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Interfaith issues fuel education debate, inspire outreach

By Julia Stuart

Media focus on conflict during the Asia-Pacific Inter Faith Dialogue in Waitangi obscured one of its most far-reaching elements, a strong call for education about religions in all schools, including religious schools.

The Waitangi Declaration issued at the end of the international conference included a major section on Education. Nations present (including New Zealand) agreed to adopt an Action Plan that

  • Supports education about religions in all schools, including religious schools
  • Asks governments to ensure school curricula meet guidelines for fairness, accuracy and balance in discussing religious beliefs, and
  • Encourages religious leaders, education policy makers and interfaith civic organizations to work together to develop consensus guidelines for teaching about religions.

This goes much further than New Zealand’s own National Statement on Religious Diversity. It simply says that schools ‘should’ teach an understanding of different religious and spiritual traditions “in a manner that reflects the diversity of their national and local community”.

Some church people – notably Destiny Church but also Anglican columnist Rev Graeme Davidson – say that teaching about other religions in Christian schools is akin to promoting the competition. “If they have to teach about other faiths, religious schools whose focus is commitment to their faith could face a basic conflict of interest,” Graeme wrote in his Dominion Post column.

“Imagine the outcry if a business had to tell customers about its competitors.”

Church schools seem to be at the forefront of teaching about world religions, however. The Methodist Church’s Wesley College already does this, as part of its Life and Faith Curriculum.

“We are a Christian community living in the world,” said Wesley principal Ian Faulkner. “We have a responsibility to prepare those in our community for living in that world, which includes those who follow other faiths.

“Life and faith is taught throughout the school. What we teach varies according to the level and takes a comparative approach. We talk about our view of God in the world and how other faiths express their views on that.”

The National Statement on Religious Diversity is also being discussed in Methodist circles. Mission and Ecumenical Secretary John Roberts has circulated it through district and ethnic synods and hopes to have responses by the end of July.

“I hope there will be a reasonable amount of affirmation of the National Statement,” John says. “I’d like to see if we can get some ownership.”

John is himself on the executive of the Auckland Interfaith Council, which this year is running a series of meetings on life cycle events such as birth and death. At these well-attended gatherings, people from different faiths talk about ways they regard the life event and how it is expressed in actions and worship.

“These offer a significant engagement with other faith groups,” John says. “They’re very mixed which is great. There are probably more from the Christian churches than others but all local faiths are represented.”