerous people. No doubt terrorists are attacking ‘the West’ including West Australians. But there is also no doubt that the risk of being hurt by a terrorist is tiny.

The risk of being killed in a car accident in Western Australia is at least 100 times greater than West Australians being killed anywhere in the world by terrorists. But do we allow the risk of death by car to whip us into a frenzy of fear? No: we keep driving. Some of us drive with caution, but all of us drive knowing that however careful our driving there is still a chance that a drunk, inexperienced, inattentive or suicidal driver will drive straight through the flimsy walls of our vehicle.  We drive even knowing that there are some car accidents which are just accidents and nothing could prevent them.

Our attitude to the road toll has been formed in a very different way to our attitude to terrorists. Our fear of terrorism is out of all rational proportion to our fear of dying in our cars.

Essentially, our fear of terrorists is our very deep fear of people who are different: the Other. We fear the Arab whose language looks so different, whose culture appears so strange, whose mindset seems so alien. This fear is familiar to all of us. It seems natural to fear strangers, and so we do.

The problem with fearing of strangers is that it is unproductive. Fear of strangers leads to creating defences against them and their strange ways. The step from being defensive to pushing strangers away is very small. The media has a ravenous appetite for drama, so it exploits our tendency to deride and exclude strangers.

The media focuses on images of difference. The media presented straightforward images of the Bali bombers. The ‘smiling bomber’ with his white hat and robe shouting “God is great!” in Arabic found his way into every TV and newspaper in Australia. Every aspect of this image screamed “difference!”

The UK press showed a subtler image of difference when presenting the London bombers. These were home-grown bombers who looked like many Britishers, so their difference was highlighted by questions about how we (society, the police, the security agencies) failed to notice their differences… and they must have been different to hold values that would lead them to commit atrocities.

The repetition of these images that focus on differences in the Other, in the stranger, makes it almost impossible to respond appropriately to the phenomenon of terror. It may sound shocking to suggest but the place to look for understanding is not ‘out there’ in the stranger, but within ourselves.

What is it about us that compels others to want to inflict pain on us? Phrasing the question this way allows us to discern to what extent we have engaged St Paul’s advice that “in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) The little word “all” challenges us to see every person as a fellow human being, equally valued by God. even Ayrabs.

Hospitality to others is the gospel value so easily missed in a world of fear. Hospitality to teenagers in the shape of tolerance of their need to ‘tag’ public spaces. Hospitality to refugees who come fleeing oppressive regimes in the shape of more humane processes for refugees as they arrive. Hospitality to Muslims in the form of initiating or joining inter-faith conversations. Hospitality to our neighbours – and this is hard – by making space for their fears. Hospitality to ourselves in welcoming the stranger inside ourselves, those unknown parts that can blind ourselves to the reality of God’s love – everywhere. Hospitality to our fellow-Christians in our relentless reminders that we can let go of our xenophobia. Christ has broken down the barriers!

Published in the Anglican Messenger, February 2006

The Australian Constitution Encourages State Aid for Church Schools!

 Published in Journal of Christian Education, 2001, 44.2, 41-44

 by Ted Witham

 When we lived in America our two toddlers were confronted one day by a senior North Carolina citizen who demanded “Don’t you mind your parents?”  She was obviously perplexed by these wild foreign children who had no idea of obedience and their parents who had no clue about parenting.

But our children were dumbstruck. They had no choice about minding their parents.  We were just there.  At that moment, they needed a translator to say that the lady is asking whether you obey your parents. The lady needed a translator to explain that the children think you asked whether they tolerate their parents.

All travellers know that a word in a different context can mean something quite different.  ‘Mind’ is different in North Carolina than in Australia.  I want to show that the balance between public and private education in Australia arises from a unique context. Lessons learnt in America in particular cannot be translated directly into Australia.

I believe most Christians commend the place of public schools.  A community building a “Knowledge Nation” can achieve quality in education only through its public schools.  Public schools must be supported first to establish a benchmark of quality. Private schools, including church schools, can provide an education of high quality only if first the general education system is of high quality. Christians devise good reasons to educate the rich, in order to help produce compassionate leaders for our society. They have an even greater obligation to ensure the access of the poorest children in our community to good quality education.

The argument around State aid to church schools still persists. Should the Government fund church schools?  At a pragmatic level the answer is quite clearly ‘yes’.  The private school system would collapse if all funding were withdrawn. The Government would then have no way of maintaining education for the 30% of Australian children who now attend private schools (Bond 2001, pp. 8-10)

But the more important question is, “Is it right for community funds to be funnelled into church schools?”

In the late 1970s the Council for the Defence of Government Schools (DOGS) attempted to challenge the constitutionality of funding church schools in the High Court.  Their argument was based on Section 116[1] of the Australian Constitution that prohibits the “establishment” of religion (Ely 1981, p. 1 et passim).  They argued that giving funds to churches was illegal because it “established religion”.

To prove this case DOGS pointed out that Section 116 is identical to the Religious Liberty clause in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.  The writers of the Australian Constitution deliberately adopted that set of words (Bale 2001, pp. 12-15). In court, DOGS argued that in America it had been ruled unconstitutional to grant funds to church schools; therefore the same must hold here.

Surely, however, the context is so different that this argument does not pertain.  Section 116 establishes a freedom both from the Government interfering in the organisational running of religious institutions, and also a freedom to practise religion in whatever way a citizen chooses.

These freedoms mean different things in America and in Australia.  America was colonised by religious groups fleeing from oppressive governments, in which religion was “established”. The King of England was the head of the Church of England. The French monarch was a Catholic king.

These persecuted groups brought a variety of convictions about church-state relationships to North America with them. The liberty they found in their colonies encouraged each group to organise their religion and their community according to their differing beliefs.  Some saw an opportunity to set up the Kingdom of God on earth: church and state were synonymous. Others, smarting from persecution, desired no connection between church and state: the state was inherently godless.

Much early internal migration within colonial America was caused by conflicts on this issue. Only later, the First Amendment articulated a compromise to satisfy the different theologies of the Christian groups who founded America.  The First Amendment guaranteeing freedom from State interference was then a novelty.  No European government had ever envisioned separation of the two. Freedom to practise whatever religion a citizen chose was equally protected.  The Amendment was a compromise between fiercely, passionately religious groups (Haynes & Thomas 1998, Chapter 3).

Australia’s situation contrasted totally. Australia’s colonisers were largely convicts. The “established” government of England had punished them by deportation to the new colony, with all the oppressive might of the established government intact. Harsh administration of law and order by Anglican priests doubling as magistrates in Sydney Cove fomented the convicts’ resentment against the established church.

As the nation developed it feared that “establishment” by this oppressive established church was a real possibility in the new order, and so resisted it successfully.

This Australian climate is clearly very different from America’s. Australia’s disposition was (and to some extent still is) anti-religion.  Australian is not characterised by tension between passionate Christian groups. The way Australians favour the non-religious would be unthinkable in America. In thinking about schooling, the Australian climate requires the Christian citizen to consider the education of all citizens and not simply that of Christians.

In the nineteenth century, the church involved itself in education in Australia.  However, education offered by the churches was always open to all and based on literacy and numeracy, reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, with religious values kept in the background.

This contrasts with the “little red schoolhouse” in nineteenth century America.  Whole communities working together across denominational lines, with intentionally secular structures, developed community schools in the nineteenth century that were predominantly Christian in temper and content.

The little red schoolhouse was very different to the school run by Ministers’ wives in nineteenth century Australia.  Similar ingredients in both countries combined differently to create dissimilar outcomes.

In the late 1800s, the larger Protestant denominations in Australia began founding their own schools.  The founders of these larger schools saw themselves as Christians providing education, rather than Christian educators providing Christian education.  They were meeting a lack in the community, rather than forming Christian children in their faith.

There are still arguments, debates to be had about the funding, and level of funding of church schools, but I rebut the assertion that Section 116 of the Constitution prohibits funding private schools.

Even authors agreeing with politicians who in the 1890s advocated the abolition of state aid demonstrate that the motivation was not “by any desire to persecute the Roman Catholic church or any other church, but rather the determination to make the State … the symbol of common citizenship.” (Gregory, quoted in Birrell 2001, p. 64).

The American Amendment is a different word in a different context.  In the US, these words may well ban the State from spending money on religious education, but in Australia, they challenge the community to spend its money on all students.


Bale, C. (2001), Federation and the Churches. St Mark’s Review, Canberra, 2001(2), No.185, 12-15.

Birrell, B (2001), Federation: The Secret Story, Sydney: Duffy and Snellgrove.

Bond, S. (2001), Australian Schools: Growth in the Non-Government Sector, Pointers: Bulletin of the Christian Research Association, Melbourne, March 2001. Vol. 11(1) 8-10.

Ely, M.J. (1981) Erosion of the Judicial Process: An Aspect of Church-State Entanglement in Australia, Melbourne: Council for the Defence of Government Schools.

Haynes, C.C. & Thomas, O. (Eds.) (1998), Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Education, Nashville: The First Amendment Center.


[1] Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act

116. The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing religion, or for imposing any religious observance, of for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.