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Influencing the generations

21 June 2019

Grandparents can play a pivotal part in the faith formation of their grandchildren, but it can be tricky, discovers Ted Harrison


ANNE and Joachim do not even get a mention in the Bible: their names come to us from early Christian tradition and non-canonical gospels. Yet they were probably two of the most influential people in the life of Christ. They were Jesus’s grandparents.

They may well have been there when Jesus took his first steps and spoke his first words. They no doubt wiped his tears, told him stories, and, by their teaching and example, raised him in the Jewish faith.

The relationship between a grandparent and a grandchild can be one of the most formative of childhood. Homo sapiens is one of a handful of species in creation in which the length of time and complexities of child-rearing mean that parents need help across the generations.

Today, says Anita Cleverly, a spiritual director, grandmother of eight, and author of a new book, Faithful Grandparents (BRF), there has never been a more important time “to find meaningful ways of passing on faith from one generation to the next. . . Christian grandparents have a crucial role to play.”

The relationship that develops between grandparent and grandchild is unique in every case. Some grandparents are a regular presence, often substituting for parents when parents are working. Some grandparents live at a great distance, and contact with them is largely restricted to social media, Facebook, and Skype.

As all grandparents discover, however hard they try to treat every grandchild the same, the bonds with them are inevitably unequal. While the love apportioned is the same, circumstance dictates how the relationship evolves. For instance, the child of a daughter living in the same street sees far more of his or her grandparents than their cousin who lives in Australia because of their father’s job.

Patterns of family life have changed radically over the past two generations, and grandparents with a strong faith have to develop new ways of passing on that faith to their grandchildren. In a family in which both parents and grandparents are churchgoers, this can be a delight. In a situation in which the parents have rejected the faith, this becomes far harder, and requires delicate negotiations of boundaries.

Grandparents may also be trying to come to terms with family relationships that are not traditional, and which they may feel run counter to their understanding of Christian teaching. Their grandchildren’s parents may not think it important to be married, or a son or daughter may be raising a family within a same-sex partnership. Grandchildren may have a step-parent, or may have several half-brothers and sisters. In extreme circumstances, family estrangements can lead to grandparents never being allowed to see their grandchildren.

WORKING out how to speak about faith can be difficult. One online agony column gives a stark example of tensions that can arise. “‘My mother is very religious,’ a questioner writes. ‘My wife and I are not. She insists on trying to brainwash our kids and I have told her she is not welcome in my house until she can drop the subject of religion. She refuses to. Is there a better way to handle this?’”

The director of the Calling Young Disciples project in the diocese of Worcester, the Revd Ruth Walker, has been organising training sessions for grandparents keen to extend their faith to their grandchildren. This followed a meeting with a lady who tearfully told her that her children no longer went to church. “She wanted to share her faith with her grandchildren, but had lost confidence.”

First of all, “families come in a variety of challenging forms; so, be aware of boundaries,” she advises. “There can be tensions in any family if, for instance, one parent is a strong non-believer, or if the grandchildren have parents of different religions.

“If the grandchildren are staying on a Sunday, check that it is all right to take them to church with you,” she says. “If the service is going to be unfamiliar, prepare the grandchildren. Tell them what to expect.”

A training session for grandparents in the diocese of Worcester

But grandchildren are influenced by what they see at grandparents’ homes, too. “Make sure at Christmas there’s a crib, as well as a tree. Have a Noah’s ark in the toy box, have story books and objects around the house that might prompt questions,” she suggests.

And, she says, it is not a one-way process. “Learn from your grandchildren. The young are often more open to God and spiritual things than adults. There are many stories of God speaking through children.”

If families are scattered around the world, she says, there are still opportunities to speak about faith: ‘”You can read to children over Skype and Facebook. You can even have shared meals the same way.”

“We can listen to our grandchildren,” Mrs Cleverly says, “and we can listen to God for them. We can also listen to creation with them. . . We can exclaim with them at the beauty of a flower, beach, mountain, or animal.”

Louisa Harrop is an RE teacher at a middle school in Staffordshire. “My personal experience is that my generation — I am 35 — often understand faith and religion through the lenses of their grandparents.

“Many of the children I asked said that grandparents were the people who took them to church, often for special occasions such as at Christmas, and for Messy Church activity services.”

Predominantly, she notes, of the children she teaches, “If they go to church, it’s because their family have always been, and it’s part of their routine. One said that their week was shaped by it, and they look forward to it.

“At parents’ evening, parents are quick to tell me, as if it is a prerequisite of being good at RE, or being part of a C of E school, that they used to go to church, or ring the bells, or the child’s grandparents are active members of the church. This tentative connection, and the need to articulate this to me, seems important to them.”

And also to the children, she adds. “A charming ten-year-old lad, who has a very difficult home life, was listening to me talking about this topic to another teacher. He interrupted to tell me, ‘Miss, my nan is so religious that we pray at dinner time and she goes to church every week.’ He was so proud to have something to say about faith.

“What is striking to me is that friends who are Sikhs [also] delight in the interconnected nature of family and faith — both as essential components of what makes their life so rich, and full of shared meaning.”

THE Church of England has few resources specifically designed to help grandparents speak about their faith. Church groups in the United States, and the Roman Catholic Church, seem much more aware of the need.

“The relationship between a grandparent and grandchild is one of the most critical and important relationships one will ever experience,’ Matthew Deprez wrote in the Christian Education Journal in 2017. Mr Deprez is an intergenerational pastor at a church in Michigan. He highlighted the unique differences in grand-parenting versus parenting. “Grandparents often have much more focused, unhurried time with their grandchildren than a busy, preoccupied parent . . . thus making a grandchild feel cared for in ways parents cannot.”

He emphasised the value of seemingly small details, such as mentioning God in birthday cards, and talking of faith when telling stories and memories. “Grandparents, whether you recognise it or not, your grandchildren are forming perceptions about how important your faith is to your day-to-day living.”

The Catholic Grandparents Association (CGA) publishes a resource pack for grandparents. It is active in setting up local branches in parishes. It is a forum for grandparents to swap ideas and exchange news. The CGA suggests that meetings start with lighting a candle and saying the Pope’s prayer together. In it, grandparents are described as “living treasures”, and God is asked that they continue “to be, for their families, strong pillars of Gospel faith”.

GRANDPARENTS often find themselves fielding childishly profound questions. They might arise when there is a death in the family, or even when a pet dies. Be honest in your replies, Mrs Walker says.When someone dies, you can say they have gone to be with God.”

In the teenage years, the questions are more challenging: “How can you really believe in that? Isn’t it all in the chemicals in the brain?”

“None of them are certain whether they believe in God,” says a retired parish priest, the Revd Richard Love, of his teenage grandchildren, “but we still say grace before meals when they come, and they are respectful.”

One of the delights of grandparenthood is watching grandchildren grow up; but, as a grandparent, one has no way of measuring the influence that one has had.

When my youngest granddaughter was three or four, she would ask me to take her over the road to the little country church near her home. She loved playing in the churchyard, and always wanted to help me open the church door and go inside. When I asked her the other day whether she remembered those times, she said “No.” She is now a young adult, and does not go to church. Had those walks to the church had no influence? Who knows? But, interestingly, she now has a job in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral.

Ruth Nicholls, a grandmother and a member of the congregation at Duffield Baptist Church, recalls happy times talking to her daughter’s four children about Jesus. “When they were little, we prayed together and would say: What’s been happy about today that we can thank Jesus for? Or: What are you doing tomorrow, and we can ask for Jesus’s help?”

Being in a Christian family, she found it “a great joy to see their faith develop”, she says. “Now in their twenties, we really value that they ring us up if there’s anything big happening in their lives, such as exams or job interviews, and ask us to support them with prayers.

“Grandparents are the backstop. If the grandchildren are ever going to kick against things, they do so to their parents, and, sometimes, we are there to help the parents.”

The joy of grandchildren cannot be understated, and it is one of those relationships in which unconditional love is exchanged. My own grandchildren have reached adulthood, but I still have the keyring I cherished when they were little. On it are the words: “If I’d known how great it was to be a grandfather, I’d have been one first!”

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