Events of last year brought the relationship between the UCA and its schools into sharp focus. Many factors have contributed to what at times can appear to be a confusing and inconsistent relationship with educational institutions. While the schools may be socially, economically and spiritually diverse, one constant is the presence of a school chaplain.
Julie Perrin is a Uniting Church member and was chaplain at Blackburn High School from 2000 – 2006. She recently spoke with a number of school chaplains about their role in the life of UCA schools.
There has been disquiet in the Uniting Church for decades now about the inequities between the independent schools that carry its name and the schools in the government sector. Some Uniting Church members believe we should not be in independent schools at all.
The oldest independent schools pre-date the State Education Acts. At Union in 1977, the Uniting Church inherited schools with a range of governance arrangements.
John Emmett was a director of the former Uniting Church Assembly body Uniting Education from 1996 to 2004.
“Since Union, the Church largely approached schools through the lens of ‘what does it mean to be a school of the Church’?” Mr Emmett said.
“A chaplain’s presence in a school can offer assurance that concerns for Christian pastoral care, worship and Christian religious education are satisfied.
“But if we inquire through a lens, such as: ‘What does it mean for the Church to find God’s mission in education?’ we might find a more engaging partnership.
“Educators, parents, students, community leaders, alumni and theologians can engage together in quests for theologies of education – talking about the understanding of the human person; the role and exercise of power in teaching and learning; issues of justice; notions of merit and need; reconciliation and renewal; concern for the marginalised and the stranger.
“Chaplains are partners in these inquiries and the resulting relationships and activities in UCA schools.”
The schools themselves pay for the chaplains; the cost to the Uniting Church for these placements is minimal and should not be confused with the scenario of the Uniting Church funding the building of Acacia College.
The role of school chaplains is often highlighted in times of crisis. In December, Rev Ros McDonald presided over a service that marked the closure of Acacia College.
When she returned to the school to pack up her office she saw a truck being loaded with 50 boxes of uniforms that were being donated to Acacia’s sister school in Kenya. Some of the uniforms were brand new. Ms McDonald retrieved from her office a batch of badges she had had made for the students in the social justice group. “Do you think the students in Kenya would like these?”
Ms McDonald remembers the definitive “Yes” amidst the sorry task of closure.
Early in the school year there will be a combined commencement service at Wesley Church in Lonsdale Street Melbourne for Year 7 students across the three Wesley College campuses. The annual event is a reminder that Rev Daniel Draper was a founder of both Wesley College and the city church. He was chair of the organising committee that resolved in 1862 to establish the school.
Rev Peter Burnham has been a school chaplain for 30 years, and at the St Kilda Road campus of Wesley College since 2008. He is more than familiar with the criticism of the Uniting Church’s involvement in independent schools. He wants to talk about Yirramalay, Wesley Studio School – a substantial Indigenous education project in Western Australia’s Kimberleys. It is as a way in which the school attempts to redress some of the disparity.
Beginning with a bush meeting in the Fitzroy Valley in 2003, the project is a partnership between Wesley College and the Bunuba people. It is not a fly-in-fly-out program but a registered school in WA that offers Indigenous students the opportunity to finish their secondary education.
The studio school is a mobile program that operates from the Glen Waverley campus of Wesley during the Wet season in terms one and four and from the Fitzroy Valley during terms two and three. Indigenous students come down during the Wet along with mentors from their community, also sponsored by Wesley.
During the middle terms, they go back to the Fitzroy Valley and are visited by Year 10 Wesley students who participate with them in learning about eco-tourism, Indigenous art and some of the skills involved in running the large Indigenous-owned cattle station, Leopold Downs.
Recognising that the greatest need is based in education, the studio school project employs five full-time teaching staff, made available by Wesley College, plus a number of Indigenous staff. There are about 25 Indigenous students involved. This year the first six students graduated with the Senior Years Learning Framework certificate of education.
It is a rare quiet moment in the day as David Hall speaks from his office in the middle school of Penleigh and Essendon Grammar. He teaches religious education for half of the week, the other days he is immersed in pastoral, liturgical and social justice education tasks. His colleague, Evelyn Payne, is chaplain to the middle school and junior school girls.
Mr Hall said when he first began in the role four years ago he expected the students to be ambivalent, even occasionally hostile towards religious education. It is true a Year 9 class on a Friday afternoon gave him ‘a bit of curry’ for the first six months.
“But I have been encouraged at the genuine openness of students wanting to explore the deeper dimensions of their lives,” Mr Hall said.
“Young people are searching for who they are, what it means to be a human being, how God impacts their life – grappling with these things, it’s a dynamic, formative time.”
Mr Hall believes this is one of the reasons the Uniting Church needs to take seriously its involvement in the schools. He is also keen to invite
Uniting Church members who are in teaching or administration roles to consider working in one of the schools.
“There is fantastic support here from the staff and it would be great to welcome more Uniting Church people who understand the imperatives of the gospel.”
Regarding the chapel services he said: “The most sublime sound in a school is silence – when 450 teenage boys (or at least most of them) are offering their own prayers during one of my prayers.”
Asked what makes school chapel services work, Mr Hall’s answer is immediate. “Narrative, you need to anchor these profound gospel truths in a compelling, memorable story.”
In the northwest suburb of Greenvale, Rev Jeanne Beale is the chaplain at Aitken College. More than 1200 students attend the low-fee paying independent school. Nestled in a large growth area, the school is 14 years old.
Ms Beale joined Aitken College in 2003 and is delighted with the brief to continue building a sense of community. As a deacon who has completed a BA in Community Development, this is a gift. One of the ways in which she builds community life is to teach listening skills to teachers and parents.
“We can only listen to another person as deeply as we listen to ourselves,” Ms Beale said.
“I love the fact that at Aitken College we worship every week. Every student attends chapel. And there’s this nurturing of values of love, acceptance and forgiveness; for themselves, and for each other – always, every week.”
At Scotch Oakburn College in Launceston, Rev Graham Bartley is the chaplain. He recognises the importance of religious education in the life of a student.
“I’ve always remembered a statement attributed to Davis McCaughey: ‘The purpose of religious education in schools is to keep the rumour of God alive.’ And I hold this with the counter statement that RE can prove an inoculation against faith – so that keeps me on my toes.”
In the classroom, Mr Bartley has furniture that is light and bright, comfortable and moveable.
“I think religious education allows us to pose the sort of existential questions we all have,” Mr Bartley said. “It makes the learning potent when there are connections in the students’ own lives.”
Mr Bartley likes the approach of Thomas Greene, who suggests putting the young people’s experience alongside the Biblical narratives and allowing the stories to be in conversation with each other. Similarly he values the open-ended ‘wondering questions’ of Godly Play that don’t ask for a pat answer.
“During chapel earlier last year I showed a video of Alistair Macrae when he was president,” Mr Bartley said.
“He’d been with a few other church leaders visiting asylum seekers in a detention centre. The students often hear media which is inaccurate and unhelpful, and I thought what Alistair had to say was clear and strong and passionate, and also invitational. I felt really glad to be putting that in front of the students.”
Back in 2009, when Rev Jennie Gordon was parish minister at Mooroolbark, she had occasional duties as a visiting chaplain at the nearby Billanook College in the outer eastern suburbs.
She never intended becoming a school chaplain. Immediately following the Black Saturday bushfires the principal called – “We need you full-time for a couple of weeks.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Ms Gordon said it is not always an easy transition from being a Minister of the Word.
“I miss the liturgy and the preaching. It’s a huge shift but I’m finding the blessing in a much more diaconal space and in re-shaping the preaching event. I think part of the value in what I do is in finding a way to speak into the day-to-day situations.”
There is a casual requirement in the role.
“People don’t necessarily want to make an appointment to see you but they are more than happy for you to bump into them and instigate conversation from there.”
Ms Gordon said it happens time and again that people will fall into a conversation with her rather than actively seek her out.
“Just today I spoke to a parent outside assembly. Our brief exchange lead to a one-on-one in my office where the parent said, ‘I could never have rung up and made an appointment, but you’re caring and you’re standing there and now here I am’.”
Many chaplains are aware that pastoral care for staff is more difficult because the school is their workplace and often they don’t want to bring their personal problems along. Ms Gordon remarks, “I like working with staff, every now and again I can be surprising.”
One experience that stuck in Ms Gordon’s mind was a trip by some Billanook students to Cowes Uniting Church. The young people had recently visited a vocational skills training place in Uganda that the Cowes church had supported financially. The students were invited to speak at Sunday worship, which for some of them was a new experience.
“We went down for the weekend and on the Saturday night we were sitting around the table and talking about what was going to happen in church the next day,” Ms Gordon said. “A couple of them were saying, ‘Well we don’t like church’ or ‘We’re atheists’.
“We had a two-hour discussion on the basis of faith. It was just a beautiful open discussion about why people have faith, and who is God anyway? It moved away from The Simpsons idea of God. We talked about God as a presence.”
When they arrived at the church the next morning the minister said to one of the girls “Can you carry the Bible in?” The girl didn’t feel she could and said, “But I’m not holy enough”. Ms Gordon said: “You are. That’s the point. We all are.” The girl said later, “It’s like a window has opened…”
People still ask Rev Jennie Gordon “When are you coming back into ministry?” She is able to smile at the irony, but sometimes she wishes they didn’t need to be reminded that school chaplaincy is a ministry.