BY DAY, I teach modern languages at a secular boys’ school where a significant number of the pupils are Jewish. In the first half-term, there are three major Jewish festivals — Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana, and Sukkot — for which almost all the Jewish boys, whether Orthodox, Reform, or Liberal, take a leave of religious observance. Most of the boys, when asked about the origin and ritual of the festivals, answer knowledgeably. The pride that these boys take in their religious identity is unmistakable.
In contrast, at a music rehearsal for a communion service, the lead singer — like me a lifelong Anglican in her early thirties — said that she didn’t know the pronunciation of Agnus Dei. The other band members immediately started riffing, culminating in “Angus Day, a special offer on steak”. Even if, as a language teacher, I should be forgiving of mispronunciation, something is amiss in the way the corpus of Christian knowledge (doctrine and liturgy) is being transmitted within the Church of England.
The hunger among adult believers for a defined corpus of knowledge, akin to the Roman Catholic Catechism, is demonstrated by the success of courses such as Alpha, Christianity Explored, and Emmaus.
Sunday school, therefore, has an important part to play in bridging a knowledge gap that is already evident. Children’s work that is craft-based and little more than an exercise in noise suppression is a wasted opportunity to teach Christian knowledge — the Creed, the liturgy, the Christian year, scripture — in ways which are age appropriate, but acknowledge them in their fullness. Preparation for confirmation remains undemanding.
Jewish children, in contrast, are immersed in the Torah from a young age, and undergo rigorous preparation for their bar or bat mitzvah. That children may not understand fully is beside the point. Young choristers are able to cope with traditional worship, and even with singing in Latin. Knowledge is not an impediment, but a foundation for a life of faith. As schools are moving back towards a curriculum that is knowledge-based, so, too, can the Church.
IT IS painful but necessary to acknowledge that the widely differing experiences of the Anglicans and Jews of Britain is the dominant factor in this. The Church of England has never suffered persecution, and only recently has begun to understand that it is becoming a minority. The Church enjoyed a long period of primacy and complacency.
Jewish parents and clergy, in tragic contrast, have long understood that to transmit their faith fully and accurately is urgent. Thus, children born into Jewish families are brought up knowing that they are the custodians of a holy fire. They are much less likely to break the sabbath than we are to skip a Sunday. The Jews know, with a certainty that many Christians lack, that they are God’s chosen people.
The loss of confidence in traditional worship stems from the fact that its tenor (solemnity, ceremony, repetition) has few if any parallels left in modern life. Interpreting this as a barrier to participation, the response has been to adapt the life and worship of the Church so that it more closely resembles life outside the Church.
Certainly, the Church should have its eyes open to wider society. But it is absurd for the worship of the Church to be dictated by what we imagine those outside the Church want. I recently asked a friend, another lifelong Anglican of about my age, whether he expected other faiths to adapt their worship to outsiders. Without hesitation, he said that he would expect no such thing.
Likewise, for change to be dictated by the presumed tastes of children is, frankly, bizarre. If children are routinely excluded from the eucharist and other liturgical rites, if the term “all-age” is applied only to patronising forms of worship, what children implicitly understand is that the way adults worship is boring and incomprehensible when they should infer that it is rich and sustaining. All worship is all-age. It is involvement and exposure that breed attachment. We cannot afford to disregard how much children learn from the attitudes that adults — parents in particular — unconsciously enact. If adults have little confidence in, or respect for, traditional worship, then it is already as good as lost.
I WOULD be horrified were form to take precedence over substance. Neither do I wish the Church of England to become a monolith; its breadth is in so many ways a strength. But it is imperative to its survival that its leadership move to preserve traditional worship. It may not be central to our identity as Christians, but it is a touchstone of our identity as Anglicans, and is a repository of great spiritual depth, comfort, and stability.
Children become attached to what they are exposed to, and carry that attachment into adulthood. As each family has its own traditions and vocabulary that form a family mythology, so the Church has its rituals and vocabulary. Adapt too forcefully the ritual, vocabulary, and doctrine, and the knowledge to be transmitted will not have been preserved, but irrecoverably altered.
The author writes under a pseudonym.