I Went To Bethlehem College
The school accused of "discriminatory beliefs" was once very much my home
A school hit the headlines in New Zealand this week:
The report was about a checklist that had to be signed off by parents or caregivers before their child was allowed to attend Bethlehem College:
The last point in the Statement of Belief is: “Marriage is an institution created by God in which one man and one woman enter into an exclusive relationship intended for life, and that marriage is the only form of partnership approved by God for sexual relations”.
This particular point got the attention of LGBTQIA+ advocate Gordy Lockhart, who pointed out that back in 2013, New Zealand passed the Marriage Amendment Act — which meant couples could marry regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.
“Gay marriage!” quaked various conservative churches at the time, male leaders clutching their Bibles and wedding rings, in fear both items would spontaneously combust. Weirdly it didn’t make a lick of difference to their lives at all.
Gordy pointed out that making parents sign a statement like this in 2022 was discriminatory, and sent a pretty shitty message to students. He pointed out a mentality like that wouldn’t exactly bode well for kids attending the school who might be worried about their sexuality or identity.
And I guess I’d know, because I went to Bethlehem College.
It’s weird writing about this, because it’s a step back into murky memories and a series of conflicting emotions — both at the time, and now.
I loved Bethlehem College. I thrived there. It was also very funny, because I was born on Christmas Day, and lived in a town called Bethlehem — attending a Christian school.
I went to BC from when I was about 10 to 17. It was a pretty unique locked system, where technically parents could drop you off at preschool, before enrolling you in school properly when you turned five. You could then keep moving up the ranks — and when you completed study aged 17, you could attend a teaching college (on campus) and then technically start teaching at the school.
I know a few people who’ve done this. The only thing the school’s missing is a retirement village and graveyard.
I was a huge nerd who’d play LAN games in the computer room after class, and found a series of teachers who really cared about teaching. Their names are etched in my brain for all eternity: Mrs Dean, who got me into books. Ms Caygill, who told me to try and find a job that would make my heart sing. Mr and Mrs Anderson, who taught me the stories behind the elicit nudes on Greek vases. Mr Russell, whose dulcet tones calmed me down when I was stressed. Ms Gibbs, who once sat on the corner of a desk which dramatically tipped, sending her flying — our maths teacher getting what she deserved for making us suffer statistics.
Oh, and precious Mr Bell, who continuously answered 10-year-old me’s very serious questions about whether my cat would get into Heaven or not.
Yeah — I should state at this point in my life I was very on board with Bethlehem College’s version of Christianity. By the time I was 17, I was made Head Boy. I guess that’s “head prefect” in America?
I was the one deemed Christian enough and sensible enough to be a role model for my fellow students. What they would have seen was a nervous, shy, hopelessly confused boy with braces and pimples all over his face. But I felt proud of the role, and I’d open school assemblies by praying to God.
I also witnessed first hand how that Statement of Belief fucks a lot of people up.
Please Read and Tick Each Box
Yesterday, Bethlehem College posted a response to the criticism in the media, quoting Board of Trustees chair Paul Shakes:
“We openly express our special character through commitments such as our Statement of Belief, which includes a well-recognised mainstream Christian understanding of marriage. Our Statement of Belief isn’t intended to tell anyone what they are required to believe, but rather to transparently explain what we believe.”
This is a very cheeky (and I’d argue, inaccurate) way of describing what this document does. I’ve seen the document — both when I was 11, and more recently as a 39 year old (thanks to a parent who share it with me — but it’s on their website, too).
It starts with a clear sentence of intent: “Please read and tick each box, confirming you accept each statement.”
Then the list begins.
It’s all fairly standard Christian stuff if you spend time in those circles — but also sets out an incredibly intense backdrop for the education of your child, as you accept “The universal sinfulness and guilt of human nature since the fall.”
That’s quite a take on the default condition of your child — a child who is full of joy, promise and wide-eyed wonder at the world in front of them.
The list builds up to the marriage stuff at the end — and then there’s a line that totally negates Paul Shakes’ bullshit statement that “Our Statement of Belief isn’t intended to tell anyone what they are required to believe”.
It’s point 5.2 (the Statement of Belief reads like a legal document and makes me shudder) which says, very clearly: “All Bethlehem College students and their families are expected to demonstrate a commitment to the School’s special character.”
They have to demonstrate a commitment to all those statements. It’s not about you saying “OK, this is what this nutty school believes” — it’s saying “This is what this nutty school believes… and I commit to it as well.”
Paul Shakes’ statement to the evil media continued :
“We endeavour at all times to live out our beliefs in a loving and respectful manner, and encourage all our students to speak to our experienced and caring counsellors if they need any support in any area.
It’s worth noting our Christian beliefs support and enhance the health and wellbeing of our students.”
I should note here that while I loved Bethlehem College, it was also fucking me up.
I was questioning my sexuality at the time, and believe me when I say that Statement of Belief permeates the entire culture there.
If you fit into the mould — you’re fine. You’ll have a blast. If you are someone who is gay or bi or trans or just finding out you don’t quite fit… you’re filled with so much guilt and shame it could kill you.
It did kill someone.
They gave the best speech in front of an assembly I’d ever seen, ideas so ahead of where I was at, I didn’t even clock how special it was.
But the culture that Bethlehem College created was like a prison — and combined with what else was going on in their life — they never made it out of Bethlehem College alive.
Just a Stage
I left Bethlehem College, the words of a counsellor there ringing in my mind: That anything I was questioning about myself was just a stage. They specifically told me to put any stray thoughts aside, into the back of my head. They literally told me to repress things.
I went out into the world and felt disgusted during my first full time job, when I saw a male colleague kissing his male partner. I was taught to feel that way. It wasn’t in my DNA: it was taught.
I’d learnt to love and respect people at Bethlehem College — but to only extend that to a certain sort of person. Others were to be feared and repulsed by. That statement of belief runs through generations.
It took a long time to unravel and break that shit down, and yes — it’s why I get worked up sometimes when I write about megachurches. I see some of myself in those leaders saying terrible things, because I once thought those terrible things as well.
“They don’t give a f—k”
Reading the comments under Shaneel’s post makes for sobering — yet someone familiar — reading:
“I went to this school.. it was so appalling. Borderline abusive. Some of the things I was told by staff and speakers there was something that NO ONE should have to go through.”
“I went there too… they don’t give a fuck about their queer students :/
Some students are trying to set up a school QSA at the moment but the principal keeps screwing around. The years I spent at this school were truly some of the worst years of my life.”
“It was in 2016 […] when I made the mistake of admitting in math class that I was “questioning my sexuality and my attraction to males,” I was pulled aside my my year 9 math teacher and I was told that “liking another woman was ungodly, sinful and unclean, and that the school counselors could deal with my issues and everything would go back to normal”.
That was my worst mistake that I have ever made, and made me even question my self worth at the time for feeling such a way. I was called out of class multiple times since year 9 to go to a counselor and to:
1) not only admit that love/marriage was only biblically between a man and a woman, but
2) also deny that I never admitted those feelings in class that day and that I was wrong and to confess and pray over it was the only thing that would save me from the words I spoke.
I also just wanted to share my experiences with Bethlehem College and how they continuously made me feel unsafe and even to the extent of unworthy. This is not a safe/kind space to send your children off too. Since graduating I have never been happier and safer to express who I am, who I love and to what I do.”
There’s a comment there in the mix that made me laugh. At times I’d been curious about what the school made of me. Their old prefect, up there praying, maintaining the status quo:
I guess now I have my answer. I just wish back then someone would have done what Jesus would have done and said: “I don’t give a shit if you’re bi or not, just be kind and respectful to other people because we’re all in this thing together.”
Or something like that.
Words Really Do Matter
The messaging coming from this school, and other schools like it — in New Zealand and beyond — is just inherently insidious. It’s the same breed of Pentecostal and Evangelical Christian thinking that proved so damaging at Arise megachurch in New Zealand, and Hillsong in Australia and the US. It breaks some people, because it creates an environment where some people are less than.
“We hate the sin, not the sinner” they’ll say. For someone who’s the focus of a comment like that, there’s zero difference. They’re hated.
Because words really matter. Words are what make us human. They’re incredibly powerful.
So it’s not good enough for Bethlehem College’s response to be “Oh we’re just saying what we believe, you do you” — because those words have power. At times, the power of life or death.
These “statements of belief” aren’t just used by schools. They’re used in churches like Arise (and we saw how messed up that got) and Hillsong. In smaller churches, as well. I am sure they serve some kind of purpose — but here’s the thing: If the environment they create causes people to feel hated and excluded, that should be enough of a prompt to ask some serious questions about the world your words are creating.
These institutions hate asking these serious questions. They thrive on the status quo. Arise has been around for 20 years. Bethlehem College has been doing their thing — statement of belief in hand — since 1988.
They are aware of the damage, the trauma, and the victims. Whether they care or not? That’s an entirely different story.
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