A brief exploration of why New Zealand education needs to be secular in nature

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Now officially retired, I'm the Director of a volunteer church outreach: Trinity-at-Waiake  eLearning Centre. Our website and ePortfolio is kiwiconnexion.nz for lifelong learning and spirituality, creating an online community of best practice and resourcing for professional development, with an emphasis on Methodism. Read more

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Church and Education

Church and Education: Mutually Modifying Influences

How much influence does the Church now have in education in New Zealand? And how much influence do shifts in education today have on the Church?

The Churches were very involved with the provision of education in early colonial New Zealand. Where we are now as a society is in part a measure of how satisfactorily or unsatisfactorily the educational issues were dealt with in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To put those debates in a nutshell is not easy, but there is one defining year around one defining issue. That year was 1877 and the issue was the Education Act. Up until then, there was a mixture of denominational schools, native schools, provincial schools and private schools. Such were their parochial rivalries, squabbles, fierce denominational loyalties, along with a fervent desire especially on the part of the Roman Catholics and the Protestants to make sure that the Anglicans never got the privileges of being an established Church, that Parliament made an Act that provided for secular education. That is, it should be free from all sectarian influences.

Churches, by and large, did not want to consider themselves in sectarian terms. Hence, many individual Christians as well as the Churches were outraged. They fought this Act from 1877 until 1935, and during that time 42 bills were introduced into Parliament seeking amendments. Catholics and Protestants alike could become inflamed over the issue, although for entirely different reasons. The Protestants wanted to get the Bible into schools while the Catholics wanted government subsidies for their schools. Bishop Moran in 1883 wrote this: it was an injustice that forced “Catholics, after having manfully provided for their own children, to contribute largely towards the free and godless education of other peoples’ children!!! This is tyranny, oppression and plunder.”

If you wanted to educate your children in the ways of the faith, you paid twice, once through taxes for general education, and once again to the private denominational school. Protestants who otherwise wanted the benefits of a free, compulsory, state system, were forced to consider seriously how to provide Christian education for their young. The Sunday schools were the basic method, but it was felt necessary to have some kind of authoritative mechanism from beyond the Church to reinforce societal norms.

Eventually a practical compromise was reached in primary schools in the Nelson province. The Nelson system allowed a period of time to be set aside every week where the Bible could be taught, but denominational or doctrinal emphases were strictly forbidden. It was, of course, impossible to police. There is a dreadful irony to the compromise. Bible teachers were drawn from a wide variety of denominations, and the professional classroom teachers freed to do other duties for some 30 minutes or so. This is the system that has persisted in one way or another to the present.

My recollection of the Bible-in-Schools programme is that I loathed it. It felt like an imposition. It was. When I went to secondary school, daily assembly always began with a hymn, the Lord’s Prayer and a Bible reading, or occasionally a reading from the Scriptures of another great world religion. Some teachers and many students conveyed the impression they were forced to participate in a colossal bore. I believe this format has gone from most secondary schools today. Though I disliked this nominal, formal religious approach, I also respected it, and am sorry about its passing. I have no such feelings over the Bible-in-Schools programme in any guise. I suspect that those who fought hardest to introduce and maintain the Nelson system, ultimately did a disservice to long term development of Christian faith among the very young. Others may feel differently about that.

Today it is a fact that unless parents are regular Church attenders, most children and young adults will not have come into significant contact with the core Christian traditions. The Christian teaching they do get in primary and secondary schools will be of very limited value. Because religion has been legislated out of public education since 1877, the Churches have been weakened in New Zealand society. This loss is not merely to the detriment of religious institutions, but far more importantly, to the whole of society.

Well, that is our history, and there are positive and negative aspects in terms of what we have inherited. On the negative side it might seem almost impossible to effect any changes, so strong are the historic grounds for secular education. On the positive side, any influence we do find we have could be profound as new societal values emerge around the information technology revolution, genetic modification, and economic globalization.

When these values incorporate love, compassion, creativity, humour, willingness to go the extra mile, then it matters less who did it than that it was achieved. The forces of the new age need the leaven of those Christian values. Churches have the capacity to start the leavening process. May I quote Baroness Thatcher, a remarkable person, perhaps one of the most remarkable people on the world stage in the 20th century. “I think today the greatest inequality of all is between those children who have the good fortune to be brought up in a good and loving home, and those who do not have any such experience.”

Out of homes of love come more people who can and do have influence. The Church’s primary educational goals are to talk meaningfully about the faith, about how to live life, and that means living in a real world, where love, hate, apathy, enthusiasm, family values, family dysfunctions, wars, peace, you name it, are part and parcel of human existence. The practical goal is to help create the environment where homes of goodness and love flourish. The Church uninvolved with or disengaged from these issues is not a Church at all. For if Jesus’ life meant anything, it was about being alive to those very issues, trying to transform them by transforming people. This is what Christian education is all about today. I believe in it.




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