21 Aug, 2012 04:00 AM
Paul Tonson, a Uniting Church minister, argues that religious instruction should not be taught in public schools.Ihave always been intrigued by people who are different – “the other’’. This may reflect my own feelings from a young age that I did not fit expectations of those around me, especially in my Christian community.

I came into the Uniting Church from another tradition and value its acceptance of a variety of theology and lifestyles.

After 35 years in ministry, I have found dialogue with people with other religious beliefs enriching, informative and of public interest.

I am leading a mostly senior congregation at Nunawading and Blackburn North Uniting Churches and exploring how public conversations with a variety of voices deepen understanding and support.

Seven years ago some of us formed the Jewish Christian Muslim Association of Australia and began annual conferences, including significant personal encounters.

Despite irreconcilable differences around theological beliefs, we are strongly united in promoting mutual respect, harmony and dialogue in our multi-faith society, especially through school presentations together.

In a secular society, there is no place for religious instruction in public schools outside of a full voluntary system.

There is currently a case before VCAT where the applicants have called for the classes to be held outside school hours, so we are waiting on the decision.

After years of happily teaching Christian religious instruction in schools in an open way, I now believe significant changes are needed.

It is not good for the Christian church to have a somewhat captive audience of primary school children, many of whom come from homes of other faiths or no faith.

I feel for parents who want their children to learn about world religions but reluctantly withdraw them from classes that provide religious instruction in only one faith.

By contrast, the interest we generate through interfaith JCMA presentations is phenomenal among students and teachers.

The Uniting Church has just begun an investigation about matters related to ACCESS Ministries, a group whose volunteers run religious instruction classes in 850 Victorian government primary schools.

The investigation is in response to the experience of some long-standing volunteer teachers who feel sidelined by more conservative voices within ACCESS, and some who believe the student workbooks do not provide a broad enough presentation of Christian views, especially about how to read the Bible and speak of God.

Meanwhile, my energies go to influence governments to provide general religions education for all children through the curriculum.Both faith and non-faith groups in Melbourne have worked on curriculum materials that could be used in schools.

Networks of teachers already use comprehensive programs of religious education, for example, the Catholic system and Dialogue Australasia Network. There are also programs such as JCMA and Building Bridges that offer a dynamic personal input to bring religion education alive for students. I hope these options will be developed and approved into the Australian curriculum.