The school chaplaincy debate, Benedict and me

Alice Priest

Alice Priest

St Benedict affirms for me the great value of one who humbly strives to live out the guiding values of the community and is a witness rather than an expert, writes Alice Priest.

BY Alice Priest*

It’s much easier telling people that I’m an English teacher than a Studies of Religion teacher. Yet, it’s easier telling people I’m a Religion teacher than the College Chaplain. The truth is I am all of these things; but the current debate about the National School Chaplains Program (NSCP), of which I am a funding recipient, has made me deeply examine one of these roles.

School chaplains have had a long history in religious schools like mine (St Scholastica’s College, Glebe) and, more recently (and not without controversy), a funded presence in secular schools as well. A chaplain’s role, according to the NSCP Guidelines, concerns “assisting students in exploring their spirituality [and] providing guidance on religious, values and ethical matters”, whilst being sure not “to impose any religious beliefs or persuade an individual toward a particular set of religious beliefs”.

Traditionally, “chaplain” meant an official representative of the Christian faith; however, the title is now applied more broadly to religious and lay people of other religions or philosophies, extending so far as to include ‘generic’ or ‘multi-faith’ chaplaincies, especially in health and educational settings.

I was initially taken aback in recent weeks when the likes of declared Catholics Maxine McKew and Bob Carr came out in favour of axing the NSCP’s place in the Federal budget and expressed cynical attitudes regarding the ‘benefits’ to a school of having a chaplain. It is understandable that McKew and Carr oppose chaplaincy being budgeted to the tune of $245 million when so many other vital areas in education and social services have been drastically cut. But McKew goes further, arguing that chaplains are utterly “marginal” in the “education agenda”. In a recent episode of ABC1’s The Drum, McKew said that, while doing research for a book about schools, she has been in and out of countless educational settings where the seminal question – “What makes a difference in a school?” – was never met with a reply that made any reference to the chaplain.

I wonder, is my chaplaincy role so insignificant? This is not a question of my self-importance, but for me, a question of the measurable worth of having an explicitly identified, paid person, whose job it is to be “assisting students in exploring their spirituality [and] providing guidance on religious, values and ethical matters” (NCSP Guidelines) in a school.

Much of the public debate about the government-funded NSCP has questioned both the funding for, and credibility of, a chaplain’s contribution to the “benefit” of student well-being and care. Being overtly “religious” in a government school environment is invariably equated in blogs such as stopthenscp.org with being tantamount to some kind of treason wherein the sacred values of Australia are being threatened or undermined by Christians whose most terrible “vision is to reach every student … with the Gospel” (Victoria ACCESS Ministries).

Anti-NCSP bloggers, such as Daniel Midgley, have characterised the whole program as a “beast” and celebrate the recent High Court ruling that the present NCSP Commonwealth funding path was found not to be within the parameters of Section 51 of the Constitution. It is vulgarly cheered as, “…a great win for secularism and democracy and a huge f*@# you to … Tony Abbott…. And of course, for all the unqualified evangelical pastors suddenly robbed of their audience, who will be crying in their beer tonight”.

As such debate has raged, I have reflected on my own role as a chaplain in a Good Samaritan College. Whilst chaplains are not de rigueur in the present climate, I acknowledge that it is much easier to be this strange creature of contention in a Catholic school, where the context is explicitly Christian, than in a State school. Still, it has made me question: What “benefit” am I? Am I really an ‘unqualified evangelical pastor’ looking for an ‘audience’? Is there a legitimate role for me, or anyone in a school setting, to be explicitly “assisting students in exploring their spirituality [and] providing guidance on religious, values and ethical matters”, whilst being sure not “to impose any religious beliefs or persuade an individual toward a particular set of religious beliefs” (NSCP Guidelines)?

In light of last week’s July 11 feast of our patronal saint, Benedict, I have looked afresh at what the ancient Father of Western Monasticism has to offer me in this contemporary predicament. The giver of the Rule that guides the identity of my college, and so very many of those who have in the past 15 centuries set about “to found a school of the Lord’s service” (Prologue, RB), has helped forge a new and quiet confidence in me to claim my own identity as a school chaplain in the public domain.

CHAPTER XXI of the Rule of St Benedict
Of the Deans of the Monastery
“If the brotherhood is large, let brethren of good repute and holy life be chosen from among them and be appointed Deans; and let them take care of their deaneries in everything according to the commandments of God and the directions of their Abbot. Let such be chosen Deans as the Abbot may safely trust to share his burden. Let them not be chosen for their rank, but for the merit of their life and their wisdom and knowledge; and if any of them, puffed up with pride, should be found blameworthy and, after having been corrected once and again and even a third time, refuseth to amend, let him be deposed, and one who is worthy be placed in his stead.”

Benedict gives over a chapter to the role of the Dean (closely approximating today’s chaplain) in his Rule, and alludes to its importance as being second only to that of the Abbot – aka the principal. Clearly, for Benedict it is an aspect of the enterprise that is not marginal, but the trusted “burden” at the heart of things that all should be in accord with “the commandments of God”. Interestingly, Benedict wades directly into today’s chaplaincy debate when he directs that the Dean should be not “chosen for their rank, but for the merit of their life and their wisdom and knowledge”. The fact that formal qualifications in counselling are not required for a pastoral chaplain in a school is often a major criticism.

Benedict affirms for me the great value of one who humbly strives to live out the guiding values of the community and is a witness rather than an expert. I am not without qualifications. However, in my role as chaplain, my experience tells me that what students value, or at least respect, more than qualifications, is that I make a clear faith commitment which has a tangible consequence for how I then live and relate to others; that I develop my spirituality, that I am prayerful, that I am passionate about the dignity of the human person, and encourage others to do the same. I don’t go about encouraging students to adopt my faith and spirituality, but by what I do and who I am, make a space for them to dialogue, question, test, discover and nurture their own.

Benedict insists that the Dean must not be “puffed up with pride”, or as blogger Midgley would say, playing for “an audience”. This speaks to me of the proviso that chaplains whilst being religiously affiliated, must be sure not “to impose any religious beliefs or persuade an individual toward a particular set of religious beliefs” (NSCP Guidelines). The chaplain’s role is to inspire rather than require, even in an explicitly Christian context like mine.

But inspiration is hard to measure. How do we determine the dollar value of creating an institutional ‘space’ for questioning one’s values, or exploring one’s nascent spirituality? Yet those students who find this space amongst the valuable lessons of literacy and numeracy, who learn how to find meaning and meaningful connection by example and relationship, may well believe that chaplaincy can and does make an immeasurable difference.

* Alice Priest is a religious educator with more than 15 years’ experience across a range of settings – from the classroom to youth ministry and teacher education. She has lived and worked in Catholic school systems and ministries in Italy, Germany, South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria. Alice is currently enjoying a teaching and chaplaincy role at St Scholastica’s College, Glebe.

Download a printer-friendly version (PDF 105KB)


The Good Oil, July 15, 2014. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

4 Responses to “The school chaplaincy debate, Benedict and me”

  1. Geoff Geaney says:

    Hi Alice,
    I enjoyed reading your article, via Cathnews as it makes a valuable contribution to the current discussion. When I began teaching in 1971 most of our Catholic Schools were Order-run or at very least with a significant proportion of staff who were Religious. They performed the role you speak of in your article and for the most part were great role models for us during our school years.
    With the passing of the years the numbers of Religious began to decline but many of those ex-Religious, including myself stayed on in our Catholic Schools and Hospitals and the role continued. Many of us are nearing our retirement and society is rapidly changing so I can see that the role of Chaplain will be become even more crucial for our young people as they begin to grapple with issues that we haven’t even heard of yet.
    Yes I am a School Chaplain and I work in a Catholic P-12 College of the Franciscan Tradition and I experience daily the difference it does make to kids, staff and parents. I would go so far as to say that social, emotional and spiritual literacy is even more important than numeracy and literacy.
    I am passionate about School Chaplaincy across all sectors, being a member of our own CEO cluster group and also our Local (SU) Chaplaincy Committee (LCC)
    After many years in our schools in the three Eastern States I had a break from teaching and worked as a Parish Pastoral Associate in Aged-Care, Hospital and Liturgical ministry. Now, I just love being back with the kids where it all started so long ago. I just love coming to work each day and consider myself blessed. I know that these same kids give so much back to me with rarely a day going by without me learning something from them. I have always believed that any institution, especially a Catholic School stands or falls on the quality of its relationships. I know that School Chaplains play a huge part in that and I pray that they will continue to do that for many years to come.
    Thanks again Alice and many blessings to you as you continue in your ministry.

  2. Luke says:

    An interesting article, being a State School Chaplain myself I have found myself wondering if what I do makes any difference. The recent High Court ruling and subsequent cheering by people has also hit hard, however, hearing my principal and fellow staff members say we couldn’t do without you, being greeted by eager students each day with “Hey Chappy, whatcha doin’ with us today?” and by parents with smiles and tales of thankfulness, I know it’s worth it and it makes a difference. Keep it up.

  3. Pam says:

    Dear Alice,
    I read your article with interest as you discovered meaning. Chaplaincy is much more than a role, isn’t it? In RB 66 On The Porter, there is one very powerful line-“so that those who come always find someone present from whom they can receive an answer.” Your presence is valuable. Pam

  4. Nev Hunt says:

    I would like you to know that I admire your composure in response to the negative comments and encourage you to persevere in the humble way you go about doing good for the younger members of our society.

Leave a Comment

The aim of The Good Oil's comment section is to encourage respectful conversation and dialogue. When posting your comment please:

  • be brief (no more than 120 words) and keep on topic;
  • be respectful of others whether you agree with their opinion or not;
  • be careful about posting your personal information online.

Our comment section is moderated. Your name and email are required for identification purposes. Your email will not be published. We reserve the right to not publish comments.