Anglican schools’ exclusion letter is at odds with the values we were taught in class
By Matilda Dixon-Smith
This past week has been one of the first times in a decade I’ve overtly considered the Anglican values I learnt at school.
I went to SCEGGS Darlinghurst. I was not religious as a student, and I’m not religious now, but at school we attended chapel once a week and Religious Education classes until Year 10. I also sang in the chapel choir until I left school in 2007.
Head of school Jenny Allum loomed large as an intelligent and righteous figure in my formative years. I remember distinctly her visit to our Year 7 Design and Technology class to explain we did not study Home Economics at SCEGGS because she believed it wasn’t the school’s job to train young girls as wives.
For the most part, our sojourns into religious practice were nothing like what agents of the Anglican Church have intimated in their controversial letter to MPs.
Thirty-four of Sydney’s Anglican schools signed the letter, defending their “right to discriminate” against LGBTQI+ students and teachers. The letter, which is addressed to federal Education Minister Dan Tehan, asks that the schools retain the right to sack gay teachers and expel gay students, following a recent announcement from Prime Minister Scott Morrison that these legal protections for religious schools will be eradicated.
But in the chapel at SCEGGS, Reverend Garry Lee-Lindsay preached, above all, respect, acceptance and love. This is how he interpreted the Bible, and how he encouraged us to interpret it as well.
I often listened hard to his sermons and thought about them long after they were over — not just because he was a bright man who gave us a lot to think about, but also because my mother, Janet, said he reminded her of her father — the grandfather I never met — Hubert Dixon.
‘Religion is all about tolerance’
My grandfather was an Anglican minister, who served as a chaplain in the RAAF during WWII, and who later taught at Barker College in Sydney for more than 30 years as chaplain and the economics teacher.
Though he died in 1983, before I had the chance to meet him, strains of his Anglican practice have absolutely influenced my life. Barker College, which is also my mother’s alma mater, is one of those 34 schools to sign the controversial “right to discriminate” letter.
On the morning news of the Anglican schools’ letter broke publicly, emails passed between members of my family about the meaning of “the right to discriminate”, and particularly about Barker’s involvement in the controversy.
I rang my mother, who attended Barker when her father taught there. She told me that, while she could only speculate about what he would think of the letter, she was “disappointed in the school’s position”.
“I feel like emailing Barker to tell them how saddened I’m sure my father would’ve been by it,” she said. “For him, religion was all about tolerance and loving each other and accepting people for who they are.”
It appears my mother is not the only former Barker student who feels this way. Inundated with correspondence from concerned students, parents and alumni, the Head of Barker College, Phillip Heath, released a letter stating:
“I am sad and dismayed by the grief and anger that has been prompted by my willingness to support the letter from Sydney Anglican Schools. It is clear the letter has been perceived as a message of discrimination and cruelty. Such a message was never intended, and I am truly distressed to see this impact.”
It’s heartening to see the communities within these schools pushing back against the outright cruelty of the original Anglican schools’ letter. No matter what people like Mr Heath say, the message received was one of discrimination — it was in the very specific wording of the letter itself. Only, it wasn’t about the schools’ retaining the right to discriminate, but the power to discriminate.
The heads of 34 schools, including The King’s School at North Parramatta, signed the letter. (AAP: Dan Himbrechts)
High school is hard for kids who are different
Let’s be very frank about what kind of environment a high school can be for a minority student: one where they are scared, vulnerable and intensely othered by their classmates.
Although young Australians have certainly come to accept a greater responsibility for social justice in the generations since I attended school, the formative schooling years can still be very challenging for LGBTQI+ students.
So, what an intensely distressing position to be in, knowing you lack support not only from your classmates, but also from the governing powers at your school.
This is not an acceptable environment for any contemporary school to foster — not when the rates for depression, anxiety and suicide among LGBTQI+ students are so high, and not while our conservative government has waged war on the very programs designed to support these students.
As a woman who was raised in touch with Anglican principles, I certainly understand the alluring concept of a set of values that binds you to a community and helps lead you through life — especially when they’re values like respect and love.
But it’s off-putting to imagine that part of being an Anglican is enjoying the powerful feeling of excluding people because they don’t play by your interpretation of the rules.
And it’s nothing like what I remember being taught by some of the best and brightest Christians I know.
‘An ethos of inclusivity’
When the schools’ letter was released, I quickly searched for Jenny Allum’s name on the list of signing principals — and was relieved to see it was not there. SCEGGS was one of few Sydney Anglican schools not to sign.
I was relieved again to read a sound and consoling note from Mrs Allum to the school community.
“I don’t want SCEGGS to have any exemption from any Discrimination Act or the Fair Work Act based on our religion,” she wrote.
“SCEGGS has always demonstrated an ethos which includes acceptance, respect, love, inclusivity, social justice, equal rights, courage. We will continue to do so.”
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer.