JESUS makes interaction with children central, and he insists on seeing the behaviour of disciples with children as an indicator of their closeness to the Kingdom of heaven. This is why it is shocking when some pre-ordination courses, and some curacy training schemes, do not systematically ensure that interaction with children is a key part of ministerial training.
The shaping of classic models of ministerial formation miss out two key aspects of Jesus’s teaching, and we all miss out on Jesus’s intentions.
First, Jesus insists that interaction with children is a key means of formation. He took a child and put the child in the midst of his disciples. Jesus does not, like our present consumerist society, see a child as a pseudo-adult. On the contrary, as Ulrich Becker argues, “it is not the child’s transformation to adulthood, but the adults’ transformation to childhood [that] determines Jesus’ words about the child.”
So, paying attention to children should be elevated to a means of ministerial shaping to go alongside habit-forming, spiritual disciplines, supervision by a reflective practitioner, formal instruction, action-learning, and peer support.
THE Anglican poet Thomas Traherne suggests that a lack of playfulness will lead to a lack of learning: “to be Good, to be Holy, to be Righteous, is freely to Delight in Excellent Actions with a Delight that Grown Men have lost.” Worship is a “sacred game”, and to have forgotten how to play is to have forgotten how to worship — to be deprived of a chance to “be taken out of ourselves and participate in the fullness of God”.
For the writer George Monbiot, the playfulness of children is crucial in teaching adults to “go feral”, “re-wild”, and replace our “silent spring” with “the hope of a raucous summer, in which, in some parts of the world at least, destructive processes are thrown into reverse.”
Marcia Bunge argues that the marginalisation of children in some recent theological thought, as in much theological training, is linked to the dehumanisation of children which makes widespread abuse in religious settings possible.
Nor will it do to take “having a child in the midst” as some sort of metaphor for faith or humility, or to take children or “little ones” as a metaphor for the least powerful in society. An absence of attention to real, literal children will render the shaping of a Christian leader inadequate — not only in terms of “school skills”, but for their whole shaping.
Second, Jesus insists that how we treat children indicates not only whether we are “school-shaped”, but also whether we are “minister-shaped”. Take Matthew 18: “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” negatively (to be a stumbling-block for a child is to invite a fate worse than having a millstone attached to your neck and being drowned) and positively (it is the Father’s will that not one of these little ones be lost). Along the way is the intriguing verse that says that “the angels of these little [children] continually see the face of my Father in heaven.”
This seems to be less a doctrinal point about guardian angels than a warning to the disciples that their conduct with children is being observed and evaluated. We might say that the formation assessments of heaven pay special attention to how we relate to children. Only after these ground rules have been laid down does Matthew 18 go on to speak of the foundation of the Church (one of only two occasions in the Gospels when the word “Church” is used).
THIS is serious: a new minister who “shhh-es” children in church because they are “distracting worshippers” would need to work hard to convince us that they are ready to progress to the next stage of ministry — although, to quote Paul Goodliff, “I am not saying that as children grow they should not be taught to moderate their innate capacity for chaos.”
Curacy and its equivalents are simply going to be inadequate if schools are not part of it — and not only because the new ministers will not be school-shaped, but also because they will not be properly shaped in the other ways that the Church demands.
Lallie Godfrey is Schools Team Leader and Canon Andy Griffiths co-ordinates the training of new ministers (IME2) for Chelmsford diocese. This is an edited extract from their booklet, Schools Shaping Ministers, published by Grove Books (£3.95 (Church Times Bookshop £3.55); 978-1-78827-109-7).
Read more on children’s ministry in our feature