Future of the Organised Church Part II: Is Segregated Education Benign Apartheid?

image Yesterday I began a series of blogs about last week’s panel discussion on ‘The Future of the Organised Church: Any Questions?’, organised by the Fermanagh Churches Forum. More details about the event, including the participants, can be read on my previous post.

One of the questions was whether or not the panel agreed with Peter Robinson: that segregated education in Northern Ireland – supported and sustained by the churches – amounted to a system of ‘benign apartheid.’

Peter Robinson has been much criticised for the speech in which he said this, largely for seeming to ‘blame’ the Catholic Church for instigating segregated education in the first place. Some think that even when Peter Robinson says something that appears reconciliatory, there is really a sectarian motive!

Setting the question of Peter Robinson’s motives aside, I almost agree with him: In Northern Ireland, segregated education isn’t benign apartheid – it’s malign apartheid.

But not everyone on the panel agreed with me. The parish priest, Fr Peter O’Reilly, and Sr. Elizabeth Fee, a retired teacher from the Sisters of Mercy, were both concerned about losing a religious ‘ethos’ in education.

They conceived of this ethos not as ramming religion down children’s throats, but as inculcating in students a sense of morality, an awareness of the divine, and a respect for human life.

In response to that, a member of the audience said that her children attended the integrated school in Enniskillen and the ethos in it is as O’Reilly and Fee described – though it was neither Catholic nor Protestant.

Further, the Presbyterian Rev David Cupples and Fr O’Reilly both said that they thought that parents should have a right to choose a religious education for their children.

What bemuses me – all the more so because I am American – is the expectation that the state should support faith-based education. Where I come from, faith-based primary and secondary schools are private and receive limited state funds, if any.

I think the expectation that the state should support religious education assumes a very dim view of the church.

Can the church itself not be trusted to ‘make disciples’ of children, preaching the gospel and inculcating Christian values? As Sr Fee said, the churches in Ireland could learn from parishes in the UK and US where laypeople were taking on greater roles in providing religious education for children in congregational contexts.

I do have some sympathy for the general or universal ‘right’ to a religious education, but I think that the Northern Ireland context demands that we move beyond discourses about rights on this particular issue.

It is incredible to me that leaders in our churches, Catholic and Protestant, cannot see and admit that segregated education is damaging for our society.

Meaningful change in our segregated educational system is impossible unless the churches themselves assume leadership on the matter.

Are Christians in Northern Ireland willing to sacrifice their ‘right’ to a religious education if doing so would promote the common good?

4 Responses to Future of the Organised Church Part II: Is Segregated Education Benign Apartheid?

  1. Chris November 1, 2010 at 2:58 pm #

    Fewer Catholic schools which would be more faithful to their mission is possibly the way forward. How this can be done whilst ensuring that poor Catholic families can avail of these schools is another matter. The last thing we want is a few elitist ‘Catholic’ schools for toffs.

    Right now, it is my opinion that the Church (the Catholic Church) is full of goats. The few sheep are neglected while the shepherds feed the goats mediocrity.

  2. John McMahon November 4, 2010 at 12:14 am #

    “Apartheid” is a smear word. Apartheid was a system by which the white Presbyterians of South Africa tried to maintain their privileges. Catholic schools in Northern Ireland exist to restrict Presbyterian power over Catholics. (It was the Presbyterians who did most to segregate education in Ireland.)

    Segregated education in Northern Ireland is benign and very benign. It has protected most of the Catholics of Northern Ireland from Protestant aggression in schools. Of course, it has not been able to do so completely. In December 1989 the Fair Employment Agency published the report on its investigation of Queens University, Belfast. Of 101 professors, only 3 were Catholics – and an even greater sectarian imbalance in the clerical and administrative grades – and a yet greated imbalance against Catholics in the manual grades. And Queens University had, for very many years, been the (supposed) flagship of integrated education.

  3. Michael (England) November 10, 2010 at 1:16 am #

    It’s essential to maintain diversity in education, including home schooling. The existence of as many different forms of education as possible is a sign of safety.

    I didn’t go to a Catholic or C of E school (I am Catholic) but in my day the (county) junior school staff were as it happens very Christian (Protestant but not Presbyterian) and so were a lot of the neighbours, and most of the rest of them were also nice minded, so it was a humane, nurturing environment except for its quota of bullies. My (county) secondary school was an offhand place.

    There is nothing in the Catholic Bible that says Protestants should be regarded with enmity.

    During my Protestant (but not Presbyterian) phase I found nothing in my Protestant Bible that said Catholics should be regarded with enmity.

    I wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes in your country from what I’ve heard of it.

    People wanting to impose an education system should be guarded against in this day & age. (The origin of schooling was very uncentralised indeed.) They embody the intolerance that too few of you (who claim an identity) want to root out.

    Are you saying the same nuns that beat Catholic children verbally abused Protestant ones? Then sort the nuns out. For example.

    Don’t take it out on the children by depriving them. Find good Protestant and Catholic education and not just for toffs like Chris says.

  4. Michael (England) November 13, 2010 at 12:26 am #

    Gladys, Challenge the Presbyterians too.
    When I went to a Catholic congress abroad we had to meet in language groups at one time and when we English Catholics went into the tent where the Irish Catholics were they booed us, I found it off putting as fellow Catholics to them. (Cardinal O’Fee was there. That was 30 years ago.) I have however met a number of Irish Catholics as individuals in England, inspiring people all of them. Likewise several marvellous Irish Protestants.
    Diverse identities are supremely honourable, everybody just needs challenging not to disgrace them.

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