Yesterday Kristin Aune, an academic from Coventry, published an excellent article in the Guardian about how universities can tackle religious discrimination. Within the piece she uses evidence from the research collected for Religion in Higher Education in Europe and North America which she co-edited with Jacqueline Stevenson, (which I reviewed here), to give three obstacles to this:
1. Religion being seen as being a minority interest
2. Students are seen as a threat
3. We don’t listen enough
Having looked at these three she then comes up with three things which could help:
1. Collecting more data on religion and mapping this across to outcomes
2. Integrating religious literacy into those courses which relate to post-grad teaching and learning qualifications
3. Creating religious equality working groups
The comments generated by this article showed the barriers which are put up by secularists whose own ideology is, at times, as strong as any conservative religious believer. The comments also tend to relate to a particular view of teaching and learning which fails to look at the weight now put on the overall student experience by those in power. I want to look at this article from the perspective of a Christian chaplain embedded in the Methodist denomination.
The first point I want to make regarding religion being a minority interest. It’s a Christocentric view that I think many of us within the church can fall into too. The narratives of secularisation and church decline have been intertwined in a way which has ignored the reality that the two are different. As Linda Woodhead has said in a recent article in the Journal of the British Academy and others have pointed out they are two separate narratives. One can be said to be generally true whilst the other has been shown to be at best complicated and at worst false. We live in a country where church decline has occurred and more young people are describing themselves as being of no religion but religion and spirituality have also grown through a combination of factors. Those young nones are rejecting secular labels as well as religious ones.
This dismissing religion as a minority interest also has the problem of ignoring faith is an aspect of identity which intersects with other aspects, particularly race and ethnicity.
As a chaplain who works with others in the university to try and increase employability skills among under-represented groups the lack of data is frustrating. I want to be able to demonstrate to managers that supporting initiatives which seek to help students identify the transferable skills young people are gaining through their involvement with places of worship is worthwhile and will add value to the organisation. To do this properly and monitor impact I need data.
If we learn to see it as church involvement is a minority interest but religion and spirituality isn’t it puts more of a focus on seeking how we can engage with people where they are, outside of the church context. This is a pastoral and missional approach which looks at helping people engage with God where they are, which is what Wesley focused upon.
Secondly, I agree with Aune that through legislation such as Prevent the surveillance of students can be problematic. I work in a university which has taken a very clear approach to the government legislation linking it to safeguarding and so avoids a lot of these problems. However, I know that the approach being taken isn’t uniform across universities. As the legislation is built around guidelines rather than firm definitions it is open to a range of interpretations.
The Methodist Church along with partners from the Baptist and United Reform Churches, together with the Church of Scotland has a strong history of examining this type of issue through the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT). However, they need to be directed to do so by the churches and until recently this has not been on the radar of many in the Methodist Church, (or I would argue elsewhere), to a certain extent we have simply left it to the Anglicans to deal with and advise us on.
This is changing and several Methodist regional synods have recently passed motions noting the concern that some of us have regarding this legislation and the impact it has on chaplaincy work within universities and on multi-faith working. There is a hope that this will be discussed at conference with some kind of Methodist approach to the issue being given. Many of the concerns link specifically to the points Aune raises within this article.
With regard to the need to take religion as seriously as other protected characteristics I think this is really important. A founding principle of the non-conformist denominations was religious freedom. Linking back to the last point this is something which still needs to be defended, increasingly from conservative secular discourse.
As a Methodist who values the Methodist Quadrilateral I view experience as important. However, I am also aware that whilst the quadrilateral seeks to invoke Wesley’s way of doing things through looking at the role of the Holy Spirit it was actually put together by the United Methodist Church in America to help them work out how to bring together a range of strands of Methodist thought and the pluralism within that. The secular use of aspects of this approach can be incredibly useful in universities where there is a focus on “the student experience” and where senior managers, support services and teaching and learning staff are all required to consider this “student experience”.
As a Methodist who is a chaplain I look at the experience through the lens of reason and tradition (both the tradition of the institution and the Church) and through the lens of scripture. This is why I agree for experience to be heard and injustices and good practice from it to be acted upon there need to be processes and forums in place.
As Aune has identified these type of forum exist for other groups. I would argue that with regard to religion Chaplains are well placed to help develop and co-ordinate this type of work within universities. Yet, as already said the work we do on protected characteristics should not just relate to religion. We have a specific role that can be played in negotiating situations where different protected characteristics appear to be in conflict with each other. We are also well placed because with our semi-independent status we are also able to speak truth to power, in appropriate ways, which others may not feel able to do.
With regard to the need to develop religious literacy strategies within post grad teaching and learning qualifications, again I think this could be an area that chaplaincy could contribute to.