Eight Disciples take a lesson in humility

HEAVENS ABOVE: Teacher Simon Greening leads Bible class at Owairoa Primary in Howick.
HEAVENS ABOVE: Teacher Simon Greening leads Bible class at Owairoa Primary in Howick.

Her little hand whips into the air. "Doing something nice for someone else," she tells the Bible teacher - 15 points to the Eight Disciples.

The Hot Cross Buns team look disappointed. Humility is the lesson of the day.

Simon Greening is taking his weekly 30-minute Bible class for 9 to 11-year-olds at Howick's Owairoa Primary School in Auckland.

The Churches Education Commission teaches in 800 schools and Greening, its chief executive, says there are no-go topics - hell, the virgin birth and indoctrination.

'I want to steer us away from anything controversial. We stay away from hell, but we do teach kids about facing fears.'

If children ask about hell, a teacher is supposed to talk about heaven, because it's positive. But what if questions arise about Santa and evolution?

Greening says teachers are advised to use the parent answer: 'Ask your mum or dad.'

He says the days of Bible teachers preaching at children are gone, although the commission came under fire last month after a church recruiter labelled schools under-utilised "mission fields".

Back in the classroom the students are guessing what humility means. 'Is it something that makes you feel really bad?' a girl with blonde braids asks. "Not really. Close though," Greening says.

'Something funny,' another child chirps. 'No, insulting,' another child adds.

Greening smiles and says: "It's a difficult word to define. This is probably the trickiest question I've asked you all term." He describes how Jesus displayed humility during a Passover meal. 'Jesus did something amazing. He got up and washed each of the disciples' feet. Humility is having an accurate view of oneself."

After the lesson children are tested on the verse, then a quickfire Bible drill. The first child to find the verse wins points. Small toys are up for grabs. Sweets are no longer PC.

So what do the children learn?

'How they used to live in the time of Jesus. Where he was born,' a boy says, his classmate adding: 'How Jesus did miracles and how we can do the same thing.'

Another few students say the class is fun and teaches them how to do good things.

It has been 30 minutes. The children's teacher has been silent throughout while he marked papers. But time is up and Greening must gather up his laptop and leftover prizes.

The door opens and two children come back in, books under their arms. They have spent the lesson in the library, their parents having opted them out.

Will they grow up showing less humility?

Our public schools are secular by law, but a loophole allows them to close during the day for religious education. Some of the criticism aimed at Bible lessons centres on the ostracising of children who have been opted- out. Other parents have complained they were not informed of Bible class until their children came home chatting about Jesus.

Owairoa principal Alan McIntyre sends opt-out forms with enrolment forms, but he says the school supports the lessons promoting values. 'A lot of people rely on the school for promoting those values.'

Greening accepts some schools are not as good as Owairoa at informing parents of the opt-out clause. He is hoping to put a template form on the commission's own website so all schools and parents can access it. 'We want to ensure parents know clearly from the school about opt-out procedures. I can't vouch for every school ensuring that happens.'

Sunday Star Times