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?