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Godly Play — Gott im Spiel, edited by Martin Steinhäuser, Rune Oystese

23 November 2018

John Pridmore on the state of Godly Play and Children’s Theology

CONFERENCES frequently beget books, but few as important as this one. In 2016, the European Godly Play community met in Riga, Latvia. The volume in our hands — both hands are needed; for it is a weighty tome — is the outcome of that consultation.

This work is important, not only because of the seminal significance of much of its content. Its appearance also affirms something that the wider Church must now register: that the approach to Christian nurture known as Godly Play has come of age. Here I can only hint at the wealth of these 400 pages.

We have two titles; for this is a bilingual book. The English turn of phrase “Godly Play” has proved untranslatable. But the German “Gott im Spiel”, literally “God in play”, with its suggestion that God joins with us in the sacred game we are playing, works brilliantly. It is just one example of how well German practitioners of Godly Play understand what they are up to.

In Part A, we are taken on a Grand Tour. Peter Privett reports from all the countries in Europe where Godly Play is established. Andrew Sheldon takes us — the dance goes on — to the ends of the earth.

In Part B, we turn to theory and methodology. Here it is fitting that the one to whom this volume is dedicated speaks first. The late John Hull said: “I only know of one genius in Religious Education. It is Jerome Berryman.” None of us who have worked with Jerome will contest that claim.

In this bilingual work, the German papers are preceded by an abstract in English; those in English are summarised in German. Readers with a smidgeon of German will be well-rewarded by tackling the weighty German papers in the original. Petra Freudenberger-Lötz, for example, persuades us that the German school of Kindertheologie, “Children’s Theology”, and Godly Play can enrich one another. Children’s Theology, little known in the English-speaking world, “theologises with children”; Godly Play wonders with them. There is every reason for the two to join hands.

Another fine paper in German is Ursula Ulrike Kaiser’s exposition of the Synoptic Gospels’ foundational texts about children. Kaiser emphasises that the reason that Jesus sets such great store on children has everything to do with their social status and vulnerability, not with their so often romanticised personal attributes.

Parts C and D of this far-ranging Festschrift set before us illustrations of the practice and practicalities of Godly Play. Cora O’Farrell’s essay, “The Desire for God, a study of Irish Children’s Voices on Spiritual Education”, is an exemplary piece of work. O’Farrell reflects on the importance of silence for the nurture of the spirit, a theme explored further in Lisa Debney’s beautiful chapter, “Stalking the Wild Silence”.

In reading these later papers, we must bear in mind a disarming editorial remark: “The academic standard of the chapters in this book is inevitably somewhat varied.” That said, the foothills beneath the peaks have their charm and surprises. We are warned that smaller items in a portable Godly Play classroom constitute a choking hazard.

Part E of Godly Play — Gott im Spiel is just one chapter, focusing on the central question posed by this historic publication: how feasible is research into an experience as sophisticated and multi-faceted as Godly Play?

Research by those outside the Godly Play circle — the po-faced with their clipboards — will never feel the heartbeat of what is happening. Research by insiders is at risk of becoming an exercise in self-congratulation. Our editors come to the cautious conclusion that the qualitative “case-study” research method is sometimes illuminating — but sometimes not.

We can understand why long ago Jerome and Thea Berryman themselves decided to leave it to others to do the research and to get on themselves with what they were best at.

The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.

Godly Play — Gott im Spiel: European perspectives on practice and research
Martin Steinhäuser, Rune Oystese, editors
Waxmann £32.99

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