This week, I have had two conversations that have given me a headache. Both were from kind people who have left my church for another one.
The first was from a gentleman who had been coming for a year or so, but was unable to cope with the noise made by the children at the end of the communion service. He now attends a church were they are more “under control”.
The second was from a mother who has gone elsewhere because she was offended by the way the clergy were pressing parents to think more about how to manage their children’s behaviour in church.
I can see both sides. You don’t come to church to take part in a zoo. Prayer often requires peace and quiet — and that is not available when a toy car is being repeatedly whacked on the seat behind. That sort of thing can turn even the most irenic parishioner into Herod.
On the other hand, the Church is a family for all. And I am not in the business of imposing some fantasy of 1950s child-rearing. “Seen and not heard” is no Christian principle that I know of. Moreover, as someone once said: the children are not the Church’s future, they are its present — just as much so as the adults.
Our problem is partly one of scale. Our church building is not enormous, and we can often get 150 small kids on a Sunday morning. We have an army of Sunday-school volunteers, and are just opening a dedicated Godly Play room, but when we are all together at the end of communion, junior chaos can often reign. Tut-tutting only drives people away.
One of our responses to this problem is to have a Sunday evening eucharist at which, in effect, children are discouraged from attending. I suspect that some have got the wrong idea when I have described it as an “adult” service — though giving it an 18 certificate does enable the preaching to be more forthright. But the idea of a service for some and not for others obviously sticks in the throat, especially in a self-consciously “inclusive” church.
All churches say they want to grow. But many don’t do so. Both of the former churchgoers I mentioned have left for smaller congregations, where their needs are more easily negotiated. Larger churches with many children obviously find it tricky to meet the expectations of those who come wanting the still small voice of calm.
Perhaps we need a spirituality not so dependent on silence. Perhaps we need sharper expectations of behaviour for all, including children. Or perhaps just a little of both.
The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney, in south London.