School Chaplaincy

Suppose an old lady is trying to cross a busy road. A Christian notices her dilemma and, filled with compassion, helps her across to safety. The next day, the old lady is trying to cross the busy road again. A Buddhist notices her dilemma and, filled with compassion, helps her across to safety.

Is there, in this instance, any qualitative difference between the compassion shown by the Christian and the compassion shown by the Buddhist? Isn’t compassion simply compassion regardless of its source?

The most intelligent question posed by Leigh Sales in last night’s 7.30 Report on school chaplaincy was lost in her exchange with Peter Garrett. It was, in effect, this – if chaplaincy in our schools is so highly valued, why does it have to be Christian?

It’s a question we Christian chaplains at Flinders University had to face over a decade ago when the newly formed Pagan student group announced that they wanted their own chaplain. If the university can have Christian chaplains why can’t they have a Pagan one?

It’s not quite the same situation as faces school chaplaincy today. But the public has got a right to ask the question if its taxes are going to be used. Why Christian? Couldn’t the unique contribution of chaplaincy be valued for its own sake without it being tied to Christianity?

The question exposes the hubris of Christians who think they have a God-given right to privilege. This is a theme within my new book “An Improbable Feast” which tells the story of our journey at Flinders serving a secular institution while taking seriously the needs and rights of religious minorities.

The saddest moment in the interview from my point of view was Peter Garrett’s insistence that the program is voluntary. In other words, if you don’t like it, go jump! Sad, because this weak argument cuts across the intelligent social comment in my Midnight Oil collection.

There’s a lot longer way to go than Peter Garrett’s so-called enquiry. If the Government can’t immediately foster a hospitable ethos of openness which prioritises the valuing of minority voices, the debate will be defined by religion at its worst. Fostering the adoption of the Faith Friendly Charter among Australia’s communities could be a significant start.

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