Chrys Stevenson

About Chrys Stevenson

Chrys Stevenson is a freelance writer, blogger, speaker and social activist. Her main interest is the intersection of religion and politics. Chrys has written widely on school chaplaincy and Ron Williams' High Court challenges against it.

Send in the Clowns: Guidelines won’t stop school chaplains proselytising

I’ve learned not to place too much trust in the earnest, public proclamations of Christians-in-receipt-of-public-money.

So, when Rach Mason assured us on The Big Smoke that school chaplaincy isn’t a problem because “Chaplains are not allowed to proselytise,” I’ll admit to raising a sceptical eyebrow.

I recall a similar protest from Evonne Paddison, CEO of Access Ministries, an organisation that receives around $5 million per annum in Federal funding to place religious evangelists into Victorian schools:

We instruct our people not to proselytise. We’re not there to convert children; we’re there to educate children.

But, in a less-guarded moment, Ms Paddison was recorded telling an audience of the faithful:

Without Jesus, our students are lost…In Australia, we have a God-given open door to children and young people with the Gospel. Our federal and state governments allow us to take the Christian faith into our schools and share it. We need to go and make disciples. What really matters is seizing the God-given opportunity we have to reach kids in schools.

We have the responsibility of fulfilling the great commission of making disciples. We need to see our scripture teachers, our chaplains especially, as facilitators. We need to be missional.

How can this be? The National School Chaplaincy guidelines explicitly prohibit chaplains from proselytising! Helpfully, an Access Ministries chaplain explains how this troublesome road-block is overcome:

Now that is not always overt, CRE workers are definitely there to present the gospel, to present bible stories. Chaplains – it is not always as overt as that, it is much more covert.

One of the ways in which children are brought to God, without overt proselytising, is through the promotion of out-of-school or “Trojan-horse” activities. Promoting school camps run by the chaplains’ para-church employers is an ingenious way to remove children from the restrictions imposed by the National School Chaplaincy guidelines and lure them into an environment in which they can be openly evangelised. Last year alone, “over 2,500 kids went on SU (Scripture Union) Queensland camps where many committed their lives to Jesus,” Scripture Union boasted in a 2006 newsletter (since deleted from the internet).

Similarly, many chaplains encourage their schools to run Hillsong Church’s “Shine” program (for girls) and “Strength” (for boys). These “self-esteem courses” are promoted as “community-based,” but are actually Trojan-horse programs designed to get evangelical Christians into schools to recruit “un-churched” children.

Shine volunteer Sunshine Wretham is a case in point…

The comment that stands out:

important to me because it gives me an opportunity to connect with the girls out there; it gives the Church an opportunity to have a foot in the door…and to give them those principles that my mum gave me that I know they might not get if they’re not in a Christian family. I want to see these young girls come to knowledge of Salvation; to get to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.

Last October, Ron Williams, the plaintiff in two High Court Challenges against school chaplaincy, screened the Shine promotional video at the University of Southern Queensland’s After Williams colloquium. Scripture Union Queensland’s CEO, Peter James, was unperturbed. I was in the audience when Mr James laughingly reassured the assembled academics that Shine has nothing to do with Scripture Union or chaplaincy – insinuating, with a winning smile, that Williams had it all arse-up.

Like Mr James, I was also in the High Court of Australia a few weeks ago when Scripture Union’s barrister David Jackson QC stood at the bar table and, specifically and deliberately, cited Shine as one of the benefits of Scripture Union Queensland’s chaplaincy program.

Peter James follows a fine tradition of studied inconsistency. During his tenure, former Scripture Union CEO, Tim Mander, made equally contradictory statements about the role of school chaplains.

“A key piece of misinformation,” says Mander in an article for Online Opinion, “…is the false assertion that chaplains are there to proselytise.”

Yet, in an article on Christian Today Australia, Mander is unequivocal about the role SUQ chaplains play:

Our school chaplains are…making sensational inroads in bringing young people, their families, and entire communities, into a closer relationship with God.

How is that achieved if not through evangelising and proselytising – either overtly or covertly?

Placing religious chaplains into state schools forces them to choose between two conflicting directives: Christ’s commission to go and “make disciples” (Matthew 28:19) and the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations’ guidelines.

In 2012, Scripture Union state-school chaplain, Ryan Cloos revealed the urgency of the chaplain’s task on his Facebook page:

…Diploma of Youth Work will soon be mine!

If 2012 is the end of the world I’m taking as many people as I can to heaven with me.

Both chaplains and chaplaincy providers have made it clear – chaplaincy is about making disciples. A Queensland school chaplain recently wrote on his blog:

It is my mission to disciple others, including kids and their families in the schools I work in, as well as those around me in church life.

Frankly, as chappie David Hockey explains, it’s a bit naïve to think a religious chaplain isn’t going to proselytise! In an interview with ABC’s Compass program, Hockey says:

I personally believe, and as a chaplain I believe, that Jesus is the way, truth and life, and that can come through in our conversation. But young people know that I’m the chaplain in the school. They know what they’re going to get. They know that I’m the ‘Goddie’, so they come to me, young people and staff, knowing and I guess expecting me to speak about that.

Hockey only says what is self-evident: you simply can’t put religious evangelists into schools and expect them not to proselytise.

I like Ron Williams’ analogy:

We may as well spend millions of dollars on a National School Clowns Program. Let’s put clowns into schools to make kids happy, and then make it clear in the guidelines that clowns are prohibited from being funny.

Send in the clowns!

Share via