The occasion for this discussion document was the opposition amongst some parents at our children’s school to the Samaritan’s Purse initiative, Operation Christmas Child. I’ve posted something about the organisation here.
Those opposed to the scheme were unhappy that a mainstream Christian organisation with evangelical convictions stood behind the Christmas Box Scheme. There have been some negative press reports which, though inaccurate and unnecessarily inflammatory, were nevertheless correct in their assertion that some of the boxes are received by local churches and distributed with accompanying literature of a distinctly Christian content. I understand their concerns.
I want to argue that though this may have been an unpopular decision amongst some parents, it wasn’t inappropriate. And in fact, hereafter to deliberately prohibit an organisation, even one as apparently contentious as this, is censorious. To exclude a scheme such as this from the school would be religious discrimination and bigotry of the worst sort. It’s worth pointing out that the doctrinal position held by Samaritan’s Purse is mainstream historical Christianity, represented in this country by the Church of England. Compare what the Samaritans Purse believe with the foundational documents of the Church of England and there’s very little difference.
We could try and avoid this by adopting a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach in which we choose something so inoffensive that someone would have to be so illiberal that they couldn’t support it. But somewhat counter intuitively I’m keen not to sweep the issue under the carpet. I’d prefer to provide a defensible rationale for choosing a charity.
In selecting which charitable organisations to support, the following three considerations ought to be borne in mind.
1. We are a community school
We are not a faith school where everyone, supposedly, is reading off the same hymn sheet! We are a community school. Therefore we will need to recognise and respect the diversity of convictions amongst our staff, parents and children with regard to philosophy, theology and ideology. As a community school we aim to provide a secular education. [From the Latin ‘saeculum’ meaning of this world] In other words, we seek to educate children for life in this world. This will include helping them appreciate the existence of religious faiths. But it also ought to help them evaluate and respect those of all faiths and none. But we are not providing a secularist education. [An ideology that espouses the conviction that the ‘natural’ world is all that there is, and that there is no such thing as the ‘supernatural’]. We do not teach that this life is all that there is. That would be to preference one faith position, namely secularism, over all others. And so, when the school chooses one charitable organisation over another, it does not imply that this is the schools’ ideological conviction. This is important since it protects the school and the Head Teacher from accusations of preferential treatment.
2. All charities have an agenda
All charities will have an agenda, something that they are trying to do and they will also have an underlying rationale, the reason why they are trying to do it. Sometimes these will be stated. For example the British Heart Foundation’s website states, ‘Our vision is of a world in which people do not die prematurely of heart disease. We’ll achieve this through pioneering research, vital prevention activity and ensuring quality care and support for everyone living with heart disease’. That’s hard to find issue with. Where the agenda and rationale is unstated it may also be implicit. For example, most Christian Charitable organisations will have an underlying rationale that what they do is done out of obedience to God, to demonstrate His love for the world and for His glory. Not all parents will share this conviction and so may not feel able to support the charity. Therefore some parents may not feel able to subscribe to the schools’ enthusiasm for one particular charitable organisation. They might do so for the following three reasons.
They disagree with what’s being done. The issue is with the activity that the charity undertakes. For example, it’s unlikely that Christians and Muslims would be supportive of a charity like Marie Stopes International because of their involvement in abortion. Even if MSI isn’t a Charitable Organisation then the principle still stands. It’s feasible that a charity supporting Palestinian refugees might prove unpopular amongst those with sympathies for Israel.
They disagree with how it’s being done. The issue is with the method that the charity employs. For example, the antagonism of a few to Operation Christmas Child seems to be fired by a disapproval that some of the boxes, when received overseas especially by churches, are accompanied by literature with a clear Christian message or an invitation to attend a church based course.
They disagree with why it’s being done. The issue is with the motive that the charity holds. As a Christian I am happy to contribute financially to organisations working in Medical Research even though I’m aware that these are not being done with an underlying Christian rationale. However, as a Christian, I wouldn’t be happy to support any of the charitable activities of the British Humanist Association because of their underlying philosophy.
All of this means that there’s more to charitable involvement and more to parental opposition than meets the eye!
3. Parents have responsibility for their children
Parents have primary authority over and responsibility for their children, not the school. And therefore any participation in a charitable organisation should be well publicised amongst the parents, permission sought where this is likely to be contentious and participation made optional. I don’t think we should try and bind people’s consciences but instead allow them the freedom to make their own minds up whether they support a charitable organisation and its cause.
I would expect a community school, in order to be representative and fair minded, to support a number of different charities, including perhaps Muslim ones. To only support those with no explicit religious agenda might be safest but also a little unrepresentative given that there are many people at our school with clear religious convictions. At the very least, I’m not sure that parents have grounds for complaint concerning a charitable organisation when participation is made optional.