The debate over religious instruction is blowing up in the media again after a situation exposed by local facebook page Oamaru Today (See; NZ Herald and Otago Daily Times) gained wider attention. A pastor at the “House of Breakthrough” church in Oamaru gave a sermon (listen to the audio below) where he talked about “infiltrating” schools and other organisations to spread Christian faith. You might think that this is a storm in a teacup and hardly worthy of media attention. After all, Brian Tamaki has said far worse things! The rub is that Pastor Damien Goodsir is also the Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Fenwick Primary School in Oamaru and the “School Chaplain”. It’s not hard to see why parents are claiming that there is a significant conflict of interest here!
You can listen to the sermon that has caused this uproar below. It was removed from the church website quickly (I got a copy) with the excuse that he had identified someone that he shouldn’t have. Although the whole sermon is basically about “extending the kingdom of god”, the most controversial comments as regards the school is at 18m 30s: “We can infiltrate a board, a school, our workplace, our community, our community with… Kingdom. Sound good? It is also your market place.”
At around the 23 minute mark, he also talks about how one of his church members is “already there” (on the school board) and “shining the light”.
At 25m 15s, he talks about two other members of his congregation who are “shining the light” through their access to children in sports teams and music.
The public reaction to this has been diverse. On one side, there are the people who are upset about his use of a privileged position of authority to further his own religious goals. They wonder how someone who is not only the chairman of the board but also a school chaplain, can possibly be trusted, when he has such a clearly stated religious agenda? On the other side are his supporters who are other Christians and people who have seen the good that he and his church have done in the community.
One thing that did come through clearly, is that people generally like Damien Goodsir and believe that he has had a positive influence on their community. They do not think he is a “bad guy”. I can see why they feel this way. I’ve read about community events, youth support and engagement with the school. This is great! But is it still great if the core motivation to do these things is to “extend the Kingdom of Heaven”? If you care to listen to the whole sermon, you can hear him entreat his listeners repeatedly to do good things with the ultimate aim of spreading their faith. Is it still “good” if their motivation is to gain more followers for their religion?
You might be forgiven for assuming that this is a recent occurrence that has been blown out of proportion but the debate over Religious Instruction classes at Fenwick school has gone on for some years. The situation in this small school isn’t entirely clear to those of us looking in from outside. However, I have heard that there have been multiple complaints over the years and that an independent school governance consultant, Cleave Hay, has been called in to the school to review the situation and make recommendations. Mr Hay was also called into the school in 2015 over similar issues that appear to have not only been unresolved, but are worse. I think it is disappointing that the Ministry of Education have not involved themselves in this situation.
Mr. Hay asked the school community to desist from raising the issue on social media, which I can understand, as he is trying to improve the situation, not fire it up. However, some people who are pro-religious instruction and the Board of Trustees (who are in the spotlight) would benefit from a “nothing to see here” approach. I think that frank and open discussion on social media can assist everyone in getting a clear view of what is really going on. The self-interested views of Tracy Kirkley and Tani Newton (below) are perfect examples of why it’s necessary to get this information out there, so that it can be openly debated and misinformation can be debunked for the propaganda it really is.
The Oamaru Today facebook page had three different discussions running at the time of writing. On each of them, there were people who were trying to shut the conversation down to protect the status-quo. The justifications were false or emotive rather than justified. They were generally people who were either involved with the church or actually RI teachers themselves. Tracy Kirkley appeared a number of times to try and claim the classes are a choice (a choice forced by discrimination), that it has nothing to do with anyone who doesn’t have kids at the school (this is a national issue) or that the classes are allowed under the Education Act (while breaching the Human Rights Act 1993). It was some hours after she started commenting that she was identified as the Public Relations Manager for the Churches Education Commission, who actually provide the syllabus for the classes! It was only after she was “outed” that she identified her position with the CEC.
The Otago Daily Times ran an article titled “Chairman regrets churchy message” where they say Mr Goodsir “regretted his words” but I suspect he only regrets getting caught saying them. There is no way to re-word what he said so that the religious goals he was so clear about and that the positions of responsibility that he and his church members are in, are not a way to “infiltrate” a group of people to further their religious faith. He didn’t use the wrong word. He used the right word in the right context.
You can see a comment from Tani Newton (see below) where she tries to defend the religious instruction classes. What she doesn’t mention is that she is a Calvinist Fundamentalist who is one of the RI teachers at the same school where Damien Goodsir is on the Board of Trustees, Fenwick School. A local parent stated on facebook that; “ It was a member of her church who saw nothing wrong with teaching my then 5 year olds class all about hell alongside ‘but if you believe in God you get to go to heaven’.” This is just one of the issues that parents have with RI classes… at it’s core, the message is; “If you don’t agree with us, bad things will happen to you”. There might be no mention of hell in the actual class but the very act of bringing religious faith into the school means that these sort of attitudes are in the playground and spread to children who have little defence against them.
The comment above by Tani Newton is also very misleading. Here’s a breakdown;
- The CEC (Churches Education Commission) does not have any authoritative position to “oversee” religious instruction. They are the biggest but not the only provider. It’s like saying that MacDonalds oversees the distribution of hamburgers in NZ.
- The CEC is effectively “self accrediting” teachers who want to teach their lessons. There is no independent accreditation and the Ministry of Education does not approve, review or have any involvement in formulating the lessons or approving the (unqualified) teachers.
- Parents are unlikely to ever get a good look at the teacher guides for the lessons other than what the CEC want to show them. The CEC will not give them to anyone other than people teaching the lessons.
- She claims that Fenwick School have “bent over backwards to cater to parents’ wishes” but under the CEC’s own guidelines, the lessons shouldn’t have gone ahead as there wasn’t enough support at the school.
- She states that the classes are “barely even Christian”. While her more extreme version of Christianity might see it this way, it’s a ridiculous claim. The lessons teach the existence of God, the bible as being the true word of God and Jesus as being his son. They are very Christian and use the Ministry of Education curriculum values as a smokescreen to teach religious faith.
To get an idea of where Tani Newton is coming from, you can read this 2012 article on the Otago Daily Times where she blames “rejection of our Christian heritage” as a cause of child abuse. Tani Newton is also a strong advocate of home-schooling. In fact, she is so against state schooling that she describes it like this…
Let’s face it – we live in a society that views the state as God and ‘education’ (meaning school) as the Messiah. That is, surely, the only sufficient explanation why millions of loving parents send their children out the door every morning to places where they will be threatened, intimidated, offered drugs, solicited to have sex, and possibly violently attacked, raped or murdered.
Ironically, I also found a submission by her against a “Social Security (Benefit Categories and Work Focus) Amendment Bill” that was going through Parliament. It’s ironic because of a statement that she makes against state-school education, which I think it more accurately directed at her and people like her who are trying to “infiltrate” primary schools to spread their own religious beliefs. Here it is…
He was no fool who said “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Anyone who wants to control the care and education of small children wants to control the whole of society.
So… you can see that the non-Christian parents in Oamaru who have kids at Fenwick School are besieged by the faithful, with their children at the front line. The great thing about this small community is that they are standing up for themselves. They are brave enough to say that their children’s minds are not “broken” and they are not “sinners”, in the face of a society that seems to equate all things Christian with being “good”. Well… indoctrination is not good. It is brain-washing. First, teach children how to think so that they can form their own opinions without being coerced into a religion at a school that should allow them freedom from religious pressure.
Do you really want your kids to have their religious faith dictated to them by a Board of Trustees Chairman that sent this message out to his congregation in his newsletter of March 2016? (PDF document)
What do all these things have in common?
- Sports teams
- Work places
They all need to be infiltrated with the Kingdom of God! They are all market places that you can take the Kingdom of God to. Our whole reason for existence has to be to extend the Kingdom of God into the world, and this will not happen by sitting in church shining our light and saying “yay what a happy bunch of people we are”, there must be an action. There has to be a reaction inside you, a reaction to what God has done for you.
Considering that Mr Goodsir is an evangelical pastor in a position of power as a board chairman and with direct access to children as a school chaplain, how can we expect him to go against his religious beliefs? As a Christian he is obligated to proselytize (attempt to convert others to his religious faith).
Matthew 28:18-20 New International Version (NIV)
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Please comment below and let me know what you think! Read the review of the independent report here.