We were delighted to hear from the Rev. Paul Tonson, a leading light in the faction of religious activists who promote interfaith understanding and peace among the various religions that make up Australia’s pluralist society.  Dr. Tonson was  was one of the first members of Jewish, Christian, Mulsim Association and served on the executive of the Council of Christians and Jews (Vic).  He is a tireless promoter of dialog and understanding between faiths.  


Rev. Paul Tonson (center) extends a hand, 
with other leading interfaith advocates in Victoria
from http://www.cam.org.au/eic/images/stories/SmallFredIanPaulBarneyOrhan.JPG


It should therefore come as no surprise that the question of how religion is presented in our schools to the 300K plus children in Victoria who attend state run schools matters to him.

Australia is now, and increasingly more all the time, a mixture of people from every race and heritage living in peace, under a common set of laws, with a shared set of institutions that serve the common good.  These public institutions co-exist side by side with private institutions such as churches, mosques and synagogues, but all exist under the banner of “secular governance” under the expectation that religion is an area where private conviction merits special limits and protections.  Living together in peace requires a positive commitment to “get along”.  Peace is never a passive thing, and it is a great credit to Australia that there is an active commitment to dialog among religious groups from people like Rev. Tonson.

One of the active FIRIS parents, working to coordinate this event for us, spoke with Dr. Tonson and will be emailing details to everyone and posting more here about the conversation that  Dr. Tonson has arranged and welcomed us to participate in.

Dr. Tonson, left the following in the comments of a previous post and we repost it here :

As a policy of appreciative listening to other voices, I personally have arranged and will conduct the conversation with Stephen Hale at Nunawading UC, 355 Whitehorse Road, Sept 18, from 4.00 to 5.30 pm.
FIRIS members can explore my interests by googling my name “Paul Tonson”.

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).
The DAN website elaborates the well tested pedagogy followed by those teachers and their schools.
To the webmaster, my email may be made available to any interested people open to respectful dialpogue. I would like to hear a well reasoned presentation from FIRIS.
Reverend Paul Tonson


A few quick points, and please make use of the thread here (and on the facebook page) for comments and questions, if you want to reach Dr. Tonson with a question or concern, email religionsinschool@gmail.com and we’ll forward this to him, otherwise I’m sure all would value the open character of exchange on the web (comment below).

On Respectful Dialog:

FIRIS parents have written hundreds of letters to the Minister of Education, and so called “Department of Wellbeing” only to be given the runaround.  When we raised legitimate points in writing, our points were ignored with circular reference to rules.  It is no secret that ACCESS MINISTRIES are a political lobby using our schools as what their leaders have called “the greatest mission field in Australia” (this quote is not taken out of context).

It is also true that politicians can give favors to religious voters by catering to the activists who claim to represent them, any attempt to reform this system will be, and has been met with a political response organized by ACCESS itself.  This parachurch has ballooned to a $12M political campaign body, with a five fold increase in state funding in the last year, and a tripling of staff – all driven by an agenda set out plainly in Paddison’s 2008 speech.   Even in the Uniting periodical, “Crosslight”, ACCESS leadership has called those who disagree, “rats”.     Anyone who followed the effort in NSW, saw first hand the direct clerically funded and led, political activism to keep “SRI” firmly in place, and to batter the daylights out of those parents who elected to create an “alternative” to SRI.  In the face of this kind of political intimidation, “respect” can be a very limited programme.  Simon Longstaff of the St. James Ethics Centre said it was the most dishonest political campaign he’d ever seen.

FIRIS parents, and others who are fed up with this nonsense, have therefore done two things.

First, we have taken legal action.

This is a nation of laws to which all religious groups are subject, and we are using this legal process to call attention to the fact that our children are being discriminated against in our schools.  We are not only claiming that the present SRI system discriminates against our children, we have one of the top law firms in the country making this case for us.  This complaint will be heard on Dec. 12th.  There is no greater form of “respectful dialog” than our legal system.  Above all else, what sets this society apart is “rule of law”.

Second, we’ve spoken in a way that we can’t be ignored.

Of course, simply being heard, has meant that others have had to hear things they don’t agree with.  It is easy to conflate respect with submission, or agreement.  We respect the people who want SRI, we just disagree with them, our position isn’t one of “misunderstanding” or disrespect, it is simply a case of being unwilling to be subject to the current rules and taking action to change them.  Some people, Bishop Hale among them, assert that “there are no complaints”, we disagree, because we are complaining.  Evonne Paddison, writes (in Crosslight) that “What has developed over a few short months is a deliberate attempt by the media to start a faith war  – to divide Christians against other Christians; faiths against faiths; congregations against congregations”.  We disagree, the media has accurately reported the facts, the only “faith war” being started here is by claiming that our campaign for reform violates the rights of SRI teachers to instruct children in religion.  We disagree that such a right exists.

Like our courts, the press is subject to laws and ethical standards, unlike the leaders of ACCESS who have quite unashamedly been willing to make demonstrably false statements and “blame the media”, when there is a group making a principled and reasonable claim.  If ACCESS has been “wronged” or “unfairly treated” in the media, I’m sure the media would retract anything that was not supportable.

FIRIS is a set of Principles:

Above all, FIRIS has articulated a 4 point “statement of aims” that clearly articulate what we want.  This discussion can and should take place at the level of principles, and not be conducted based on people’s emotions and passions, but according to what ACCESS’s leaders write in “Crosslight”, if they can’t teach SRI (in its current form) then they are oppressed and can’t have their faith.  This doesn’t pass the laugh test.

FIRIS parents have a right for their children to not be discriminated against by religious groups that claim privileges in our schools.  Religious groups either have a right to have policies set up in our schools that cater to them, or they don’t.  We say, they don’t.

FIRIS is not “anti religious, and religious groups should not commandeer secular institutions:  

Both FIRIS and the Victoria Branch of the AEU unambiguously support the involvement of trained teachers children “about religion”.  The problem of course is that what religious groups (chiefly ACCESS MINISTRIES) want to instruct children in religion, they want to do this purely from a perspective of promoting that religion to children in our schools, not from a comparative or even educationally sound perspective, and most insidiously, they want to conflate values with religious belief.  They also see no problem with giving a person 6 hours of training to undertake this work.

Our stance is that our teachers can and should be tasked with teaching about religions, and further that our schools actively work to instill the same values that give rise to our nations laws (and one of these is the principle of religious neutrality, and secular government), and we believe families can and should be trusted to attend to the religious formation of their children and that religious groups should not lobby politicians to make rules that have the effect of segregating children in primary school by religions.

On the failure of “interfaith movements” to make any difference in this issue:

The sad fact is that Rev. Tonson is right, there are many voices who are supportive of “GRE”, however, whether this means also that these voices support the aims of FIRIS, is a different question.

Many “faith groups”, have some stake in keeping SRI in place, because of this, there is a tendency for “faith groups” to take the easy step supporting GRE, but not taking the hard step of opposing SRI, or acknowledging that SRI creates divisions in the schools.  FIRIS has many minority faith parents who will explain why SRI is bad for their kids as minorities.

It is also very convenient for faith groups to claim that the current system is good because “everyone” has the same right to use it and people who don’t want to have SRI can “opt out” … none of these points acknowledge the core issue here:  SRI in our schools is coercive, and divisive, furthermore, it caters to “special interests” not the needs of children.

Interfaith groups, being made up of “faith groups” do not have a good track record of foregoing their cake for a balanced meal, instead they want to have their cake and eat it too.

It would be great if interfaith groups were as committed to upholding the principles which lead to tolerance and pluralism (i.e. to defend the Secular Principle in education, as a means of fairness for all) but doing this would mean taking a stand on an issue, and usually it means taking a stand against factions in their own group.

The result of this is that the hard things, like fixing the way religions are taught in schools don’t get done, and the easy things, like dialog, go on endlessly.

The aims of FIRIS have been endorsed by many interfaith figures, but the fact as long as these leaders merely editorialize, and do not themselves shoulder the burden of countering this kind of talk:

It’s time – time for Christians to stand together, united as the body of Christ, to defend our faith, and the values that have shaped this country today. (Canon Dr Evonne Paddison CEO of ACCESS ministries, June 1, 2011, Crosslight).

In the face of this kind of hysterical scaremongering, in which self interested people make SRI, a proxy for “the right of individuals to hold a faith and to express a faith“(Ibid).  There will always be the needs for courts of law in order to be heard.

It would be fantastic if those interfaith figures who care about this shouldered some of the burden, but as Yeats said:  The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

 The Conversation:

Please use the comments sections below to make suggestions for “conversation” being hosted by Rev Tonson.  FIRIS has, and will continue to conduct itself within the boundaries of respectful dialog and is completely supportive of the efforts of Rev. Tonson to encourage this.  This issue for many parents is very upsetting, and we hope that hearing first hand from them will contribute to a greater understanding about why reform is long overdue.