Restricted ACCESS

Religious Education in Victorian public schools is a weeping sore of deception and dissatisfaction for providers and parents respectively.

ACCESS ministries provide 96% of classes in a strong monopoly crafted to convert students and save Christian churches from “a slow death march”. ACCESS apologists frequently point to the “other faiths”, Jewish, Christian Orthodox, Ba’hai, Muslim. The glaring absence in this well rehearsed mantra is the rapidly growing Hindu religion. As she’s proven time and again, ACCESS CEO Evonne Paddison and her minions see their mission as absolute. She has openly boasted that ACCESS is “in the business of transforming lives” and as God’s agents, will come under attack.

Deception, nasty tactics, foul politics and damaged children are as nothing to a divine calling;

We must give our children and young people a model of discipleship that promotes belief and responds to the word of God. And trains them to abide in it. It teaches and models for them the love of God and how to be in a community of faith to love one another and love God’s word. We need a model that is marked by fruit bearing and involves our young people in evangelicalism and disciple making. We need a model that points to the glory of Christ in his incarnation, his work on the cross his resurrection his exultation and sees his disciples continuing that work and reflecting it in his world.

We are constantly tempted to water this down in order to attract young people through our activities, our music, our fun, or whatever it is. Resist the temptation to replace substance with superficiality. Our gospel is not in need of massaging for acceptability. It alone will transform lives and bring salvation. [Source]

The arrogant, iron-like grip of ACCESS ministries backed by state and federal education ministers is like pouring salt on that weeping sore. Their dominance and rigidity has evoked strong responses from parents of all faiths and of no faith, who wish for a general education about different religious persuasions and doctrines. In our multicultural, multi-faith community the notion of a monopoly in one uncompromising faith doesn’t sit well.

Equally, the hint of dissent has evoked strong combative responses from defenders of RE and particularly Paddison who on June 1st bemoaned, “a deliberate attempt by the media to start a faith war – to divide Christians against other Christians; faiths against faiths; congregations against congregations”.

Understandable dear reader. If history has taught us anything it is that religious faith cannot possibly be responsible for creating any division or unrest. Much less “wars”. It must be those journalists. Those scribes! After all – Matthew 23:13;

But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

And you thought the Murdoch dynasty was a mere three generations. But seriously, fortunately humankind saw the wisdom of the written word and the ideas it carries with it. Pharisees didn’t fare so well. Evonne Paddison may never see the irony in her far distant echo of the need to silence independent thought and stifle it’s distribution. Or the absurdity that the above nonsense comes from the very source of “truth” so many of ACCESS’ devotees depend upon. She further ranted that the Christian faith was under attack, taking a “secular beating” no less.

Parents who, due to current guidelines will be arguing religious discrimination against non-Christian children to VCAT this December, are “a rat in the ranks”. Questioning the Religious Education Act is “a schism in the foundation”, reported sensationally and promoting “atheistic comment”.

In one of her most memorably offensive and fallacious appeals to authority she waxes lyrical, lying about state and federal ministers “professing their faith for the first time”. Then taking Aussies for the fools she would dearly love them to be, unwittingly reminds us of the unwelcome political power of The Australian Christian Lobby;

Our own Prime Minister, an avowed atheist, even referred to the relevance of The King James Bible in one’s life

The entire article, Christian religious education takes a secular beating, is a fascinating read and I include it because of it’s divisive tone. Void of the so-called “values” ACCESS lay claim to, the undertone is distinctly vicious. It’s a snapshot of the ACCESS psychology. Not only unable to accept the ontology of others, this mindset is unable to realise that it’s own privilege exists, much less being unsustainable in the present day. Much has been, and should be, made of Paddison’s 2008 speech at the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion about the need “to go and make disciples”.

Indeed, far more damaging fundamentalist claptrap peppers that speech and we can be in no doubt it is the standard by which ACCESS has set it’s sights. ACCESS isn’t just about having faith or promoting the benefits of mature belief. The convictions held are in simple terms, right out there. Their God is one who talks to them, touches them, shows them the way and intercedes directly in our world on a daily basis.

As Christine Burford, ACCESS chaplain said on ACCESS Sunday, reciting a sermon formatted by Evonne Paddison;

No matter what it takes, God’s got a plan and he’s gunna bring it to pass, he’s Sovereign. The devil is “a living enemy” who (apart from tormenting Christine with temptations of “flesh”) “would want to undermine us as people”. People are “the helpless sheep”, saved by God.

Evonne Paddison’s blinkered view can in some ways be summed up in a simple observation she makes in the piece on taking a secular beating. Complaints had been received about children colouring in sheets saying “Jesus loves me”. Paddison observes, “If we can’t make that claim as a faith educator (my emphasis) what is left?” In truth if you make that claim at all you are not a faith educator but one who proselytises. One who fails to see the flaw in perpetuating an untruth about a purportedly magical Jew who may never have existed. This cult of the zombie messiah deeply, deeply offends so many millions today. It’s continued presence is testament in part to the tactics and power of it’s defenders.

Yet still today in the second decade of the 21st century we find the dominant voice is that in defence of religion’s “good”. Certainly confidence in this fact buoyed by political backing and theistic delusion spurred Paddison to maintain her rigid disdain for months. Not until the last week of July, when the Commonwealth Ombudsman criticised the National School Chaplaincy Program did Paddison blink. Suddenly debate about religion in education was “nothing new”. Ever so calm, she could “understand” why certain people misunderstood her 2008 speech. A video appeared on the ACCESS ministries website to this effect, although it’s a futile effort. Her “argument” of denial is deconstructed here, using her own words.

I’ve no doubt that despite clumsy attempts at damage control ACCESS ministries seeks to minister in Victorian classrooms, convert students and save those who “are lost”. A board member of Arrow Leadership which is bound by the evangelical manifesto, The Lausanne Covenant, she is committed to “making disciples of every nation”. Paddison’s devotion to this task is absolute. From 2008;

Reflecting his glory will inevitably mean following his path of humiliation and loss for the sake of bearing fruit. For the sake of winning others. These then are the principles for discipleship for all generations. Paddison quotes Amy Carmichael. “Can one have followed far who has no wound? No scar. Christ has called us to follow him through the glory of suffering to the glory of eternity”.

Belief is suffering. Suffering and humiliation for the purpose of converting others. Judged by ones scars, it’s unlikely anything as puny as respect for dissenting belief or no belief will permeate. Eyes front soldier – on “the glory of eternity”. At the ACCESS Forward Together rally last July 17th Paddison spoke of their difficulties, reminding that their faith;

“… remains firm, because the one we serve is the same yesterday, today and forever. And His purposes will not be thwarted!”

So I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that an afternoon for FIRIS parents to meet with Bishop Stephen Hale, Chair of ACCESS ministries (and fellow board member of Arrow leadership), offered little. It was billed partly as “primarily an opportunity for ACCESS to clarify it’s programme and philosophy and hopefully respond to any misunderstandings”. Under the auspices of interfaith General Religious Education advocate, Rev. Paul Tonson the law was laid down. Tonson wrote;

I am grateful today for a respectful phone call from FIRIS and the opportunity to show my openness to the viewpoint of the group. We will welcome at the conversation anyone who is prepared to respectfully promote a range of viewpoints, with the attitude of seeking understanding. However, this occasion will be primarily an opportunity for ACCESS to clarify its program and philosophy and hopefully to respond to any misunderstandings. It may be possible to hold a subsequent conversation with a FIRIS representative.

Members of FIRIS may be interested to know that there are those voices within the churches that would strongly advocate GRE approach to religious education, as for example is already well modelled by professional teachers of DAN, (Dialogue Australasia Network).

“However, this occasion will be primarily an opportunity for ACCESS to clarify its program and philosophy and hopefully to respond to any misunderstandings.” What we got from the 90 minutes was a highly choreographed and strictly coordinated affair consisting of something like a “One on One” with Bishop Hale (pictured). We were treated to his early years and how he came to Christianity. Determined to forgo his Confirmation his mother made sure he went through with it. He even attempted to fail an exam that applied at the time. Later he was drawn in by his brother…. The relevance to CRE quickly became a display of tokenism.

I sat there watching two grown men talking about God, Christ and the joys of religious instruction for children in a display of special pleading and argument from final consequence. The pointlessness of seeking rationale with the fundamentalist mindset was crystalised. These two men honestly believed their own accounts of abandoning reason and evidence were pertinent to Victorian education policy. As with so many times before, that feeling of deep offence took hold as our beautiful, inexplicable world we visit with this one imperfect, unique chance at life was metaphorically hacked into superstitious ramblings.

At times the discussion seemed like a predetermined agenda to protect Hale and the ACCESS creed. To resell a newly packaged scam with the “interfaith” jingle. It was quickly and subtly made clear that despite the import of CRE to those with no faith or an agnostic viewpoint that in essence RE would leave them on the outer. That each man was as atheistic toward the other’s beliefs as an “atheist” is to monotheism was evidently lost on both. Belief was elevated as a special virtue, reason ignored.

I appreciate Tonson’s general interest and intent. Yet there’s little doubt he’s suffering the existence of non theism. The term “coordinator” was an exaggeration. Whilst in a position to probe Hale about the reality of ACCESS’ abuse of a privileged position, or what was to be made of other theists, such as Rev. Ron Noon calling Hale’s bluff, he didn’t do so. Nor did he probe him on the growing dissent amongst Uniting Church members about the ACCESS direction or the gulf between Paddison’s blood and guts warrior worship and the gentle Salvation Army persona. In fact the entire topic of fundamentalism being called for what it was by countless of Christians and most of Victoria was studiously avoided.

His role seemed to promote Hale and stifle dissent when an answer was crucially needed. As one who seeks to instill religio-superstition as vital to ethics in the classroom I guess this isn’t surprising. As one who seeks to see education about religion spread more widely he is to be congratulated. Yet convinced that the corrosive and ineffectual nature of demonstrably false and malignant belief systems deserve a special role, he is quite simply in error. Hale’s boyish defences were the perfect cover for a member of Arrow Leadership. Intent to “make disciples of every nation”, brushing off the concerns of parents would be essential.

GRE must never become a free kick for the promotion of servitude as ethical maturity or of the intellectual paucity of belief as an educated, humane choice. Yet though Paul Tonson had intoned thoroughly on his intent to run the discussion, at times Hale was in control applying band aids to the wreck of ACCESS ministries. As time passed the hoped for opportunity that Hale would “respond to any misunderstandings” clearly became wishful thinking.

Hale was given a chance to reinforce that yes, being a Christian to him meant making disciples and being a disciple. But not to worry, ACCESS was not about converting children and “if Evonne was here, she’d be the first to admit”, her speech had been taken out of context. The bible of course is what is meant by “the gospel” and just a cursory little brush to see where Christian values come from, he fumbled. Reminiscent of Paddison’s account of Gillard reading the St. James Bible, Hale proffered;

Even Richard Dawkins says you cannot understand Western civilisation without understanding the bible

There was more clumsy damage control. Whilst at least not pretending to be about education, and admitting ACCESS was all about instruction, it was merely in those typical “values” that Christian apologists seem to think humankind is naturally bereft of. We got more of the falsehood that no complaints have been raised and no sustainable complaints with the education department were to be found. They’re only doing what the education act stipulates anyway and any dissent is as misplaced as it is bemusing.

After 45 wasted minutes we “broke for questions”. One parent stressed how the present system had distressed his children. One son had expressed how severe the ostracism was in dividing his small social circle. Hale was sorry. “It shouldn’t be happening”. John Bornas spokesperson for FIRIS challenged Hale over Paddison’s intentions, clearly spelled out as the ACCESS blueprint. Not only was she about making disciples she felt every child needed a relationship with Christ and that “without Jesus our students are lost”. Her aim was to make disciples who would make more disciples – become teachers and recruitment agents themselves.

Hale’s answer was to shrug off the meaning of these claims, again reinforcing that Paddison had been clear in tidying up this “misunderstanding”. He left out that she’d queried as a challenge how many church attendances and conversions were resulting from ministry at state and national levels. How much discipleship, church growth and school based congregation were CRE volunteers able to lay claim to. The gospel was “not to be watered down” but implanted in schools, Paddison had taught.

There’s no indoctrination, Hale insisted and the guidelines were clear about this. More allusion to doing what was expected of them. It was almost as if ACCESS was the messenger for the government. There are no complaints, you see. Another parent raised the issue of her children being segregated and curriculum time wasted, getting much the same vapid stare from Hale and mumbled assistance from Tonson that changes would be likely. Tonson did a good job of keeping Hale from pressured questions exerting his role as coordinator when the heat was on. Problems are the education departments responsibility. Being “sorry” was Hales.

After a short breather, Hale took centre stage again to discuss General Religious Education – GRE. This is what parents are wanting. An opportunity to learn about the religions of the world with personal religious and faith matters kept as private matters or if necessary, during out of school hours. This is also what gets ACCESS so worked up. The suggestion that their goal of converting be threatened. They must, as Paddison instructed, “promote the same marks for discipleship for young people as the bible presents. But of course it must be appropriate and contextual for them. The first step in becoming a disciple is believing”.

It’s known from the 2006 Census that Hinduism is the fastest growing religion in Melbourne. Acting CEO Rev. Denise Nicholls chimed in with a claim that she is in frequent contact with “her counterparts” from other faiths, who don’t want GRE. This is evidenced by the “seventy or so” Hindu volunteer positions that have been created.

So there’s no need for education about other religions. Instruction must stay – this is what’s wanted they misled the audience. Besides (repeating one of Paddison’s favourite misconceptions) it’s entirely voluntary. With one stroke the plethora of complaints and legal action stemming from this “voluntary” monopoly was swept aside. This is typical of Nicholls, with a history of lies to media interviewers and parents. Could anyone forget her smirking appearance on The 7 Pm Project in late May?;

We unashamedly teach the Christian faith, that’s what we do, that’s what we’re allowed to do in government guidelines, and that’s what parents are happy for their children to receive. We still live in a country of faith, where people have a faith and how important faith is to them will of course vary from person to person.

Hale did acknowledge that the most important factor in a child’s spiritual development are parents. If parents bring them up not to believe in God, “then that’s more than likely how they’re going to end up”, he offered with a hint of despair. It was clear this was not good enough for Hale. After all he’s devoted to “making disciples of every nation” and we’d just heard how important this very belief was to his entire life.

As if channeling Evonne Paddison’s complaint that “some children never know the gospel, never know Christ”, Hale slipped up trying to convince the audience ACCESS respect parents decisions. “We only have a very small window of opportunity every week but parents are the ones who have the full opportunity, and we respect that”. But we know this is false, as time and again Paddison relays stories of students who “come to Christ” thanks to ACCESS and as such are able to later convert their godless parents.

“Opportunity to do what?” John Bornas challenged. Hale began to open up about instructing the gospel. Bornas challenged, “But you just said….”, only to be rudely cut off by Tonson who could see exactly what was about to happen. Hale’s house of cards was about to fall down under the weight of his treasured half hour per week. I had trouble accepting that Tonson’s chosen sequence of questioners should take precedence over such an admission of deception by Hale. Was time really so tight? No. So, what was Tonson’s motivation for saving Hale from “responding to [this] misunderstanding”?

Sadly, the issue of volunteers receiving just 6 hours training was lost in the early claims of Tonson that – like him – so many volunteers were trained teachers. I wondered if Paul Tonson would have his front porch painted by a company with a handful of trained painters. Before anyone could get a chance to ask why ACCESS wanted a chaplain attached to schools with the view of making “congregations” of students, our time was up.

The forum certainly wasn’t a waste of time. It marks recognition of the need and right for discussion when previously denial was the norm. Chatting to parents later however, many felt it was more of the same. Concerns raised respectfully were of course, all dismissed as aberrations. ACCESS have no intention of changing course. The good train ACCESS ministries hurtles on with truly dangerous people behind the controls. We can expect nothing more than obfuscation in place of reciprocation.

That festering sore will for now, remain.