SRI change: Christianity is still significant in our national life

Barney Zwartz considers what might be lost and gained by changes to Scripture classes in Victoria.

Most Australians still have some connection with Christianity, and it is surely good for children to have some understanding of the origin of national celebrations such as Christmas and Easter.

Congratulations in principle to the Victorian government on introducing a new course in state schools to cover world histories, cultures and ethics, as announced by Education Minister James Merlino today

I regret that it comes at the expense of Special Religious Instruction (SRI), which is being dropped from class time to lunch time or before or after school. This will obviously see a change in how classes work or a drop in numbers. 

Even so, there is no reason for alarm. The classes have not been banned, and opportunities remain. It is simply a fact of life that Christianity is now one of many voices shaping the nation. Christians are having to adapt to the loss of the influence we once took for granted – it may be painful, but it is good for us. It should help us to be more authentic. 

That said, Christianity is still significant in our national life. Most Australians still have some connection with it, and it is surely good for children to have some understanding of the origin of national celebrations such as Christmas and Easter, or cultural stories such as David and Goliath or the Good Samaritan.

Much depends on what the new course teaches. It has massive ambitions for such a small time-slot – encouraging respectful relationships and challenging prejudice, discrimination and harassment as well as teaching global cultures and ethics – and many schools do not have SRI and therefore will not have a space in their curriculum. 

It is partly designed as a rebuff to SRI, a response to problems the main provider in Victoria, Access Ministries, has had in the past couple of years, which is not entirely fair. Clearly it is unacceptable for SRI teachers to proselytise schoolchildren, and Access Ministries' guidelines are supposed to make that clear, but anecdotal evidence shows that some volunteers have been unable to resist. 

Lara Wood, a spokeswoman for Fairness in Religions in School, was quoted in The Age today as claiming victory and arguing that students in SRI were “missing out on learning”. I sympathised with that group's argument – since won – that parents should opt in for SRI, rather than having children automatically attend unless the parents opted out, but this new claim strikes me as rather mealy-mouthed. 

Of course it depends on how one defines “learning”, but I don't know any teacher who expects concentrated attention from primary school children for six hours a day, and it takes a particularly truncated worldview to consider that education about religion does not qualify as learning. 

This attitude masks a more serious problem in the widespread contemporary misunderstanding of what “secular” means, one that I suspect is shared by Fairness in Religions in School. It has never meant, as many imagine, the absence of religion from the public arena but simply that no religion should be privileged (as, for example, the Church of England is in Britain). 

Properly understood, that works to protect people of all religions and none, and to foster an open, vibrant, tolerant public culture.

The most important question will be the content of the new course. As a Christian, I have two concerns: that the ethics section must not be confined to various versions of utilitarianism, which I regard as a deeply inadequate approach, and that the contribution of Christianity to Australia over more than two centuries must be fairly represented. 

I hope the framers of the new curriculum understand why the great historian Geoffrey Blainey wrote that the churches did more than any other institution, public or private, to civilise Australia, and the colossal contribution of great Australians, explicitly motivated by their faith, who created the common wealth that is now in many respects in decline.  

There are intelligent people who believe that Christianity and the churches have had only a minimal or malign influence. Perhaps they would have benefited from such a course when they were at school. 

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow for the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.