June 20 General Reflection

Today I am beginning to turn my mind to Flinders as I reflect on what I have observed in Europe.

The key statement in Flinders’ religious policy is The University is concerned with the spiritual welfare and needs of its students and recognises that it has a role in addressing these needs. 

This begs the question, what is that role and how is it to be played out?

1. Unlike in the UK, Scandinavia and Germany I think we have come to a point where we can say that the University has no role in providing what we might call ‘established’ worship.

At Flinders, students are expected to fulfil communal religious observances in the wider community. That adds to the cross-cultural experience of students. We have rejected the idea of a university church or any church establishing itself on campus for services of worship, for example.

One exception might be Friday Prayer for Muslims. But this is organised internally by the students themselves; it is not organised around an Imam. Another might be Buddhist meditation; but since Buddhist practice in South Australia is so closely tied to ethnic origins, Buddhist practice probably takes place more in the community at the various temples. Only few have gathered at Flinders, even when we were served by an ordained monk. The Hindus gather at the Warradale temple – there has never been a demand for Hindu worship at Flinders. Similarly for Sikhs and Bahai’s. Student groups with these affiliations may form from time to time and they may organise their own activities. These are welcome in Oasis.

However, we do provide venues for ‘dis-established’ prayer and meditation, individuals who seek time out, or like-minded groups meeting at set times. We could say that this provision relates to spiritual support rather than religious obligation.

And we do encourage religio-cultural festivals at Flinders, those gatherings that support religio-cultural identity and strengthen support networks. The social activities of the International Student Services Unit (ISSU) are a vital component in this.

I suspect that the churches conception of university chaplaincy is related to their perceived capacity to provide services imagined in the ‘established’ services model. For Catholics, for example, this might mean provision of a priest as chaplain to conduct Mass, a Catholic community gathering around that focus. The withdrawal of the Catholics from university to the parish in South Australia seems, on the surface, to be consistent with the expectation that the community is the place for ‘established’ religious practice rather than the university. However, there has, in my view, been a failure to re-imagine what the role of the church could now be in the university.

2. Flinders, as a university, has the capacity through Oasis, for assisting a re-imagination of religious-state relations for the benefit of society.

In much of Europe there has been a strong history of church-state relationship and a relatively settled understanding and expectation of the role of chaplaincy in institutions. In the UK for example, every prison must have a chaplain by law, and every new inmate must see the chaplain within 48 hours of arrival. In Scandinavia, even though churches have relatively recently disestablished themselves from the state, state taxes still contribute to funding churches. Clergy often have a half-time role in the parish and half-time role in the university. Understandably, such chaplains have much clearer expectations of their role as church representatives.

However, many of these chaplains now feel they are locked into ‘established’ clergy expectations (ie conducting chapel services and religious programs as core to their role) at a time when such services and programs are poorly attended. One chaplain I met declared at the Conference of European University Chaplains that after seven years as an ordained chaplain she was “leaving the church”.  Her efforts to creatively engage with students in new ways were not appreciated by her church hierarchy. They didn’t fit the ‘established’ paradigm even though she was successful in increasing participation ten-fold. She is from Eastern Europe. Her experience is, I think, very significant even if at the extreme end of a spectrum of disconnect that occurs as faithful chaplains immerse themselves in a world the church administrators know little about.  Clearly, Sofia Camnerin, Vice-President of the Uniting Church in Sweden is an exception. Her address to open the CEUC was, I thought, outstanding. (http://www.universitetskyrkan.se/conference-news/2013/6/25/download-material-from-the-conference.html)

In addition, the internationalisation of universities and the arrival of non-Christian refugees has created a crisis for such established Christianity – a system in which every postcode has a parish and every parish a priest. Totalising systems can’t cope with the new pluralist realities.

Yet how does one continue to mine the riches of such rich religious traditions, maintain one’s identity and sense of place, while trying to adapt such a well-oiled system to new realities?

MoTiv, an ecumenical Christian team in Holland, has made a break with the ‘established’ paradigm by offering coaching and mentoring programs to the student leadership at Delft Technical University. They do this in a pastoral way, listening and empowering those with whom they engage. They deliberately avoid any religious baggage that might get in the way of their relationships with others – on the surface they look like a very professional, well-marketed secular organisation. As “MoTiv – spirituality and technology”, I think they are very well strategised for such a university, where issues to do with motivation, the creative process and the imagination are to the fore. They have come to this point after a thirty-year history of struggling to find the points of intersection between Christian spirituality and the university. I expect the MoTiv team at the conference would have strongly identified with the conference opening address by Sofia Camnerin.

I am suggesting that at Flinders, the university itself has a third party role in its triumberate of research, teaching and community to engage with theses issues of the spiritual and religious in secular institutions. There is no reason why innovation in the spiritual-religious domain should not be considered any less important than say innovation in engineering when you see the role of religion in international affairs.

3. The Flinders chaplains have through praxis over fifteen years, been developing a model that may make a helpful contribution.

The chaplains have been responding to the University’s own policy statement: The University is concerned with the spiritual welfare and needs of its students and recognises that it has a role in addressing these needs. But until recently the chaplaincy and the university have been at arm’s length.

There is suspicion among many of the chaplains I talked with in Europe about reducing that arm’s length. There is a fear that the university will ‘manage’ them in ways inconsistent with the ethos of chaplaincy. “Why give over control of my affairs to a university manager who has no understanding of the complexity and nuances of my vocation” might be the cry. It is the counterpoint of those who bemoan the lack of understanding and support of the churches for their chaplaincy.

There is a fundamental cultural clash between typical chaplaincy and ‘management’ – between a qualitative, human-relationship-valuing support service and, if you like, an economically driven, quantitative controlling management. I have come to see both need to understand and facilitate each other rather than stand at opposite ends denigrating each other – though I have been guilty of it!

In the Oasis model, radical hospitality, understood as creating space for the other, without wanting to change the other, provides a pathway for the generation of such respect, and therefore opens the creative possibility of re-imagining. MoTiv call this the “discourse of disclosure” –  a revealing as the chaplain makes intellectual and imaginative space for the other. The Oasis culture is therefore one that may lead to collaboration among those who might formerly have seen themselves boxed in to a particular construct, whether that be religious or vocational.

I have come to the view that understanding the culture of the younger internet-based innovators may give management a clue about making its own transition to non-authoritarian management styles that focus on emotionally satisfying processes and results rather than command-and-control procedures laden with accountability threats. Radical hospitality finds itself in keeping with this emerging culture.

4. Flinders has now undertaken to support Oasis.

The university has signalled its intention to support Oasis by providing a coordinator, an administrator for the effective functioning of the centre and a modest budget.

One immediate danger is that this might send a signal to the religious communities that they withdraw altogether, in keeping with internal difficulties they may already face, for many of the churches at least, declining memberships, internal schisms, declining numbers of competent clergy and losses on the stock market.

Oasis seeks to address a number of issues and has chosen this image and metaphor of openness, hospitality and interfaith engagement quite deliberately. This choice may find support among all of the worlds religions and many indigenous cultures, but it may also challenge them. It may also be welcomed by many who own no religion. It is a choice, we believe, that history shows is life-giving and contributes to human sustainability.

If we are to redress a withdrawal of the religious communities, the vision and opportunities for contributing to Oasis will need to be reconveyed in such a way as may win voluntarily engagement. And a benefit from that engagement.

Another question that arises from the embrace of Oasis by the University might be whether Oasis is seen merely as a centre and those who serve within it or whether it implies a wider collaboration within the university and with the wider community.

Clearly, Oasis provides a complementary role to Health and Counselling and this relationship might be teased out to clarify Oasis’ role in contributing to mental health and well being on campus. And the support of Oasis for the International Student Services Unit and for the various national student associations and their cultural activities is well established. Oasis’ contribution to other student services are less well explored.

But in the university itself, for example, why couldn’t Flinders take a lead in exploring, and making a name for itself, in the relationship between the provision of architectural space and human spirituality? In other words, Buildings and Property and Oasis collaborating and the principles developed a part of the offering of Flinders to the wider community.

These are a few general reflections I have been thinking about…

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