“I had assumed - wrongly as it turned out - that the various religions, and the churches in particular, would see the ethics classes as a welcome opportunity to provide a meaningful option for children not attending Special Religious Education classes [in NSW state primary schools].” Simon Longstaff, St James Ethics Centre, (SJEC) Sydney, Southern Cross, June 2010.
“… despite his moderation, despite the public support he believed his plan enjoyed, and despite assurances of firm support from the British government, he brought down on his head a violent storm of protest from the Protestant clergy. That there might be trouble from this quarter he had foreseen in 1833, but it is unlikely that he had foreseen the intensity, or extent, of the clerical opposition which now confronted him. From pulpits all over the colony the Anglican clergy began to thunder against the governor.” A.G. Austin Australian Education 1788-1900: Church, State and Public Education in Colonial Australia, Melbourne University Press, 1961, pp32-3.
In the quotation above, A.G. Austin, a Senior Lecturer in Education at Melbourne University, was discussing the plans of the governor of New South Wales, Sir Richard Bourke, to introduce non-denominational education to avoid a “multiplicity of small, rival schools” in the 1830s. What Bourke had in mind was not secular. The textbooks for the schools would be “Christian in content, but free of dogma … facilities were provided for the separate religious instruction of each sect”.
That was still not enough for the Anglican Church. Openly sectarian, they fought the most modest reform tooth and nail. With the religious brethren they detested in the 1830s, they would oppose, vociferously, the move to a secular system of education later in the 19th century.
This history is Education 101, so it comes as a surprise that Simon Longstaff could not have anticipated the response he got when ethics classes, sponsored by SJEC, to be taught by volunteers, were introduced on a trial basis in some NSW state primary schools.
To put this situation into context it should be understood that NSW (like all Australian states) is legally theocratic. It has:
- no section separating church and state in its constitution;
- a governor who is the Queen’s representative;
- a parliament that opens with Christian prayers;
- Christian crosses in the state flag;
- Christian holidays;
- Christian ministers of religion elected to the Legislative Council;
- legislation involving church matters debated and passed in the parliament;
- religious schools of all kinds generously funded, be they run by cults or mainstream religions; and
- procuring an abortion is still a criminal offence in NSW.
While many secular gains have been made and the citizenry at large are indifferent to religion, the churches remain symbolically entrenched and financially underwritten by government.
The Anglican Church in particular is not content with their private religious schools for the elite, generously funded at the expense of all taxpayers, to indoctrinate their enrolled children. They cling to their hour of mandated religious instruction in state schools in order to impose their theology on children whose parents are indifferent to their failing agenda - a fact demonstrated by the flight of students from religious classes to the ethics classes when they became available.
But it makes no difference to them their star has faded in the last century and a half with few citizens attending church, children especially. Obsessed with proselytising, like their 19th century forebears, with religion on the brain, they rise as one when a small fraction of their privileges is threatened, albeit innocently by the ethics courses promoted by the SJEC. This is now extending to attempts by Anglicans to stack Parents & Citizens Associations to lock in their religious hour in schools and oppose the ethics classes (see “Anglicans take ethics course battle to P&Cs”, Sydney Morning Herald, June 9, 2010).
But hang on - this is the St James Ethics Centre promoting these courses. According to their website, the SJEC began in 1988. Its founder, they say, was the King Street, Sydney, Anglican Parish, hence the name. But, while it has a Christian name, it declares that it is “a secular organisation with no religious affiliations”. Furthermore, in the published interview cited above, Simon Longstaff says the SJEC “has no connection - formal or informal - with the Sydney Atheists or any other organisation of a similar ilk”.
He reveals the bulk of its funding “comes from three people - two of whom I know to be deeply committed, prominent Christians”.
So an ethics centre:
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Max Wallace is vice-president of the Rationalists Assn of NSW and a council member of the New Zealand Assn of Rationalists and Humanists.