Multifaith in Australia – Discerning the Interfaith Agenda for the next 3-5 years

Brahma Kumaris with Religions for Peace Australia

On the weekend of 17 – 18 May 2014, interfaith and multifaith leaders and participants gathered at the Brahma Kumaris’ Peninsula Retreat Centre, Frankston South to discern the agenda of Multifaith Australia for the next 3 – 5 years.

The rationale for the workshop is that there is a shift going on in the multifaith area within Government. At both Federal and State level there is a new openness to interfaith initiatives. The workshop is directed at Victoria and Tasmania within the national context. The workshop has been made possible by a grant of the Victorian Multicultural Commission.

Report Preamble

For the final session of the two-day workshop the thirty-two participants worked in four groups to frame recommendations relating to practical and policy considerations in Discerning and Formulating the Agenda for a Multifaith Australia.

Recommendations submitted during that group session are listed first, followed by key steps and considerations required in planning multi-faith programs for Australia, and the thrust of discussions within each group.

Recommendations Submitted by groups

1. That an initiative be taken to establish a database of best practice in interfaith teaching for social cohesion, and that senior civil servants, municipal officers, community workers, politicians, business managers, journalists, police and chaplains should all be encouraged to undertake in-service training based on this. (Group One.)

2. That steps be taken to encourage and facilitate additional local community interfaith collaboration and reconciliation programs on the basis considered by the resources and planning group. (Group Two.)

3. That steps be taken to organise a conference on gender-related violence in the context of interfaith concerns. (Group Three.)

4. That steps be taken to establish minimum levels of chaplaincy services for all sectors, that an authority be established to regulate and accredit them, and that there be an investigation of specialist courses and the capabilities required of additional chaplains to work in multi-faith environments. (Group 4.)

Key steps and considerations in planning multi-faith programs for Australia

  • Develop a profile of the community under consideration, whether it is national, regional or locality-specific, with data including its historical and current sub-community compositions; support for, or constraints upon, the establishment of places of worship; its socio-economic pattern (whether urban, rural, industrial or tertiary and service, and the presence of major defence or communications facilities); population status (whether static or growing and if so by what process, natural birth, immigration, refugee settlement); professional and education status and facilities, and political affiliations.
  • Document and understand the tensions, conflicts and consequences of religion-related crimes that have been experienced, their complexity, severity and consequences, and identify the needs in order of priority.
  • Recognise that not all violence is interfaith related. Although much of it is intra-faith, especially in family, child and marital violence, it tends to be associated in the public mind with religion-related cultural, ethnic, gender or family traditions that are to be ignored or tolerated on that basis and left for “those religions” to resolve, but it must be considered in the context of multi-faith programs.
  • Investigate whether there are active interfaith or multicultural fellowships, groups or organizations, and whether they are recognised or supported by relevant local or regional governing bodies, religious leaders or institutions, or educational institutions.
  • Identify people, including police and other professional institutional employees, who have been involved in settling acute disputes, dousing ‘spot fires’, or off-setting chronic destabilizing situations, the approaches they have adopted, and whether they have been effective/successful, counter-productive, or of no effect.
  • Consult the above-mentioned groups and individuals on the causes of either acute or chronic problems and whether there have been particular organizations or religious or cultural groups involved in provoking or aggravating them.
  • Assess the personnel, facilities, educational and other resources and support bases available for either incidental or long-term programs, and their sustainability.
  • Having assessed the circumstances, determine a strategy or an appropriate stand-alone program and the resources and personnel, (professional, lay, employed and volunteer), required to implement it.
  • In doing so, recognise that religious understandings are still evolving and that many adherents within each faith have strongly-held self-understandings and preconceptions about others,and that gender, age and status are significant considerations in some streams, and avoid isolating religious faith and liturgical practice, from spirituality, stream or cultural identity within each faith, and non-faith based or secular belief systems, and ensure that they are each invited to be represented or involved in programs as appropriate.
  • Avoid any program components that require or imply qualitative evaluations of faith or non-faith views, and consult widely in planning the strategy and/or particular programs to ensure that the concerns of all sub-communities are accommodated.
  • Group Discussions

    Group One: Education and Training

    At all levels, tertiary, secondary and primary, life experience is important in the appointment and placement of teachers, not only teaching competence. Providing a “spiritual journey” in the classroom is a more important criteria for assessing excellence than understanding the teaching of a particular faith stream. Some students want to “unlearn” exclusivist interpretations that have received and to explore other faiths, and some Catholic institutions are seen as resistant to discussing theology on a multi-faith basis.

    The “Bush Foods” project taught by an Aboriginal teacher was seen as a success in bridging a gulf in the history of faith development and virtues or ethics.

    A database of best practice in interfaith teaching for social cohesion is needed and senior civil servants, municipal officers, community workers, politicians, business managers, journalists, police and chaplains should all be encouraged to undertake in-service training based on it. But instead of reinventing the wheel we (Australia) should consider approaches to religious studies that have been developed and implemented in the United Kingdom.

    Group Two: Resources and Planning

    Identify the needs by research and consultation. Assess the resources available, get to know the community, its history, composition and migration pattern, its urban-rural relationships, and its local leaders, then, having established a network – or joined an existing one – determine a goal and plan on the basis of capacities and funds available within or through the network.

    Show confidence in the faith leaders and their ability to bring the people together. Their commitment to working together is fundamental to reconciliation and community cohesion. Network, and do not overload volunteers. Approach school principals and other resource persons who know the history of the area, especially if they are involved in mentoring in an existing network.

    Plan joint events and ‘plant’ ideas for leaders and volunteers to consider ongoing programs of collaboration and reconciliation, but to respond quickly to critical needs or “spot fires.”Meet and listen to the Aboriginal community, especially to involve its members in matte
    rs beyond their elders’ welcomes to country, and work to build trust. Arrange visits to sites of massacres, and support their applications for recognition of worship sites. Recognize changing patterns within the churches and between the churches and other faith communities, and anticipate future needs.

    A sustainable program requires both boundaries and encouragement and support for volunteers. Consider a dinner to launch the program and arrange an annual gathering. Nurture and involve youth networks, support appropriate multi-faith education programs, and consider social-education functions such as breakfast seminars. Exchange ideas with municipal interfaith networks and adapt programs that they have found successful.

    Group Three: Community, Family, Marriage and Gender

    Research on the impact of violence on personal, family and community health was discussed. It was noted that intimate violence is the worst category. Concern was expressed that there is tolerance of such violence across the community and that coordinated education and preventative measures are urgently needed. With reference to intra-Christianity research, it was agreed that an active response is required whenever violence is disclosed. Gender and child violence are community health concerns in which the clergy of all faiths, and leaders and counsellors in non-faith sub-communities, are in need of training. It was noted that Darebin Municipality provides peer-monitoring and capacity building programs, but while multi-faith programs must take them in to account they are best dealt with in intra-faith programs. According to the research reported, women are more likely to be the subject of violence, but they are more able to cope with it than men whose mental health is in danger, especially when they are adapting to a new cultural environment. It was noted that men from some cultural backgrounds, including those from India, are more likely to be affected than others, especially if they are affected by low self-esteem because of their employment, and that in any domestic violence settlements women should never be expected to return to a situation of violence. It was proposed that Religions for Peace consider a future conference on gender-related violence in the context of an interfaith concern.

    Group Four: Multi-faith Chaplaincy

    It was noted that chaplaincy services are now provided with government support in schools, universities, defence forces, hospitals, aged care services, prisons, mental health services, and for migrants, travellers and industry. While there is a growing number of chaplains with overseas-accredited multi-faith qualifications now working in Australia, (somewhat more than thirty), faith communities other than Christian and Jewish are substantially under-serviced.

    There is apparently no constitutional impediment to government funding of additional chaplaincy services and it was suggested that this should be leveraged. However a framework should be established to ensure qualitative and quantitative capabilities and professionalism in each of the clergy, lay, and volunteer cadres of chaplains when the services are established. There is a need for spiritual direction, an absence of ‘word measuring’ in evaluation, and the exclusion of any program components thatmake, or imply, qualitative evaluations of faith or non-faith views.

    It was proposed that Religions for Peace should recommend to governments that minimum levels of chaplaincy services be set for all sectors, that a body be established to regulate and accredit them, and that there be an investigation of specialist courses and the capabilities required of additional chaplains to work in multi-faith environments. It was noted that Monash University currently offers a degree course in social care.

    The workshop has been made possible by a grant of the Victorian Multicultural Commission.

    This report © Religions for Peace Australia, Victoria Branch, 2014.

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