The value of school chaplaincy

Alice Priest

It’s much easier telling people that I’m an English teacher than a Studies of Religion teacher. Yet it’s easier telling people I’m a Religion teacher than the College Chaplain, writes Alice Priest in The Good Oil.

The truth is I am all of these things; but the current debate about the National School Chaplains Program (NSCP), of which I am a funding recipient, has made me deeply examine one of these roles.

School chaplains have had a long history in religious schools like mine (St Scholastica’s College, Glebe) and, more recently (and not without controversy), a funded presence in secular schools as well. A chaplain’s role, according to the NSCP Guidelines, concerns 'assisting students in exploring their spirituality [and] providing guidance on religious, values and ethical matters,' whilst being sure not 'to impose any religious beliefs or persuade an individual toward a particular set of religious beliefs.'

Traditionally, 'chaplain' meant an official representative of the Christian faith; however, the title is now applied more broadly to religious and lay people of other religions or philosophies, extending so far as to include ‘generic’ or ‘multi-faith’ chaplaincies, especially in health and educational settings.

I was initially taken aback in recent weeks when the likes of declared Catholics like Maxine McKew, along with with other figures such as Bob Carr came out in favour of axing the NSCP’s place in the Federal budget and expressed cynical attitudes regarding the ‘benefits’ to a school of having a chaplain.

It is understandable that McKew and Carr oppose chaplaincy being budgeted to the tune of $245 million when so many other vital areas in education and social services have been drastically cut - but McKew goes further, arguing that chaplains are utterly 'marginal' in the 'education agenda.'

In a recent episode of ABC1’s The Drum, McKew said that, while doing research for a book about schools, she has been in and out of countless educational settings where the seminal question – 'What makes a difference in a school?' – was never met with a reply that made any reference to the chaplain.

I wonder, is my chaplaincy role so insignificant? This is not a question of my self-importance, but for me, a question of the measurable worth of having an explicitly identified, paid person, whose job it is to be 'assisting students in exploring their spirituality [and] providing guidance on religious, values and ethical matters' (NCSP Guidelines) in a school.

Much of the public debate about the government-funded NSCP has questioned both the funding for, and credibility of, a chaplain’s contribution to the 'benefit' of student well-being and care.

FULL STORY The school chaplaincy debate, Benedict and me (The Good Oil)

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