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Letting the little ones come

17 June 2016

Catherine Pickford on work with babies and ‘messy’ congregations


Father Abbot: a page from Brother Giovanni’s Little Reward: How the pretzel was born, by Anna Egan Smucker, and illustrated by Amanda Hall. The Abbot presents Brother Giovanni (right), the abbey baker, with the problem that the children are not saying their prayers; Giovanni makes little crossed “praying arms” from dough, with three holes represent­ing the Trinity, as a little reward (pretiola) for them. The story­book in­­cludes a recipe for soft pretzels (Eerd­mans, £12.99 (£11.70); 978-0-8028-5420-9)

Father Abbot: a page from Brother Giovanni’s Little Reward: How the pretzel was born, by Anna Egan Smucker, and illustrated by Amanda Hall. The ...

Starting Rite: Spiritual nurture for babies and their parents
Jane Paddison

Church House Publishing £19.99 (including CD-ROM)
Church Times Bookshop £18

Messy Prayer: Developing the prayer life of your messy church
Jane Leadbetter

BRF £6.99

Church Times Bookshop £6.30


PADDISON’s book offers a detailed programme of five sessions incorporating story, song, and multi-sensory play for babies under one and their parents. Each session is biblically based, and provides a structured time and space for parent and baby to spend time together exploring themes such as prayer and baptism.

Reading this book as a mother and a parish priest, I felt torn. I wished there had been something like this available when my children were babies. At the same time, I wondered whether I could find the time and money required to set up a programme for what must be a tiny proportion of my parishioners.

Paddison explores why this group is so important. If these are working mothers, this is their small window of availability before they return to work after maternity leave. This is also the time when many parents bring their babies for baptism, and then disappear without trace from church life. The period of wonder at new life shortly after birth is hugely precious, and is often a time of particular openness to faith.

Paddison’s book offers churches a way of supporting new parents and their babies in exploring that sense of wonder in a faith context. Starting Rite can be expensive and time consuming to set up, but most of the materials are re-usable, and one set could be shared by a deanery or group of churches to spread the cost of providing this excellent programme.

For older children, Messy Prayer by Jane Leadbetter offers practical and creative ways to introduce messy congregations to prayer. In her introduction, she points out that for many of us in childhood, collec­tive prayer was passive: someone else prayed on our behalf, and we said “Amen.”

As an alternative, she suggests hands-on ways of engaging in “prayerful chatter” with God, so that prayer begins to come naturally as part of a real relationship.

I have been involved in running messy churches for several years, and have noticed that seasoned practitioners tend to have a check list for deciding whether to choose a particular activity. A. Can the chil­dren we have do it, or will we mainly end up doing it for them? B. Do we have the materials, or can we scavenge them without asking the congregation to collect used bottle tops for weeks on end? C. Do the children have a fighting chance of making the connection between the activity and message?

As a former primary-school teacher and messy-church prac­titioner, Leadbetter is clearly on the same page. Her ideas are simple to execute, and use everyday materials, and she is excellent at making the message integral to the task. She also suggests developments for messy-church teams looking for new ideas, like a Quiet Day for leaders and a messy retreat.

I am going to take this book to our messy-church planning sessions, and I can imagine using it with my own children, too, as a way of helping us to pray together as a family.


The Revd Catherine Pickford is Team Rector in the Benwell Team Ministry, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

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