The decision by Uniting Church to form a task force and probe it’s relationship with ACCESS ministries, in addition to how best to teach Christian education, should come as welcome news to FIRIS supporters.

From the earliest days of dissent with the ACCESS monopoly, to exposure of Evonne Paddison’s blueprint for converting students and raising congregations within schools, to the so-called Federal Inquiry into adherence to education guidelines, one theme has persisted. That aggressive secularism and atheism is behind the criticism of ACCESS. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The feverish evangelical fervour of ACCESS ministries has proven time and again that it is at variance with mainstream Christianity and education guidelines that stipulate proselytising is forbidden. Concerned Victorians have been awarded lip service from ACCESS ministries and recidivist impotence from federal and state education ministers. Yet as so eloquently scribed by Rev. Ronald Noone in May this year, not only does Evonne Paddison believe her vision is just because “students are lost without Jesus”, such a claim is “manifestly untrue”. Elaborating, Noone continues;

There is, of course, a certain kind of evangelical Christian who believes the message is the same regardless of the context in which it is expressed. They believe this task is carrying out the God-given role assigned to them – to preach the Gospel and make disciples of all (Matthew 28). Given this is a primary text for many evangelicals, is it any wonder that conversion is an aim of their presence in school classrooms?

In contrast to a parish setting, a classroom is where formal education takes place and the overall aim is to promote knowledge and understanding of the ways in which human beings have made sense of the spiritual dimension in all of human experience. […] The classroom is a place to promote intellectual rigor and provide a context of genuine enquiry and where respect for religious traditions is matched by an honest and open appreciation of the theological, philosophical and exegetical complexities embedded in religious beliefs, texts, traditions and cultures. It is not a place for narrow forms of instruction.

Far from appreciating such an axiomatic notion, Paddison’s disdain for those who would articulate it came a week later in a Crosslight article, Christian religious education takes a secular beating;

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.

It’s sensationalist journalism – find a schism in the foundation, a rat in the ranks, report the division and watch the Letters to the Editor or the news blog implode with atheistic comment. [….]

With 12 million Christians in Australia, and nearly 65 per cent of parents opting their children into CRE classes, Christians too should have a choice.  Detractors claim that CRE should be confined to Sunday. I’ve got news for them – God is with us, always, not just on the day of rest.

Her anosognosia as to her own role in creating such angst across the ranks of faiths, congregations and Christians was ironically summed up perfectly. In what has become a habit of self sabotage it is so often Paddison herself who confirms her unsuitability to be approving curricula, or to be directing volunteers;

At the same time anecdotal complaints have been made about children colouring in sheets saying “Jesus loves me”.

If we can’t make that claim as a faith educator, what is left?

Of course, whilst the substance of that claim may rightly be dear to the hearts of many the issue here is of ACCESS’ responsibility to education guidelines. One can only make that claim as an indoctrinator, and gentle as it may be it marks the point of departure from education to instruction. Put simply, if one does make that claim one is not a faith educator. Herein lies the problem.

For thirty four minutes at the 2008 Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion Evonne Paddison spelled out her plan to save Australian churches from “a slow death march”, through the application of CRE. We can be in no doubt about, and must not waver toward accepting excuses for, Paddison’s intention to shirk legislative responsibility in favour of theocratic vision. Much has been made of her comments to “make disciples”. But the speech contained far more insight into her conviction to the cause.

For ACCESS Sunday, Paddison provided the format for Christine Burford’s sermon at Naringal Baptist Church.

CRE workers are definitely there to present the gospel… our business is to transform lives and of course ACCESS ministries does represent God, so it’s gunna be attacked. No matter what it takes, God’s got a plan and he’s gunna bring it to pass, he’s Sovereign…

A board member of Arrow Leadership who subscribe to the Lausanne Covenant with a stated aim to “make disciples of every nation”, it is clear that education is far from Paddison’s agenda. A fellow board member is Bishop Stephen Hale, Chair of ACCESS ministries. Her conviction to succeed cannot be overstated. 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 went on to quote 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”.

As a personal conviction this is nobody else’s business. Yet as the foundation “to reach every child in Victoria through the transforming love of God and His son, Jesus” it is robust confirmation of her intent to use the privileged position held by ACCESS. This is no “bread and butter” Christian values at play here. She seeks to;

…promote the same marks of discipleship for young people as those that the Bible presents to us. But of course, in a way that is appropriate and contextual to them. The first step in becoming a disciple is clearly believing, but so many of our young people have never heard the gospel.

Paddison stated that children and students are the greatest mission field for disciple making in Australia. Happy to admit classrooms are being used for ministry in place of education, “both at state level and at national level both in government and non government schools”, she goes on to challenge;

… but we must ask how much of that ministry is actually resulting in Christian conversion and discipleship growing and resulting in church growth? We have a huge challenge ahead of us. We must develop the right attitude and framework and goals and models in order to see not only Christian ministry taking place but conversion, discipleship and commitment to a Christian faith community. Clearly we need fresh thinking. There’s no question that to be a Christian is to belong to Jesus’ church. Membership of a faith community is vital. And our model for discipleship must include this. [….] We need to be like Jesus who became one of us and pitched his tent in order to reveal grace and truth….

At times one wonders exactly who the perceived beneficiaries of this plan really are;

Our engagement must show that Jesus is the best of all choices. Do not water it [Scripture] down. We have to reflect the relationships of the persons of the Trinity in our relationships in Christ’s new society. As we develop this perspective in our encounter with students we will tap into their longing for belonging and acceptance that has grown out of a world of divorce and division.

The theme of dealing with wounded children is central to her chaplaincy plans also. As we know, Evonne Paddison did not budge, insisting that her speech had been taken out of context. In July the Commonwealth Ombudsman criticised the National Chaplaincy Program. ACCESS went into damage control.

Suddenly ACCESS ministries “strongly support” the finding of the Ombudsman. Public debate about religion in schools is nothing new, we’re told pleasantly and has “it’s genesis” in the case being brought before VCAT and the High Court challenge. Evonne could now “acknowledge” some debate arose about her speech, but ACCESS still had no compromise to make.

I accept that parts of that speech could have better emphasised that ACCESS ministries does not and never has condoned proselytising in schools. I understand how people could have interpreted it otherwise… that was never my intention. What I meant is that ACCESS ministries has an opportunity to teach children what Christians believe.

ACCESS ministries forbids proselytising and we continue to respect the context in which we honour our privilege and serve the school community. The federal government recently conducted an investigation… and found no evidence that we had tried to convert in breach of government guidelines.

You couldn’t make this stuff up. Interestingly however, at the Forward Together rally just 72 hours before that “investigation” was made public, Paddison told the audience “this is a great ministry and we don’t want to be dependent upon the whims and changes of politicians”. Enraptured about the future expansion of ACCESS overseas Paddison insisted the crowd stand and plead allegiance to ACCESS. Then, almost menacingly;

The one we serve is the same yesterday, today and forever and His purposes will not be thwarted!

Recently Bishop Hales appearance at Nunawading before a small group of FIRIS parents was geared to be “…primarily an opportunity for ACCESS to clarify its program and philosophy and hopefully to respond to any misunderstandings.” What eventuated was a highly choreographed and predetermined agenda during which Hale took no responsibility for the shortcomings of ACCESS ministries. Rev. Paul Tonson, (coordinating) ran a strict time table which precluded Hale being properly grilled on many points.

He at least made no bones that being a Christian to him, meant making disciples. Yet a parent with a highly distressed child was offered an apology. A mother concerned at the segregation was informed this was the education department’s business.

At one point, defensively arguing the importance of Bible instruction in Australian classrooms Hale inexplicably offered;

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

We’ve heard this before of course, in an almost identical appeal to authority from Evonne Paddison;

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

With Paul Tonson’s reputation in interfaith dynamics and the importance of General Religious Education to many parents, there was expectation that some acknowledgement would be made about GRE’s promise. However, Hale stood his ground that exposing children to religious instruction was crucial. Most tellingly Acting CEO Rev.Denise Nicholls chimed in claiming that her “counterparts” wanted no such thing. We know from the 2006 census that Hinduism is Melbourne’s fastest growing religion, even though it’s absent from the rote mantra of “Jewish, Christian Orthodox, Ba’hai, Muslim”, that ACCESS reference to imply there’s not really any monopoly in RE.

Nicholls maintained there was no need for GRE. It wasn’t wanted by her counterparts and the need for individual instruction was reinforced by the “seventy or so” Hindu positions that had been created. Apparently parents wishes mattered not at all. Sounding like Paddison herself, Nicholls insisted “Besides it’s voluntary”, sweeping aside any hope of discussion that education about religion had a place in the classroom. It was plain the ACCESS view the notion of GRE as a threat.

Finally Hale slipped up. His house of cards was fragile already and then sounding distressed he offered that if parents bring children up not to believe in God “that’s likely how they’re going to end up”.

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.

“Opportunity to do what?”, responded John Bornas, FIRIS spokesperson. Hale began to answer about individual RI, and was immediately challenged again. But seeing where this would lead Tonson swooped to his rescue and intoned that he’d selected the sequence of questioners and John Bornas wasn’t heard from again. However it was quite clear Stephen Hale saw that half hour every week as an opportunity to preach the gospel as ACCESS saw fit.

There are of course, almost a legion of other issues and other identities well aware of the deception employed by ACCESS ministries in their quest to convert very young Victorians. Which brings us back to Uniting Church. Barney Zwartz writes;

THE Uniting Church, one of the key partners in Access Ministries that provides religious education in Victorian primary schools, has backed away from supporting the beleaguered agency.

The church’s state synod (parliament) declined to vote on a proposal that the church continue to support the work of Access, instead forming a task group to explore the relationship between it and the synod, and how best to teach Christian education. [….]

Annette Blaze, a Uniting Church representative on the Access board, proposed that the synod support Access, suggesting the ministry was victim of a campaign to attack the Christian base of Australia’s culture and noting that investigations by both state and federal education ministers found criticisms of Access were unfounded.

But the synod opted for a proposal by Macedon Ranges minister Avril Hannah-Jones to investigate the Access curriculum. ”There have been complaints. Some, clearly from the secular and new atheist perspective, I thought we could discount, but some came from parents and Uniting Church volunteers which I thought were worth exploring,” Dr Hannah-Jones told The Age last night.

Whilst it’s taken a long time to see something like this suddenly come to fruition of it’s own accord, it’s striking how static ACCESS ministries has been in formulating a proper response. Despite the anger, the denials, the obfuscation and the clumsy attempts at damage control the real substance of defence remains the same. There is “a campaign to attack the Christian base of Australian culture”. ACCESS is “a victim’.

Whatever happens, we all know that is just simply not true.