SCRIPTURE in NSW public schools is “an echo from a bygone era and now needs to be reconsidered”, said a prominent Newcastle Anglican Diocese priest after calls on Monday for scripture’s immediate suspension.
Father Rod Bower said Anglican Special Religious Education material produced by a Christian evangelical group and authorised by Sydney Anglican Diocese was “of great concern”, a view backed by Newcastle Anglican Bishop Peter Stuart after a review raised serious concerns, including questions about “possible grooming behaviour” linked to some material taught to children.
Maitland-Newcastle Catholic Diocese has also ruled against the Sydney Anglican Diocese material, with Bishop Bill Wright approving a statement on Tuesday saying Maitland-Newcastle “has not endorsed for use the Connect program in our diocese”.
Bishop Stuart said he was “troubled” by matters raised in a Queensland Department of Education review of the scripture material known as Connect, and produced by Sydney Anglican Diocese’s Youthworks. Connect material is taught in scripture classes across NSW, and teaches the Bible as historic fact.
The Bible was a “sacred text” but “not a history text or science book”, said Bishop Stuart after the Queensland review questioned the Connect material’s teaching of the Bible, both New and Old Testaments, as a “factual, historical document” describing “historical and true” events.
In its statement on Tuesday Maitland-Newcastle diocese also challenged the Sydney Anglican Diocese’s authorised scripture position on the Bible, saying: “Catholic tradition does not insist our taking every bit of biblical history or science or cosmology as historical or scientific fact”.
Father Bower said the Connect material was used in most SRE classes and was “of great concern to many mainstream Christians”.
One of the main issues is that most SRE teachers are now drawn from conservative evangelical churches which raises concerns for more secular-minded or spiritually progressive parents, he said.
Father Bower, a prominent refugee advocate and human rights supporter, said a general religious education in schools which equipped students to “navigate their way in an increasingly multi-faith, multi-cultural society” was a “much more appropriate system”.
“Parents who desire for their children to have Special Religious Education should take them to a local place of worship of their choice,” he said.
Bishop Stuart supported the $300,000 review of Special Religious Education and ethics classes in NSW that was finalised 12 months ago.
“It is appropriate for the current forms of religious education to be reviewed. Australian society continues to change and education about ethics, values and beliefs needs to reflect those changes,” he said.
The Queensland Department of Education review of the Connect material revealed scripture teachers were advised to “bring a dead animal to dissect” in an animal sacrifice lesson, that children were encouraged to have secrets with adults, and a man’s blindness was linked to his parents’ sins.
On Monday NSW Greens Justice spokesman David Shoebridge called for the immediate suspension of scripture in schools and release of the long-awaited NSW review. He strongly criticised lessons consistent with “possible grooming behaviour” after more than three years of evidence from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The call came after confirmation NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes and the Department of Education have no power over the content of scripture lessons under the Education Act. It also came after controversial changes to NSW public school enrolment forms in 2015 removing ethics classes as an option, and leaving scripture as the default position in some state primary schools.
The Queensland review in August recommended removing an animal sacrifice lesson for children aged 10-12, which suggested scripture teachers “bring in a dead animal to dissect”. The review found other lessons had the potential to be upsetting, inappropriate or likely to affect the social and emotional wellbeing of children, including a lesson for children aged 7-9 about a man born blind, which asked: “Was it a punishment from God because his parents or someone else had done something wrong?”
The material also included a lesson requiring children aged 7-9 to list ways to “get rid of” a person, after a Bible story about people “getting rid of” Daniel, and a concluding prayer where children “pray that we may not be like the Israelites”.
A group challenging the application of scripture guidelines across three states, Fairness in Religions in School, letterboxed houses near Hunter and Sydney schools on the weekend with information about enrolling children in scripture and ethics classes, after accusing the NSW Department of Education of failing to act on the Queensland and NSW reviews.
“We can’t believe the Department of Education hands over its duty of care to children in state schools to religious groups that are unaccountable, even to the minister, for what they teach,” said FIRIS spokesman Darrin Morgan.
The Queensland review found that while the “vast majority” of Connect material aligned with Department of Education guidelines, it raised concerns about parental consent, the lack of data on scripture numbers and the lack of legislation to allow “centralised regulation” of scripture content.
Mr Shoebridge called on Mr Stokes to release the NSW review and allow debate on whether scripture legislation reflected community views about state education in 2017.
“Parents put an awful lot of trust in schools when they leave their children at the school gate, and that trust is breached by a system that makes attendance at unsupervised and unchecked scripture classes the default position,” Mr Shoebridge said.