Tag Archives: religion

Religion and the Curriculum

I have just discovered this article of mine was picked up by the Curriculum and Leadership Journal as a leader in 2005! Some of the details, therefore, maybe a little out of date, but the thrust of the article still stands.

Religion and the curriculum Curriculum & Leadership Journal, Volume 3, Issue 7, Front page, 24 March 2005

Ted Witham [Then] President, Australian Association for Religious Education Inc. (AARE)

In each of the States of Australia, the school curriculum rests on a list of eight learning areas. These lists are remarkably similar, with only a few phrases separating one from another. That they are so similar is no coincidence: they all derive from the list set forward in the mid-eighties as the basis of the hoped-for National Curriculum. They are similar, but there is no doubt that they are arbitrary. The number is arbitrary: why not five? Why not sixteen as proposed by the liberal theorist Philip Phenix in the sixties? Why not three? Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic? Why eight? Why these particular eight? There seems to be no common criterion for inclusion.

Take the case of English, for example. What is this learning area: literature or linguistics? English as a subject has been at different times everything from grammar to history, from textual studies to character education. (Reid 1996) No one doubts that English will remain in some form on the school curriculum. At the very least, business and universities stipulate that students coming to them are able to read and write well enough for commerce and to produce intelligible university essays. But English is hardly a coherent discipline. Students who have enjoyed English or English literature as a Year 12 subject will be unable to find English listed as a course offering at most universities. They will have to make do with Textual Studies or Communication.

Equally puzzling to some is the exclusion of Religion from this list. I am referring to the critical study of religion as a way of knowing the world, rather than the confessional religious education taught in all States (except South Australia) by visiting representatives of faith communities. It’s not difficult to justify religion’s inclusion in a rounded education, especially in a post 9/11 world in which it has become clearer how vital it is to understand the faith and motivations of people next door or around the globe.

To exclude the study of religion is in fact to censor a child’s education: how can they otherwise understand Australia’s Muslim neighbours in Indonesia, or come to grips with mediaeval theocracies in Europe from which modern democracies derive? What sense can they make of condemned bombers who are overjoyed because of their zeal for God?


The study of religion is a powerful instrument for exploring one’s own developing values and beliefs. When taught well, religion places at the student’s disposal the amazing wisdom of Taoist sages, Zen Buddhists, Jewish ethicists, Christian and Muslim mystics, scholars and theologians of all faiths and none.

In addition, a pragmatic justification for including religion arises from the teaching of values. The curriculum of each State, in a variety of ways, mandates the inclusion of values in both the content of the classroom and the processes of school administration. Many educators, including Professor Brian Hill*, argue strongly that values make no sense to students without a critical exploration of their origins. Students may learn that the taboo against sex before marriage is a value held by their elders. But unless they see the original purpose of the taboo as promoting the positive benefits of marriage, the value is simply a nonsense, and unlikely to affect their choices and behaviour. The result is apparent.

In a more general way, the values promoted by state curriculum documents derive from the Judaeo-Christian tradition. It is dishonest not to hold up the Christian and Jewish contexts in which the values originated, so that students can evaluate them for themselves, and then make informed choices in their lives.

Religion’s place in the curriculum

You may concede that religion needs to be included in a full education, because of its pervasiveness in human society and its role in creating the values of a fair and open democratic society, and yet see no need to add a ninth learning area to the curriculum. Can’t all these things be covered in Society and the Environment? Those promoting a greater inclusion of religion in the school curriculum need to convince the community both that religion has a place in a public school curriculum, and also that it should be a separate learning area. (The argument has obviously been won in most faith-based schools.)

With the liberal theorists of the sixties, I would argue that religion is a distinct way of describing the world, a distinct field of knowledge. Its use of symbol and myth to give meaning to individuals’ and communities’ lives, and its use of ritual to help people interact with fundamental realities are unlike any other discipline. The coalition government’s policies are blurring the boundaries between public and private schools and thus between those who have and those who have not included religion as a learning area. Its search for national standards will create pressure to kick-start again the idea of a national curriculum as it makes little sense to require assessment national tests separate from the full educational cycle of outcomes, pedagogy and assessment. This blurring of school types and federal and state responsibilities provides a moment of opportunity to re-examine the completeness of the education we offer to Australia’s school students, and the place of religion studies in it.

* For example in papers presented in 2004 to the Conferences of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), and the Australian Curriculum Studies Association. 


Hill, Brian V. (1991), Values education in Australian schools, Hawthorn, Vic: ACER.

Hill, Brian, V. (2004), Exploring Religion in School: a national priority, Adelaide, SA: Open Book.

Nord, Warren and Haynes, Charles (1998), Taking religion seriously across the curriculum, Nashville: First Amendment Center.

Phenix, Philip H. (1964) Realms of Meaning, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Reid, Ian (1996), ‘Whatever Happened to English?’, Chapter 6 in Higher Education or Education for Hire? Language and Values in Australian Universities, Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press, pp 97–112.


The Absolute Urgency of Religious Education

The [North American] Religious Education Association took for the theme of its 2013 Conference, “Coming Out Religiously”: Religion, the Public Sphere, and Religious Identity Formation. As a member, I received my invitation, but the cost of travel from Australia, both financial and physical, was too great. So I am grateful to read some of the papers from the Conference in the current issue of the Association’s journal.

There was evidently a rich exchange between Diane Moore and Charles Foster; Diane Moore from the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School is acutely conscious of the need for citizens to become religiously literate. She takes as an aspirational point the American Academy of Religion’s definition:

… a religiously literate person will possess 1) a basic understanding of the history, central texts (where applicable), beliefs,

Diane L Moore

practices and contemporary manifestations of several of the world’s religious traditions as they arose out of and continue to be shaped by particular social, historical and cultural contexts; and 2) the ability to discern and explore the religious dimensions of political, social and cultural expressions across time and place.


The more global citizens who can understand the cultural context of the world’s religions, she argues, the more violence – direct, structural and cultural – can be reduced.

  • Quoted in Diane L. Moore, ‘Overcoming Religious Illiteracy’, Religious Education, 109(4) July-September 2014, 380

Charles Foster was keen to add to Dr Moore’s analysis. Not only do we need to learn from religions, we also need to be changed by our encounter with the sacred. As participants in religious traditions, we can live at greater depth, and we can be informed by the wisdom of our own and others’ religious traditions.


The ability to identify and compare religious traditions in other words, is not the same thing as recognizing in depth – or being confronted by – the sacred dimension of the mystery embedded in their practices. …


Charles R Foster

Religious education in this instance emphasizes the learning integral “to becoming” practicing participants in a religion’s traditions. Others among us are engaged in what might be called a religious education to draw on the wisdom and practices of their own religious traditions to participate competently in the mutuality of dialogue and critique with those of another religious education tradition. Still others among us join Diane Moore in a religious education in the public square to cultivate in persons capacities for discerning and analysing the role and place of religion in society.

  • Charles R. Foster, ‘An Abbreviated Response to Diane Moore,’ Religious Education, 109(4) July- September 2014, 391 and 392.

Both Professor Foster and Dr Moore encourage me in my vocation as a religious educator. Just because I am technically retired does not give me a leave pass to stop teaching, or to cease writing. These issues are too important to leave alone.

Why bother with religion?

Talk for the Naturaliste U3A Annual General Meeting introducing my 2014 course on World Religions.

Ted Witham, October 25, 2013

September 11, 2001 was a day on which many people thought the world would be better off without religion. My wife Rae and I were going to St David’s Church in Applecross at that time, and the priest there, Kay Goldsworthy (who later became the first woman bishop in the Anglican Church in Australia) invited the whole Applecross community to a service of reflection on the Sunday afternoon following.


The church was packed. I had not seen so many people crammed into the pews for many years. It seems that we human beings on one hand want to get rid of religion, and on the other hand we can’t do without it.


We hear noisy atheists like Richard Dawkins claiming that it is child abuse to bring up children in a particular faith. We hear informed and respectful atheists like Phillip Adams on ABC radio making a more reasoned case against religion. But people still flock to hear the Dalai Lama. There are still more people in church on a Sunday morning in Australia than there are at all AFL games on a weekend – though I fear that may change soon.


I believe passionately that we need to understand religion if we are to understand what’s going in the world. I’m not sure whether we are in a good position in Australia to understand. While two-thirds of us ticked “Christian” as our religion in the last census, we would have to concede that for many of us that’s a heritage statement. We’re Christian in the same way that we are European. It doesn’t affect our daily lives very much anymore. We’re actually Australians. And as Australians, we’ve never been strong on religion. Many of our forebears came to Australia as convicts or free settlers, and not from the church-going classes. The attempts to force convicts in Sydney and Van Diemen’s Land to compulsory church parades probably made anti-church feelings worse.


At the absolute height of our church-going in the nineteen-fifties, maybe nearly 50% of Australians went to church every month. Now it’s down to between 6 and 10% depending on which survey you believe.


But to understand the US, we need to understand their enthusiasm for religion; how, for example, in a country that appears on the surface to be like ours, people murder doctors who perform abortions. We have strong contrary views about abortion, but not murderous ones. Those views can only be explained in terms of American Christianity.


Some Muslims say they want to establish a caliphate from Malaysia across the Philippines and Indonesia and the top of Australia. You’ve seen the scary maps. But do all one billion Muslims want this? Is this what the Qur’an teaches?


Up to one in six of the families in the Perth suburbs of Murdoch and Winthrop are of Chinese origin. Our second biggest trade partner – and growing – is China. Taoism teaches a certain way of bettering oneself, to become a noble, by being natural and harmonious, it’s called wu wei. It includes the “Three Jewels” of compassion, moderation and humility… and getting ahead by education. This strand of Chinese religion is very helpful in understanding how they think and relate to others.


The civil war in Syria and the ongoing conflict in Iraq is between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Australia has accepted 500 refugees from the Syrian conflict. We ought to know more about them than just the bare fact that they are Muslims.


There’s a propaganda war being fought between the hard-line Saudis who spend huge amounts of oil money to promote their Wahhabi view of Islam. They build mosques in India and pay Imams’ wages around the world. Al-Qaeda came out of Wahhabi Islam. On the other hand the government of Qatar funds the English-language news channel Al-Jazeera. Their aim is to challenge the spin of both Arab and Western governments as an expression of their faith.


Or propaganda closer to home is the Malaysian court last week upholding a government ban on non-Muslims using the word “Allah” for God. This ignores nearly 2,000 years of usage by Arab Christians, Jews and Hindus and probably 1600 years of usage by Indonesian and Malay Christians. “No,” the ruling Muslims proclaim, “the word belongs to us, and if you use it, you will serve a prison term.” Interesting times.


The course that I offer next year will run for just 1 hour a week for 12 weeks. This will be time only to scratch the surface, even if we restricted ourselves to the most populous religions, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and traditional Chinese religion. What I propose is to take one aspect, holiness, and discover with you what it means in eight or nine religious groups to experience holiness. We may find in the end that the idea of holiness turns out to be too Christian and western to do justice to some of the other religions, but it will give us place to stand and explore and not be overwhelmed, because otherwise there is so much to know.


Each week I will talk or show a video for 20 or 30 minutes and then allow you to discuss the ideas that have been raised. I will aim to be respectful but not uncritical of people’s beliefs, including my own. I am a convinced Christian, but this group is not an exercise to persuade you of any particular belief or idea – it’s an opportunity to help us be better informed and understand a little better complex and important happenings in our world.


Midwifing the Faith

First published on the Patheos website.

“Passing on the Faith” as a phrase evokes different images: for some passing the treasure of faith is like runners in a relay passing the baton to their successor; for others, it evokes a teacher standing before a group of learners and explaining Christian faith to them.
I started my working life as a school-teacher, and the image of a teacher and a class has been dominant for my ministry. I was never happier than in front of a class of a children, or teaching ministry students.
But all the teaching activity in the world doesn’t add up to “passing on the faith”. In the contemporary church teaching is not up to the exciting task of the church making our Lord known and loved by succeeding generations.
The National Church Life Survey of 27 denominations found in Australia in 2001 that average congregations had between 60 and 70 people , and in the US one-fifth of adults who attend worship services told the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life that they attend a “small congregation with a membership of less than 100.”
This means that the vast majority of congregations are “small congregations”. Fewer members mean fewer resources for teaching. In Australia, more so than in the United States, “younger generations are missing” from attendance at these small churches.
The limitations of overall numbers and the absence of children indicate the stark reality that passing the faith by teaching is failing. And yet, God is not about to desert God’s church. The task of passing on the faith will continue. What this vital activity needs is a better image with the power to change the way congregations do things.
Internationally-respected scholar of social learning theory Etienne Wenger  originated the term ‘community of practice’. Wenger asserts that a community can be defined by the things that it does and by passing on its practice by a combination of talking about it and allowing new members of the community to gradually take up the practices under some form of mentorship.
Apprentice butchers learn their trade this way. They watch the journeymen butchers, get caught up in their talk about butchering, and, moving upward from passing the boss a knife to cutting up a carcass, they gradually gain in competence. In traditional villages midwives select young girls to succeed them. The girls run messages for the midwife, watch her bring the village babies in the world, hear them talk with other midwives about their tasks, and slowly begin to take on more complex tasks until they are ready to deliver babies themselves.
Communities of butchers and midwives have a shared way of doing their defining tasks, and they pass on their common practices by inviting new members to learn by doing and talking about what they are doing.
Christians accustomed to see faith primarily in terms of right belief may need to re-shape their theology of church. The church as a community of practice has a theological focus on vocation, that is, the call of Holy Spirit on our lives to love God and neighbor spotlighting what we do in the name of Christ. God calls us to pass on this active faith, so we talk about what we are called to do and invite new members – new adults or children of current members – to gradually take up small tasks of ministry.
Two things become vital:

° the quality of the congregation’s conversation, and

° the understanding that discipleship is expressed in service to the poor, in loving the unloved.

Congregational leaders invite people into formal and informal conversations about living the faith, from sermons to coffee hour. They are intentional in mentoring new members. They put into words their enthusiasm for the tasks of ministry and invite these ‘new Christians’ to undertake small acts of service, and gradually allow them to develop their own practice.
For example, the manager of the church’s charity shop or food ministry first invites a new member to undertake a few hours’ serving the needy, all the time talking about how it is an expression of faith. As the months pass, this new member may be called to give more time or shoulder more responsibility in the ministry. She will become an enmeshed part of the ‘community of practice’, and be filled with the desire to pass on the faith in the way she received it.
***   ***   ***
Ted Witham is a retired priest of the Anglican Church of Australia who has taught Religious Education to children and to adults preparing for ministry or teaching. He studied at Duke University in North Carolina under John H. Westerhoff III. He is Immediate Past President and a Life Member of the Australian Association for Religious Education, and a member of the North American Religious Education Association.

Important new book on faith education

Richard Robert Osmer and Friedrich Schweitzer, Religious Education between Modernization and Globalization: New Perspectives on the United States and Germany (Studies in Practical Theology), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009. From $18.00 from online suppliers

SUMMARY –Reviews and reflections to follow…

This book is probably the most important book on faith education that I have read in two decades. I plan to firstly summarise it here, and in the coming weeks to write reviews for my colleagues in congregations and schools.

It explores the trends in Religious Education in the US and in Germany during the 20th Century and outlines some of the challenges Religious Education will face in the 21st Century. It defines Religious Education as broadly as possible. Religious Education includes the passing on of faith from one generation to the next, but is more than that. It includes congregational programs, but it is more than that. It takes place in schools, but its scope is wider than that. It is both intentional and a side-product of other faith activity. It is specifically Christian Education but is broader than that.

Importantly for the comparative descriptions in this book, Religious Education is at least both a congregational practice and a subject studied in State and church schools.

Richard Osmer is an educator who understands Religious Education in the round. Rather than pick up one strand of the Religious Education story, he elects to study the whole picture. This global approach is particularly useful when Christians are often either hammering away at congregational programs even though children have deserted many churches, or putting all their effort into school R.E. programs, even though students are turning off the subject.

I am impressed with Professor Osmer because he is brave enough to name dysfunctions in our approaches to faith education, and visionary enough to shed some light onto the path ahead.

Religious Education between Modernization and Globalization situates the practice and study of Religious Education both within the changing context of Practical Theology and wider philosophical trends. The study is particularly concerned with the effects modernisation had on Religious Education in the first half of the 20th Century and the move to globalisation in the second.

Modernisation is a process arising from the longer tradition of the enlightenment. It promotes independent thought and requires a greater dependence on empirical evidence. Its effect on education generally was to encourage teachers to foster more sceptical thinking; not to take things on trust and to question the word of authorities. Applied to Religious Education, modernisation invited Christians to move away from dependence on authority to more autonomous ways of thinking, which included the need to recognise the then new historical and critical approaches to scripture, and to find ways to enable Christians to think independently about their faith and the wider world.

Globalisation compresses the world into “a single place” (p. 61) and relativises different cultural patterns and beliefs. Globalisation inflates the importance of the economy at the expense of other exchanges. Globalisation goes alongside postmodernism, which denies the authority of a meta-narrative, a single comprehensive lens to consider the world and particular situations. For the postmodern thinker, there is no one answer to any problem or question. Postmodern people believe that in all cases, “it depends”.

Osmer and Schweitzer draw attention to the contradiction at the heart of postmodernism. It proclaims that every situation is contingent, that there is never one single approach – except insofar as that statement itself is an over-arching belief. In other words, postmodernism tries to believe that in every situation “it depends”, except in the belief that that relativism itself is always constant.

The authors divide the century into phases; in my opinion, not very clearly or convincingly. Effectively, the Second World War divides the century into two halves with very different outcomes for the US and for Germany.

Osmer and Schweitzer then summarise a key work of one Protestant Religious Educator in each country before and after the war. Friedrich Niebergall is described as a “liberal reformer” responding to modernity in Germany (p. 99 ff.) In the United States, George A. Coe also applied the insights of modernity to Religious Education. The effect of modernity on both writers was to turn the spotlight of modern thinking onto the Church itself, both to use the insights it brought to the practice of education and to provide a new framework for thinking about faith and religion.

The influential North American Religious Education Association was founded in the years after 1900 as a concerted response to modernity. It became identified with liberal thought around World War I and into the twenties. The fundamentalist movement, emphasising the evangelical fundamentals was in part a reaction to REA.

Religious Education, for example, picked up the insights which changed education from a teacher-centred activity to a child-centred activity. In Italy, and later Holland and India, Maria Montessori was one champion of child-centred education, both religious and general, and her influence could be placed alongside that of Coe and the liberal reformers in Germany.

In the US, this encouraged Religious Education to see itself more in terms of the way faith is appropriated, and in the post-war period, John H. Westerhoff III, the representative thinker summarised in the book, conceives of Religious Education primarily in the congregation. The audiences for Religious Education of self, family, schools and the wider community were pushed to the edge. In the US after World War II, Religious Education was pushed out of schools entirely.

Westerhoff’s reliance on his previous work in social anthropology emphasised the importance of formation, but for him, this was not at the expense of information and transformation. Incidentally, I studied with John Westerhoff from 1985-1987 and returned to Australia understanding that the task of Religious Education was strongly congregation-centred .

In Germany, by contrast, both the discovery of new ways of thinking about faith and the need after the War to educate a rising generation away from the destructive ideologies of the Nazis, the Religious Education effort was put mainly into schools. In Germany, Religious Education has been a compulsory subject in all State schools. Karl Ernst Nipkov and in particular his 1969 work Christliche Bildungstheorie und Schulpolitik trace these developments.

In the 20th Century, Osmer and Schweitzer argue, Religious Education became restricted to the contexts of congregation in the US and the State School in Germany. It also became restricted more and more to academic and professional specialists. The US witnessed the rise of a new professional in the congregation – the Director of Religious Education.

This book is a plea for to loosen these restrictions and to restore Religious Education both to ordinary people and to its other traditional audiences, in particular the family and the wider community.

Osmer reprises his earlier description from A Teachable Spirit (1990) of Religious Education as catechesis, exhortation and discernment. Families need to be more empowered to open to their children the world of faith, which is part of the work of catechesis. Particularly in the US where creationism is believed by a majority, stronger connections between catechesis and science should be forged. Individuals need the moral teaching of religious education in the process of identity formation, and exhortation is the pathway to healthy moral growth. Christians need to be able to “discern the signs of the times” and speak a constructive word from faith to the world.

The book critiques some of the strategies of the 20th Century. Small groups for example create intimacy with people like us, but offer few opportunities to explore the doctrines and creeds of people different from us (p. 246). Small groups do teach us to love one another, but not why we are Anglicans or Christians. Small groups also miss out on the missio Dei to “the wider human community” (p. 247).

The authors offer powerful arguments for the right of every child to receive Religious Education. “The right of children to a religious education rests upon their right to have some of their heartfelt inquiries about their world listened to with respect and responded to with care.” (p. 262) These questions include death and dying, self and identity, morality, religious pluralism and ideas of God. (pp. 262-265). The authors assert that only religion and its exploration can respond to these questions. (p. 266)

They suggest that all resources for Religious Education be written not only for academics but for ordinary Christians. Family ethics, ongoing religious and moral education in the home responding to teachable moments should be supported by good programs in the congregation.

The authors invite Religious Educators to expand their thinking beyond Christianity: for example, they believe the problems of globalisation can be explored in an interfaith context as Christians and Muslims together learn of the roles of the oikumene and the Umma. Discernment includes not only world events, but aesthetics. Christian engagement in the arts both as artists and critics is a contribution to society and is part of Christians’ educational activity.

This public education takes place not only in schools but through mass media and social media. My fellow-tertiary Paul Hawker, the current producer of the ABC TV program Compass is an important educator in the public sphere in Ausrtalia. Christians as individuals can learn to use social media (Facebook, Twitter and the media growing out from them) to bring that leaven of faith education to society.

Religious Education between Modernization and Globilization is a volume in a series of Studies in Practical Theology. It is both practical in providing ways of thinking and strategies for action in faith education, and theology in its analysis of the 20th Century church and the currents that shaped it.

Rugged and painful past

Cavan Brown, The Blackfellow’s Friend, Perth: Access Press, 1999.

Paperback 296 pages. (Approx $34 from online suppliers, or borrow through the public library system.

Reviewed by Ted Witham (re-posted for National Sorry Day).

Some years ago, I was at an ecumenical, outdoor service in a country town. To begin the service, a local Noongar elder welcomed us to his country, “where Noongars have roamed for tens of thousands of years.” The congregation (two-thirds “wadullahs” (white people)) listened with a stillness of respect.

When aboriginal formally welcome wadullahs to their country, the welcome is always an offer to receive a gift. The tone of the welcome is totally hospitable. “This is our land,” they say, “and we positively want to share it with you.”

Reading any story of aboriginal-white relations over the past 200 years makes me reflect how astoundingly generous and forgiving towards Europeans the aboriginal people have been.

Cavan Brown’s new biography of The Reverend John Gribble is a novelised account of the failed attempt by the Anglican Church to set up a mission for aborigines near Carnarvon in the 1880s. The story traces the fascinating, if somewhat depressing, events in which the passionate motivations of Gribble were crushed and terminated.

On his arrival in Carnarvon, Gribble held high hopes for his mission. He gave to the mission near the town the name of Galilee Baba, after the Sea of Galilee and the Ingarra word for water. His vision was to provide a place where aborigines could live in reasonable conditions, not in the dust and dirt of their camps, where the sick could be cared for, and where aborigines could learn to read and write.

Soon after his arrival, he travelled to the site of his remoter mission. As he travelled through station country, he observed the ways in which some station people treated aborigines: rounded up for work on the stations, imprisoned if they ran away, bound by the Masters and Servants Act, for which they could not have given informed consent. He observed sexual exploitation of aboriginal women, and degrees of cruelty towards all the aboriginal people there.

Being a man of high principle and precipitate action, Gribble complained loudly about these practices, both locally, and in the Perth newspapers.

The response came quickly and vigorously. Bishop Parry initially supported Gribble’s comments. However, pressure was brought to bear on Bishop Parry and the mission committee he chaired. Influential families and pastoral lease-holders joined in a condemnation of Gribble. Cavan Brown’s telling of the story reveals how the Diocese caved in to this pressure, believing that it was better to avoid dividing the small community than dealing with admitted injustices.

Because of his comments, Gribble was assaulted, and his complaints were dealt with slowly and inadequately. Gribble’s temper became more aroused. British justice could not even be meted out to him, a European. What hope did aborigines have?

Eventually, Gribble returned to NSW, bitter and defeated. The Bishops in the Eastern States continued to support him and his mission work with aborigines.

Cavan Brown explains in his Preface that he chose deliberately to write the story of Gribble in novel form, rather than as straight history. His purposes were twofold: to make a more readable story through reconstructing dialogue, and to bring to light the motivations of the various characters.

His imagined conversation between Bishop Parry and his Presbyterian friend, George Truscott, explores most sympathetically the dilemma into which the Bishop had fallen. The immediate threat to the Diocese came from pastoralists who would remove financial support for the Cathedral. This explains the immediate conflict into which Winthrop Hackett, Charles Harper and other prominent Anglicans placed him. However, the Bishop’s deeper intention in withdrawing support from Gribble appears to have been a long-term strategy. He hoped to win slowly and surely an understanding from the white establishment about the treatment of aboriginal people.

The title for Cavan Brown’s book, The Blackfellow’s Friend, may produce controversy today because of its lack of political correctness. The title is in fact taken from Gribble’s tombstone in Sydney, and was intended as a tribute for Gribble’s life work. But even in the 19th Century, a phrase like “Blackfellow’s Friend” was used by Gribble’s opponents as a way of insulting and belittling his positive disposition towards aborigines.

Equally controversial may be Brown’s attempts to write down aboriginal Creole. He has transcribed the sounds and untaught grammar of aboriginal speakers in a way that some readers may find offensive. On the whole, I think Brown has succeeded in achieving a balance between arousing cute contempt for the limited English spoken by aborigines and a sense of realism.

Cavan Brown, as a Baptist pastor, has not been so successful in describing the peculiarly Anglican world of Bishops, Deans and Archdeacons. Perhaps only Anglicans will notice that Bishop Parry’s responsibility for Western Australia is described several times as a “parish”, when it was, by definition, a Diocese. I doubt very much that Anglican clergy were addressed as “Rev.” in the 1800s. The English pattern was to call the ordained “Mister”, and use the full form, “Reverend” only in writing about a priest.

For non-Anglicans, these may be quibbles. They certainly do not destroy the vigour of the story telling, but they do betray, along with numerous typographical errors, hasty sub-editing, which does detract from the enjoyment of the book.

In sum, I recommend this book strongly. It is a courageous and enticing piece of historical story-telling that will open perspectives both on the legacy of Church matters and also on the rugged and painful history of the way whites have treated the original owners of Australia.

First published in The Anglican Messenger.

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

Scripture and the teaching of religion in schools

In its poll in 2000, the Gallup organisation found that two-thirds of the Australian population approved of the regular teaching of religion in schools. For parents of children of school age, this approval rises to over 7 in 10.

For the last century and more, the main vehicle of teaching religion in Government schools has been teachers from faith communities regularly visiting schools for a half hour class, commonly called “Scripture”.

This provision of religion teaching was virtually universal in all States except South Australia until the end of World War 2. In the past fifty years, “Scripture” has been dealt two body blows: in the nineteen fifties, the source of volunteer teachers shrank quickly as many women entered the work force. By the mid seventies, the number of children receiving religious instruction in this way hit an all-time low. In Western Australia for example, a commission appointed by the State Government reported that only 14% of primary school aged children received ‘Scripture’ in 1975.

By the end of the eighties, the churches had re-grouped and numbers of ‘Scripture’ teachers and students started to rise again.

However, in the eighties, curriculum reforms began to change the way children are socialised in class: more group work, less formality, more individually-tailored lessons. The volunteer pool of Scripture teachers has been hard put to match their pedagogy to the changed face of the class room.

So “Scripture” is again in decline. There are a number of reasons for this, including standards of training Scripture teachers, and schools whose curriculum already feels too crowded.

Many schools have welcomed the work of ‘Scripture’ teachers as much for their pastoral care of students as for their impact on the curriculum. Scripture teachers function as a benign presence of the wider community in the school. Many are seen as surrogate grandparents for the children.

The community and its schools are beginning to take note of these two needs: Children need pastoral care beyond what teachers are able to offer; and children more than ever need an exposure to the world of religion.

In many respects the rise of chaplaincies in Government schools in the past two decades is a response to school children’s pastoral care needs. There are 500 or more State school chaplains around Australia and while the majority of them are in High Schools, the demand for chaplains in Primary Schools is outstripping the ability of agencies to provide them.

Schools are in the midst of considerable change. Government funding policies and the assumed requirements of parents are blurring the distinctions between public and private schools, that is, between Government and (in the main) faith-related schools. In many of these private schools, Religion is a Learning Area that sits alongside the 8 Learning Areas mandated by the new State Curriculum frameworks.

The world also is in the midst of change, much of which is generated by the zeal of faith-inspired terrorists, and a growth of new conservative politicians proudly wearing their religious faith as an appeal to voters.

This is an urgent time for the wise, critical teaching of religion. For a start, children need to know that not all Christians are right wing in politics. For their own spiritual benefit, students need access to the world’s spiritual heritage: Taoist and Christian wisdom, Muslim and Jewish ethics, Buddhist and Hindu mindfulness of the world, and the treasury of saints of all religions and none.

Students need to understand our Muslim neighbours in Indonesia, and how modern secular democracies grew out of medieval theocracies.

Now is the time for a greater inclusion of religion in the curriculum of all schools, both in the natural places for it in the Social Sciences and English, but more especially in its own Learning Area.

This cannot happen in Government schools without changes in curriculum policies. It is heartening that there are revisions of Years 11 and 12 syllabuses around Australia which will encourage students to study some aspects of religion as tertiary entrance subjects.

For this to be taught well, the skills and knowledge of teachers will need to be reinforced, and teacher-training institutions are preparing to respond to this new need.

We owe our students a new depth of professionalism in opening to them the exciting world of religion, its beliefs, rituals, sacred stories and its mysteries.

Broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Perspective, 30 March 2005

Learning about and from religions