August 3, 2018

What’s A Little Leaven in The Staff Room?

The continuing saga of how funding will go for faith schools in our country in light of the Ruddock Inquiry into Religious Freedom.

The biggest threat to faith school funding is not from without – what the government might do.

The biggest threat to funding could well be from within – what schools are already doing.

What do I mean by that?  Simply this: when the government looks at the actual sexual ethics practices of schools that attach the label “church” or Christian” to their monicker, they’re seeing a hodgepodge of results.

And what’s most likely to happen is that any legal decisions will be made, not on a case by case basis, but according to the lowest common denominator.  Christian and Church schools may be doing sexual ethical practices among staff in a boutique manner, but you can bet the state won’t align with such niceties.

This much is clear after reading Father Frank Brennan’s comments in a speech he gave at the Castan Centre Human Rights Conference in Melbourne, the transcript of which is produced in full in the online version of Eureka St

Father Brennan is an expert member of the inquiry panel, and I have quoted him before:

“Religious school providers should treat those of different sexual orientation in the same manner as those of a heterosexual orientation. For example, if an evangelical Christian school were to insist that all heterosexual teachers be celibate or living in a Church endorsed marriage, they would have a case for discriminating against teachers in a same sex relationship. But given that they are more than likely to turn a blind eye (or perhaps even a compassionate and understanding one) to those heterosexual teachers not living in a Church authorised marriage, they should surely do the same for those thought to be living in a same sex relationship.”

First, a positive to what he said. It’s good that Father Brennan recognises that there is diversity of practice in the schools, and that there would be a case for treating cases on their merits.

This admission would align with what we already know; the practices of a theologically liberal Church school in this area of sexual ethics among their staff are very different to those of an independent Christian school with a Reformed history.

But a negative to what Brennan says, and an indication of where this inquiry might pitch itself.

In other words,  he’s calling for a continuation of a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that he says is currently operating and which is similar to that of the US Army in the eighties in terms of gay recruits.

This is wrong. It is simply not the case, as he states, that schools “are more likely to turn a blind eye to those heterosexual teachers not living a Church authorised marriage”.

Some schools might turn a blind eye.  But “more likely to”?  Not from my experience.

And I do have experience. As someone involved deeply in one such school network I can assure Father Brennan that, although such matters are dealt with pastorally sensitively, the publicly stated gospel conviction of both staff and board members means they will not, do not, and will continue not, to turn a blind eye to sexual practices among their staff that do not accord with Scripture.

That’s not to say there’s a one-strike-and-you’re-out policy among schools, they are deeply pastoral.  But part of being deeply pastoral in this Sexular Culture is modelling to staff and to students that the manner in which the Bible frames sex is not up for negotiation, at least not on an ongoing and unrepentant basis.

We are all sexually broken.  The Bible, and our experience, demonstrates that amply.  But to say that is the same as overlooking sexual sin in our own lives, or among the lives of others, is another matter altogether.

And that’s basic to Scripture. Hence we read this in 1Corinthians 5 in light of sexual immorality in the church:

Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?

We have to remember that personally with sin that would take root in our lives.  We have to remember that corporately among faith based communities.

In other words, what a school allows a staff  member to practice, or to which it turns a blind eye, doesn’t stay hermetically sealed with that staff member.

Blind eyes become blind to the long term, and knock-on, effects of their turning.  And that’s not merely a religious reality, as the recent scandals involving our banking sector has shown.  Organisations are shaped by what they permit as their lowest common denominator.

This stuff leaks.  It leaks into attitudes of other staff members, eventually practices, and down to the level of students.  That’s how leaven works.  let me repeat: The DNA of a school – or any organisation – is set by the practices to which it turns a blind eye.

Of course, let’s not blame the government for this.  What else is it supposed to think as an outsider to faith?  There are Church schools in Australia which actively promote Wear-It-Purple Day, and there are independent Christian schools which require a signed covenant by staff members about sexual standards.  And a range in between.

The former have no desire to back the latter on this issue, in fact many mainline Church schools would actively oppose the stance of independent Christian schools.

If the trumpet sound is uncertain for schools then don’t expect the government or the public to fall into line with the myriad confusing practices.  That’s not how these things work.  A blanket decision will be made, and most likely made according to the lowest, common denominator.

The (school) house is divided.  It will fall.  That much is becoming clear.

Let me conclude by saying that, in accord with what I have always said about state sponsorship of the faith, funding is not the biggest threat to faith based schools. Unchecked leaven is.  Blind eyes turned are.

This could well be a time for independent Christian schools to reassess their relationship to the state and ask themselves, after three decades of growth, whether its time to get back to core business, and become nimble, alternate ethical communities that cut their sails according to their financial cloth, confident in the fact that no strings are attached.

That provide an education that creates clear-headed, joy-filled dual citizens of this city and the city to come, and who are well prepared for the difficult rebuilding task ahead, as the culture decays and goes out of shape.

That may well be painful – for a time.  But it will reap huge dividends in thirty years time, if they have the patience to endure that discipline.

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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