Monday, 21 April 2014

On children's participation in the liturgy: some Easter observations

There are many schemes for helping children to participate in worship. I don't want to sound ungrateful. So let me start by acknowledging that I have, at one time or another, been a beneficiary of all these schemes. I bless the Sunday school; I salute the children's pastor; I love all those who know how to tell a good story and sing a good song for my children; I wish them well. I am even willing to forgive the many ecclesiastical colouring-ins and craft-activity thingies that are periodically scraped off the backseat floor of our family car and shovelled into the bin. I will not speak against any of that. But I must confess to feeling uneasy about two broad approaches for dealing with children in church.

The best-loved and most successful approach is what is known as liturgical babysitting. There are many different kinds of liturgical babysitting, but they all follow the same award-winning formula: (1) remove the children from the service at the earliest possible convenience; (2) in a separate room as far from the main worship space as is humanly possible, provide supervised games, crafts, and other activities; (3) don't forget to establish some random points of connection between said activities and something to do with the Bible; (4) finally, shuttle the little treasures back to their parents after the latter have enjoyed an entire hour of that exquisite spiritual bliss that nothing but the temporary deprivation of one's own children can induce. I suppose it would be churlish to criticise a system that is so perfectly calculated to meet the spiritual needs of adult worshippers. Suffice it to say that this approach would be an ideal solution to the problem of children's participation in worship, except for the fact that it involves no participation and no worship.

In reaction to liturgical babysitting, some churches have taken the approach of adapting the entire liturgy to a child's point of view. Bible stories in sandpits, creative responses to the story in paint and play dough, eucharistic juice and cookies – this sort of thing is aimed at getting children to participate for themselves in the great rhythms of the liturgy. There is a lot to be said for this, but there is also a risk of turning the Christian mysteries into a cult of childhood, so that adult participants are infantilised and deprived of the freedom to worship as adults. Anyone who has scoured the underbelly of liberal protestantism will be able to recall one of those grim gatherings at which full-grown adults are exhorted to draw crayon pictures on butcher paper or to exchange infantile remarks about their tenderest feelings. When Our Lord told us to become like little children, he was not referring to crayons and sandpit therapy. And a faith that is not large enough to accommodate growth into a full adult experience does not deserve the respect of children either.

But I have, as I say, been a beneficiary of these schemes. And I trust nobody will cast the first stone without having spent forty or fifty consecutive sleep-deprived Sunday mornings trying to pay attention to the sermon while a brood of offspring are yapping at your heels.

But still. Let me tell you what I observed today.

It was Easter day, and it was not yet dawn. My children and I had spent the previous day at the circus, and we had got home very late. So they were not in optimum operating condition when I shook them awake at five a.m. with the whispered news that Christ is risen. "He is risen indeed," my son growled back at me, with what I thought was a rather petulant emphasis on the word indeed. I dragged the little blighters out to the kitchen. I fortified them with cups of tea and biscuits. Chocolate biscuits, you understand, on account of Easter. Somehow we all got out of our pyjamas into clothes and shoes, and a few minutes later we staggered bleary-eyed off to church for the five-thirty Easter vigil.

Now I will not be giving away any secrets when I inform you that my six-year-old son is not famous for his churchmanship. Not once has he ever been mistaken on the street for a cardinal or for St Francis of Assisi. I say this not to impugn his character but only to explain that the little chap will not sit quietly through a lengthy Easter liturgy at the crack of dawn merely on the principle of the thing. The boy won't just sit there and take it like a man. He has – children are so taxing in this regard – he has to like it at the same time.

And this morning, reader, he liked it. It was not one of these puny compromise liturgies either. It was very Easter, very Anglo-Catholic, the whole shebang. Gathering in the dark around a fire to light the paschal candle. A procession with candles into the dark cold church. The choir and the hymns and the incense. The many many scripture readings. The not-particularly-short homily. The filling of the font and the renewal of baptismal vows. The prayers and the gifts and the sung communion liturgy. The organist doing things on the organ.

The centrepiece of the service was a vast and very beautiful sequence of readings, each followed by a short prayer. When we started at the beginning of Genesis, the world was still buried in darkness. By the time we got to the Gospel it was brightest day; the magpies were warbling their Easter antiphons; the church windows had bloomed with colour. Here is the list of readings in the order that we had them:
  • Gen 1:1-2:4a
  • Gen 7:1-5, 11-18; 8:6-18; 9:8-13
  • Gen 22:1-18
  • Ex 14:10-31; 15:20-21
  • Isa 54:9-14
  • Isa 55:1-11
  • Prov 8:1-8, 19-21; 9:4b-6
  • Ezek 36:24-28
  • Zeph 3:14-20
  • Rom 6:3-11
  • Antiphonal reading: Ps 114
  • Gospel reading: Matt 28:1-10
I haven't tallied up the exact number of verses, but let's just say it was about half the Bible, give or take a few minor prophets. Never would such an audacious feat of reading be attempted in any tailored-for-children program, whether of the liturgical babysitting kind or the paint-and-play-dough variety.

And yet my son – six years old! – a boy! – he liked it. No, that is putting things still too mildly. He had a blast.

But before you start psychoanalysing the little tyke and checking his temperature and whatnot, I will come right out and tell you why he liked it so much. For the reason is very simple. The boy had a candle in his hand. A burning candle. If ever you want to command the full respect of a six-year-old boy, give him Fire. That is the way to a boy's attention, if not to his heart. That is the way to show him that you mean business.

This morning while the readers went on with their heroic reading vigil, while the long Lenten night gave way to a great and dawning joy, my son clutched his candle. He stared longingly into the flame. He stuck his little thumbs into the wet wax and dribbled wax on to his hands. He practised breathing on the flame to make it nearly – but not quite – go out. He counted all the other candles in the room. He sized them up with a professional eye, comparing flame to flame, before finally determining that his own flame was the finest of the lot. And after each reading he punctuated his subtle reveries with the response to the reading: "Amen!"

Later he was also allowed to pour the water into the font when we remembered our baptisms. And I have never seen him pay more attention to the eucharistic mysteries than he did today, when a huge glass bowl full of Easter eggs was placed on one corner of the communion table. My son watched that table like a hawk. He watched it with a candle burning in his hand. From the look of contemplative scrutiny on his little face, you'd have thought he was Thomas Aquinas.

That is how it was this morning. 

It got me wondering about all that time and effort that goes into creating Sunday school programs and inventing the latest whiz-bang child-friendly liturgies – when all this six-year-old boy needed was for somebody to let him hold a candle. 

As far as I can tell, it's not that the liturgy is inherently inhospitable to smaller people. The great symbols of our worship are things that children instinctively love and understand. Indeed, they are such good honest things that even adults can understand them: water, bread, book, flame.

Is it too hard to imagine that children could be encouraged to participate not in some sanctified playgroup in a back room, but in these same symbols, as glorious for their simplicity as for their depth? When my son held his candle on Easter morning and bellowed out the church's great "Amen" after every reading, was he just experiencing a child-friendly version of the real thing? Was his rapt waxy-fingered attention anything less than genuine worship, since even with his limited understanding he was able to draw upon the symbols of faith and to make himself at home within their world of meaning?

And if there had been no hypnotic chocolate Easter eggs on the communion table, would my son still have called out the ancient Easter greeting as I was tucking him into bed tonight? "Christ is risen," he called to me. I had already put out the light. I had turned to leave the room. The paschal call came to me across the lonely gulf that forever separates the adult from the world of children. Across the chasm my son's call reached me. I turned to him and in the half light I saw his expectant face turned up towards me. His eyes waited for the reply. An adult, a man of broken dreams, a barely-believer, I whispered my faith thinly back across the divide, hoping (knowing) somehow my son would have ears to hear me: "He is risen indeed." That was the last and truest thing we said to one another. Then the boy sank into sleep and the man left him there alone, and neither of them knew the things whereof they spoke.

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