Suffer little children — don’t fob them off

20 October 2010

Something is wrong when children are given distractions to occupy them in church rather than being involved, says Huw Thomas

MY WIFE-TO-BE was halfway down the aisle, when suddenly my two-year-old niece sprang free. Escaping the lunges of the family bouncers, she headed straight for the bride, shouting: “Auntie Kate!” The bride simply picked her up and carried her down the aisle. Such moments can transform a wedding from a performance or a legality into a sacrament of the family.

The Church of England’s recent ICM Omnibus survey (News, 8 October) found that 85 per cent of those questioned agreed that chil­dren should be “allowed” at wed­dings. The patronising tone of the question makes me wonder whether they asked any children, and whether they also researched other random sections of the populace to find out whether farmers, Tories, or people who smell a bit were also welcome.

Among those polled, 85 per cent is a landslide — but there is a catch. Of the respondents, 68 per cent are reported as agreeing that the church should keep the little darlings “occupied” during the ceremony. So they’re welcome as long as the Vicar gets rid of them within the building.

The Church has caved in, re­spond­ing with an advice sheet: “Wel­coming Children at Weddings”. This opens warmly: “The Church of Eng­land loves to welcome children to all services. . . However . . .” — a con­junction that reminds me of the pro­verb: “Everything before the ‘but’ is bullshit.”

Sure enough, within some good thoughts lurk suggestions such as fobbing kids off with a “wedding-themed ‘fun sheet’ containing things such as a word search, picture to colour”. To do so is to reaffirm an in­abil­ity to include children, a feature not just of weddings but of sacra­mental life generally.

There are plenty of other distrac­tions for children at weddings: the woman dressed like a princess, or the man looking really ner­vous. What about seeing your aunt­ies crying — and, in these emotionally literate times, your uncles, too?

Added to this, in front of you, two people will say to each other some of the most important words they can — in the presence of Almighty God. All this might keep you occupied.

OF COURSE, screaming toddlers need calming, and children (like adults) do need to behave decently, but the Church still struggles to fig­ure out how infantile presences can exist alongside mature sensitivities. Part of the problem is the assump­tion they should fit in with us.

In child development, the concept of scaffolding, arising from the work of the early-20th-century Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, has under­pinned many educational ad­vances. It describes the framework in which a child learns, to the point where the support is redundant.

Such scaffolding starts where the child begins, whether it is reading a few words or throwing a ball straight. By structuring the next step, such as a book with new vocabulary or a hoop to aim at just above their heads, we nurture children from what they are towards what they be­come. That is how you make a reader or a basketball player.

If we are serious about children’s inclusion in the full communion of our Church, we will seek a sacra­mental life that scaffolds children’s growth into the mystery and wonder of our sacred tradition.

WE MAKE bold attempts in all-age services. When these patronise, they are gross, but when they find a way to interweave the discipleship of young and old, they do more than match children’s needs. The good education of an eight-year-old can often stimulate the thinking of a 38- or an 88-year-old.

Recently at our church, we ex­plored prayer by making cup phones. Yes, there was a time of chaos when everyone was getting tangled in the nave, but that in itself was a lesson about the direct line we are afforded to God.

Reflecting that if the sun were a satsuma in the pulpit, on the same scale the Earth would be a pin-prick over by the piano — this scaffolds an understanding of the solar system. It is the adults who gasp when the child holding the pin for Pluto is told that she needs to be three streets away. By that point, we are ready to con­template a great God who holds us.

In my school, the parish church has set up a “Messy Church”, which involves adults and children meet­ing, worshipping, and eating to­gether. I am struck by how craft time has drawn people together, building relationships. This may be why the move to worship has such a buzz about it, a sense of excitement that crosses the age groups.

Of course, children have distinct needs, and there are times when they will want to go to another room for specific quality time. The challenge for church services and the whole of our sacramental life is to scaffold a way for children to grow within the Church.

To do this, we need to turn our thinking around, seeing in this puta­tive need to occupy children an ad­mission of the semi-detached status in which they are too often held in our worship. It is in our sacramental life that the movement and symbol­ism has huge potential to engage young minds.

We need the imagination to see such gatherings through the eyes of the young, accepting that if anything we do as a sacramental community leaves our children needing the fag-end of our ministry, we should take that as a warning siren, shut it down, and reorg­anise our­selves to ensure that they are able to grow into the body of Christ. It is like Jesus said: “Of such is the Kingdom of God.”

Huw Thomas is head teacher of Emmaus Catholic and Church of England Primary School, Sheff­ield.

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