Mission in the Backyard?

"Parents are divided over the input of religion in children's classes," said the Sunday Star Times in an  article last weekend. The page was dominated by a selection from the flood of letters the Times had received, in relation to the report that group of rationalists are campaigning to ban religious education from NZ public schools.  Many correspondents were sympathetic to the opportunity for their children to learn Christian principles, even if the parents themselves were not religious, but other letter writers were vociferously against the opportunities given to what they saw as "random volunteers with no recognised qualifications" or accountability to "fill children's minds with silly superstitions."

I taught Bible in Schools for twenty years up until 2006, and have lots of great memories of interacting with kids in the Years 6 - 8  group - an age when they are incisive but not cynical.  Far from being a random volunteer with no accountability, I was, like all our team members at the two schools at which I taught, required to undergo police checking, accreditation, and ongoing training. We were expected, under the agreement with the School's Board of Trustees, to stick faithfully to the generic CEC Religion in Schools Curriculum; one elderly teacher who strayed into "Hellfire and Brimstone" territory was swiftly removed. We knew that we were there representing all denominations, and so needed to respect the different viewpoints by avoiding issues of difference like church authority, baptism, and speaking in tongues. Not that any of those issues should be coming up in an RE lesson anyway; the focus is on the stories of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and how they teach us to relate to one another today. From the CEC website:

Christian Religious Education (CRE) means learning to understand and appreciate the beliefs by which people live, as an aid to the development of a student’s own beliefs and values.  While acknowledging that there are other views about life that could have a place in religious programs, (we believe) it is appropriate in New Zealand to give particular emphasis to the Christian faith, the Bible and the life and teachings of Jesus, because of their pervasive influence through our cultural heritage and history, and their continuing relevance.

Some of the letters in the SST acknowledged this - the advantage of 'learning history, other cultures, hope and values" -  and the unique place the Bible has played in Western morality. I was reminded of the fact that some universities now feel they need to offer prerequisite courses in Christian themes for students of literature, because so many do not recognise  Biblical allusions in writers from Shakespeare to Margaret Attwood. The curricula CEC uses all tie in with the Ministry of Education values framework, but I have noted  that many schools - even church schools - that claim to "teach Christian values" avoid the toughest ones -  forgiveness and humility.

Two further matters in the correspondence caught my interest. One was the suggestion that,  in a multicultural society,  "a number of religions could be taught." My understanding is that the CRE material already does this; I certainly recall having to learn about Divali in order to teach a lesson about Light in November. But I also recall a discussion with a British Religious Instruction curriculum developer, who commented that embracing a multicultural, multifaith expression in today's UK school assemblies has led there to a hodge podge where every tradition has to be recognised in such a once-over-lightly fashion that an integrated understanding or world view is no longer possible.

The second matter of interest was the headline "Christians target schools in mission". The writer had picked up from a recent CEC newsletter the notion that schools are "an underutilised mission field" - and also the tagline "Mission in the Backyard." It is unfortunate that this turn of phrase was used, because to a reader unfamiliar with current thinking on missiology, it would have implied a colonialistic mentality that was the norm in the nineteenth century, but has no traction today. In the twentyfirst century, mission is seen as conversation, dialogue, a respectful curiosity that wishes to learn as much as to impart. This is what is needed with today's "Institutionally-Alienated Spiritual Seekers", and it is what volunteer Bible teachers are expected to bring to the classroom. The CEC "Teachers' Code of Expectations" affirms that the purpose of Christian Religious Ed is to create an awareness of the spiritual dimension and to impart knowledge of the Christian faith. Volunteer CRE teachers are said to be “seed sowers,” to enable the students to make informed choices without any pressure for commitment. In this they are no different from other teachers who are permitted to advocate for free range chicken farms, rainbow rights, or other moral choices for which there is a wide spectrum of opinion in the community.

I don't know what the future will hold for Religious Education in schools. Perhaps there will be more of an emphasis on the Life Coaching approach; perhaps the local imam or Buddhist priest will get a turn  in the name of equality; or perhaps the whole shebang will be canned as anachronistic. Whatever happens, I hope we can retain some of the special flavour of this unique partnership that dates back to 1897.

To Chew Over: What are your memories of "Bible in Schools?" Do you think it still has a place in a multifaith world?

Help us to show your love, O Christ,
To children in our care,
And reach beyond till every child
Is held in love and prayer.
For, through neglect, abuse and sin,
Some children suffer pain.
They never learn to live and seek
A rainbow through the rain.

When children need a helping hand
To lift or to inspire,
May we, your church, be present there
To give what they require.
For love, our God has made us all,
God’s children everywhere,
To live in joyful harmony,
To be the best we dare.

May we learn well what children teach:
An open mind and heart,
An energizing zest for life,
A willingness to start
Grant us the grace to be child-like,
Approaching all our days
With eager, playful, lively joy,
In loving, hope-filled praise.
Jane Parker Huber