VICTORIA WHITE: The Equal Status Act is in danger of enshrining inequality in law

How healthy is it to use our national school system to preserve the cohesion of a faith community, asks Victoria White.

Is our Minister for Education really planning to amend the Equal Status Act to allow oversubscribed Protestant schools to insist on the production of a baptismal certificate while Catholic schools can’t?

Have I got it right? I have?

Sorry if I seem slow on the uptake but I can’t understand how any “Equal Status Act” could discriminate so completely and arbitrarily in favour of some faith communities against one other.

We got rid of the special status for the Catholic Church in 1974 and I vaguely remember my devout, mantilla-wearing neighbour saying it was “stupid”. It’s just as stupid to give so-called “minority faiths” special status.

It seems that all the arguments which were made against allowing faith schools to discriminate in favour of members of their faith community when their schools were oversubscribed — that it was fundamentally unfair; that it often made a mockery of religion, with the Equate lobby group finding 24% of baptisms were performed with school entry in mind; that it often meant you couldn’t go to your local school — are no longer valid when it comes to schools run by “minority faiths”.

There are two Muslim national schools and one Jewish national school, so by “minority faiths” you are really talking about schools run by Protestant churches. 

There are 180 Church of Ireland primary schools, 14 Presbyterian national schools, and one each of Quaker and Methodist. 

The C of I and the other Protestant denominations buried their hatchets long ago and agreed that any Protestant was better than any Roman Catholic when it came to school entry.

My lips curl when I say “Roman Catholic” because it is a term only used by Protestants to describe Catholics. 

The reason for using the adjective “Roman” is this: Anglicans are Catholics too.

It is true, as George Bernard Shaw famously wrote: “In Ireland, all that the member of the Irish Protestant Church knows is that he is not a Roman Catholic… the clause in the Apostles’ Creed professing belief in a Catholic Church is a standing puzzle to Protestant children.”

Anglicans belong to a “reformed” Catholic Church, separated from the Papacy and put within the power of the King of England because he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn. 

Certainly Lutheran influences informed the Book of Common Prayer. However ritual remains recognisably “Catholic”.

So-called “low” churches, such as the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, are quite different. Let’s remember that one strong reason for the Ulster Plantations was the British Crown’s desire to send Presbyterians somewhere far away.

For me, it displays the lack of any doctrinal reason for so-called Protestant schools when it’s a case of Protestants Preferred, of any denomination.

The General Synod of the Church of Ireland has targeted Education Minister Richard Bruton with a strong campaign to maintain their right to discriminate in favour of card-carrying Protestants and they have succeeded.

They carry on their website quotations from a wide consultation with parents. One parent eloquently describes how the schools reinforce the cohesion of the Church of Ireland community, forging friendships and marriages. Without the schools, says the parent, the community would be “dispersed”.

How healthy is it to use our national school system to preserve the cohesion of a faith community? Shouldn’t the Church itself do that?

I know it’s hard to get people of all faiths to go to church these days — including myself, despite the energy of our local Church of Ireland rector. The hard truth is that though the Church of Ireland school in my local parish is massively oversubscribed, very few of the kids’ families come to church.

City schools are very different to rural ones, of course. As a Church of Ireland parent in my area of south Dublin, I had my choice of two excellent Church of Ireland national schools while Catholics scrapped for places in the two local Catholic schools, which are much more diverse. 

My kids could then graduate by right to the one and only co-ed secondary in the locality, which is fee-paying, but which operates a sliding scale for less well-off Protestants. An application for a State-funded Protestant Block Grant can also be made.

I am wondering where this policy is going? In certain areas, there will be an incentive to get a Church of Ireland Baptismal Certificate which will help the Church’s official numbers but will probably not result in more bums on seats in church.

Meanwhile, Protestants of any denomination will continue to be educated in their own privileged zone.

I can’t see any doctrinal reason for this. Yes, as things stand, in a Catholic school, a Protestant child is stuck looking at kids preparing for two sacraments and is usually mad jealous. I think the sacraments should move outside school.

But the comment from a parent to the General Synod that a Church of Ireland schools are preferred because “they uphold the Christian values of honesty, fairness, justice, concern, and a responsible attitude towards others” is unpersuasive because basic Christian values are to equally to be found in all good Christian schools. Frankly, much the same values are to be found in your local Muslim school, which Mr Bruton’s new legislation will isolate as a Muslim-only zone.

When I look back at my time at a Church of Ireland national school I can’t recall anything in it that I wouldn’t have got at any Christian school, except Mrs Fletcher reading wonderful stories from her big Bible. 

It was precisely this emphasis on Bible reading which drove the chief secretary for Ireland, Edward Stanley, to write the famous ‘Stanley letter’ which, in 1831, proposed a model of national education highly similar to today’s community national schools.

He explained that Catholics were forbidden from interpreting the Bible themselves — a doctrine which has changed — and proposed multi-denominational schools with separate faith formation. The Protestant churches protested against this model because they feared being swamped by Catholics. That is the key reason we have still have over 90% denominational national schools in this country 186 years later.

We are making the same mistake again. Why? Out of concern for the sensitivities of Northern Protestants if there is a united Ireland in the future? Or because there are so few Protestants that buying them off is politically easier than standing up to them?

What will devout Catholics think in the future if they are struggling to find a strong faith community in an increasingly secular Ireland while all Protestants, nominal or not, can waltz into their local Protestant school?

It’s a crying shame that our new Equal Status Act will enshrine such inequality in law. Our Christian doctrine teaches us that God makes no distinction between different Christian baptisms. But the law of this land will make one baptismal certificate more equal than another.


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