Chaplains or Youth Workers : Tensions in Queensland and Beyond?


Whilst at the Queensland Youth Affairs conference I had a brief, but fascinating chat with Steve Forward, the representative of the Scripture Union Queensland [SU QLD]. His presence at the event was a touch controversial, given that his organisation is the leading provider of school chaplains or ‘chappies’ in the state. SU QLD has placed ‘chappies’ in 56% of all Queensland state primary schools and in 87% of all Queensland state high schools. Its web site explains:

SU QLD chaplains, or ‘chappies’, provide spiritual and emotional support to school communities. They are in the prevention and support business: helping students find a better way to deal with issues ranging from family breakdown and loneliness, to drug abuse, depression and anxiety. They provide a listening ear and a caring presence for kids in crisis, and those who just need a friend. They also provide support for staff and parents in school communities.

This might seem standard fare nowadays in rationalising the use of youth workers in schools. I say ‘youth workers’ as the SU QLD uses this description of their ‘chappies’, affirming that its personnel hold a Certificate 4 in Youth Work or are working to a Diploma in Youth Work. However criticism of and resistance to the Schools Chaplaincy Programe has been witnessed on at least two fronts.

1. Since 2012 a long-running battle has been waged by a Queensland father, Ron Williams against the national funding arrangements for the national chaplaincy programme. He is opposed to religious chaplains in secular state schools, including the one attended by his children. However the challenge to the programme has been fought out on technical rather than political grounds, in terms of the way in which the finance has been delivered to the providers. Indeed, despite winning a High Court ruling, Williams is about to return to the chambers as the government has rushed through amended legislation and paid the Scripture Union of Queensland more than $6.2 million.  Nevertheless a significant body of opinion continues to argue passionately that the chaplaincy programme undermines the secular tradition in state schooling and reveals that the separation of Church and State in Australia is not as clear as supposed. Indeed there has been criticism of the ‘christianisation’ of youth work.

Read the saga in more detail at School Chaplains and the High Court plus Chaplains head back to the High Court

2. In all of this the Conservative government has an ideological agenda, not at all dissimilar to our own Coalition. Hence, in its determination to impose the chaplaincy programme delivered through what we might term an outsourced provider it has decided to remove the option for schools to appoint a non-religious youth worker under the scheme. As the SU QLD underlines its staff are guided as follows:

Scripture Union Queensland (SU QLD) and School Chaplaincy ACT (SC ACT) Chaplains model the compassion and unconditional love demonstrated and taught by Jesus, as recorded in the Bible.  A Chaplain will therefore be a person whose beliefs and lifestyle reflect a Biblical understanding of and a commitment to the teachings, life and person of Jesus Christ. While exercising their role from within this framework, SU QLD/ SC ACT chaplains will be sensitive to, respectful of, and available to all regardless of beliefs or religious affiliations.

Meanwhile the Australian Education Union reports that almost 600 secular school welfare officers are set to lose their jobs as the revamped Chaplaincy program replaces the existing School Welfare Program from the start of 2015. I’m not sure how many of these redundant staff would see themselves as  youth workers or counsellors or pastoral care etc.

Whatever your beliefs it seems a holy or unholy mess! But does this have any significance for youth work here in the UK? Given that our Campaign is committed to organising an Engaging Critically seminar on ‘Faith-based Youth Work’, given that more than a few of our supporters are religious in belief, a number of questions and contradictions are posed.

1. As best I grasp what’s going on the renaissance in faith-based youth work within the UK over the last two decades has grown from below in a diversity of ways. In contrast the Australian Chaplains initiative is clearly imposed from above, which is not to claim there is no support for it at a grass-roots level.

2. The SU QLD’s defence of its practice, Dispelling myths, Answering questions, makes conspicuously no reference to wages and conditions. Whilst the faith-based sector has illustrated its commitment to training right up to degree level, has its ambivalent stance on wages and conditions played into the hands of neo-liberal governments in both the UK and Australia eager to undermine national agreements?

3. The SU QLD stresses repeatedly that its intervention is spiritual rather than religious in intent. It is an argument I have heard often and it seems to bridge the gap between believers and non-believers. It proposes a consensus of opinion that there is something beyond time, the immediate, something beyond material existence, our everyday lives. To put it crudely, for believers this something is God, for non-believers this something is an inner essence, a true self. All of which leaves those of us with little time either for God or our inner essence in a predicament. For myself I can only say I have no desire to find inner peace within a world ridden with oppression and exploitation. However perhaps I protest too much the notion of spirituality is probably most used in the educational context to explore creativity, imagination, intuition, feelings and emotions. So less of my ‘pop’ philosophy there are issues here, often brushed under the rug, that it would be fruitful to tease out and discuss in the coming months – not least to ask how helpful is the very idea of faith-based youth work itself?


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