Laity – or Lowity?

It’s a dreary evening in November, many years ago, and I am giving Tessa a lift to a diocesan training event.

“I’ve been invited to join Bishop’s Council,” she tells me brightly.  “The bishop felt there weren’t enough laity on Bishop’s Council so he’s asked me to join. He wants to make it more representative.”

I am so astonished that I am lost for words.  Tessa is married to a curate. How can she possibly represent the laity on Bishop’s Council?  Does it not occur to the bishop that Tessa and her husband will discuss church matters?  That living alongside him, sharing and supporting his ministry, means that her views are far more likely to be clerical than lay?

When I discuss this later with friends, we decide that there are three orders in the Church of England: Clergy; Laity (clergy spouses and other close relatives) and Lowity (the rest of us).

I’ve noticed this in some of the discussions at General Synod on topics such as clergy welfare.  Lay member after lay member will get up and say that they are the son/daughter/spouse of a priest and talk about the stresses and strains of ministry.  I may misremember, but at the time I felt that synod spent far more time and interest discussing some specific clergy item (pensions?) than Setting God’s People Free, the report on the laity. A few people got up to say the report was a Good Thing and that was about it.

Yet the lowity (laity unrelated to clergy) make up over 90% of the church and Setting God’s People Free was not uncontroversial.  It dealt not only with enabling the laity to live out their faith in everyday life but with the poor relationships between clergy and laity that is the result of clericalism: “the priest knows best.”  While various initiatives were put in place to equip the laity for a confident faith for their Monday to Saturday lives, I have not come across any that specifically addressed the need to improve clergy/lay relationships. Perhaps it was thought that this would follow automatically?

Clericalism has been in the news this week as a result of the IICSA report (Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse) which has attributed several of the failings in the church response to clericalism.  Several people on Twitter have responded by saying that priests are still members of the Laos, the People of God and that this is the primary calling.  Baptism takes precedence over ordination.  Clericalism is not something they want to recognise.

I have found this irritating, if well meaning.  If clericalism could be represented as a decorated cupcake surrounded by plain biscuits, then this view could be represented as the idea that we are all cakes, but ordination is the icing on the top.  Clergy are still laity, but now come with an added something – which presumably enables them to speak for both clergy and laity. 

I prefer to see it as a fork in the road (cake analogy only goes so far!)

We are all called, but priests have taken a different road.  They have been called in one direction, the laity in another (in reality many different directions.)   I see no problem with this.

I do however have a problem with the view that the priestly road is the one with the best views, the most exciting adventures, the one where you come closest to God.  Clergy often seem to think that because they were once laity, they know all about being laity.  But using the road analogy, they have only travelled so far along that road before taking a different direction.  For some this may be many years in the past.  As many see their past life as leading towards ordination, it is tempting for them to see the laity as the people who haven’t reached the fork in the road and probably never will.

But the laity are not failed priests.  God is calling them to adventures that are different but just as exciting.  Sadly, in my experience, the church rarely acknowledges this.  

There are few mechanisms that give the laity a voice in the church. PCCs are often dominated by buildings and finance. Deanery Synods tend to be top down rather than bottom up, informing parishes about diocesan initiatives that they are expected to put into practice. 

The laity do not speak with a coherent voice.  (This is also true for clergy on many issues.)  They do however talk amongst themselves: about God, their faith and their vision for the church.  In churches where there is mutual respect, priest and people talk to each other in the same way. 

There are many books on what it means to be a priest, few (if any) on what it means to be laity.  (This may be because many church books are written by priests and being laity is no longer part of their experience.)   

So what does it mean to be laity in the church?  How can we avoid clericalism and develop mutual respect for our different callings? 

Bounce – a way of working creatively

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My friend Clare and I are sitting at her kitchen table with a blank sheet of paper in front of us.

We have met to plan the school’s R.E. day in June. Last September we decided that the theme would be Pentecost but neither of us have given it a thought since, even though the day is now only three weeks away.

Neither of us is worried; we both know that by the time I leave in an hour’s time the day will have been planned and we will both be happy with the result.

Clare and I work together by bouncing ideas off each other.  She jots notes as they occur to her, I prefer spider diagrams.  We both throw ideas into the mix – to be greeted with “ooh, that would be brilliant”, “I don’t think that would be possible because…” or “not sure, have you thought about…”

It has taken time for us to develop working together in this way.  We work as equals and we both know that any criticism of the other’s ideas is not personal.   As we have the freedom to be critical, we work together towards a synthesis that is better than anything that we would have come up with apart.

Clare isn’t the only person I have worked with in this way.  My friend Su and I used to plan All Age Worship together like this.  I have friends I bounce ideas with over the phone – though that is usually to do with projects each of us is working on individually rather than something that we are doing together.  I’ve even known it happen on Facebook!

But surely we should be working in a team?

The current focus in children’s ministry, churches and pioneering is about working in teams.  While some emphasise “setting up your team” as a starting point, many simply assume that you already have a team and offer articles and chapters on “How to support your team” or “Keeping your team involved.”

I am not convinced by this team approach in all situations.  I think it depends what you are aiming at.

Teams are a good way forward if you are implementing something where the thinking has been done for you.  With things like Messy Church, certain kinds of Fresh Expression or various church programmes the principles have been established; all the team needs to do is put them into practice. (Interestingly Godly Play needs a “team” of two, a storyteller and a doorkeeper, though a larger team might be helpful for rotas, resources etc)

But if you want to be more creative, I am not sure that the team approach works best.  I have found it harder to be critical when there are more than two people.  In that context, criticism feels like conflict, especially if it is about fundamentals.  If two people disagree, the others find themselves drawn in.  Instead of working through the issue to find synthesis it is likely to turn into a battle between two sides.  The most dominant, most powerful person often wins. Or the leader may work towards consensus, which favours the lowest common denominator.  The visionary edge can become blunted.

This does not mean that the R.E. day that Clare and I have planned is delivered just by us. On the contrary, several people come along to story tell, provide the music or help with crafts.  They do, I think, feel part of the “team” even though they have not been part of the planning.

Some of this is about integrity.  There needs to be integrity for the whole event and in this case that is held jointly by Clare and me. But there also needs to be individual integrity.  If one of the storytellers told us they could not possibly tell the story in the way we have asked, then we would need to adapt or find someone else to do it.  We shouldn’t ask people to work against their own personal integrity.  Their reservations are usually valid.

Where is God in this context?  This is always a tricky question because it is so easy to twist what he wants into what you think. But often in these kind of planning sessions I am aware of him inspiring us, taking us down different paths from the way I expected.  It seems to be about awareness. And also about trust, our trust for God and for each other. (Just as an aside it is interesting that Jesus sent out the 72 disciples in pairs rather than teams!)

With 5 minutes to go before I need to leave, we have planned all the school Pentecost event except for the epilogue.

“We need something with a real wow factor,” I say.

“I know,” says Clare, “what about passing on the light?  We sit them in circles in the hall and give each one a candle. We light a few candles and then they pass the light to each other.”

“Hmmm,” I say trying to envisage 150 children aged 4-11 passing lighted flames around in the hall.

“It will be fine,” says Clare.

She is right. It is.

Children’s books and church: 2 Heidi

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Does our childhood reading influence our faith?

Heidi by Johanna Spyri (first published 1880) Contains spoilers 

Heidi is an intentionally Christian book, which is interesting as Johanna Spyri’s own deepest belief seems to be that only the mountains can offer healing and wholeness. By contrast the city is sickly and soul destroying.

Both the depressed doctor and the invalid Clara are cured by their visit to the mountains while Heidi’s own health becomes precarious when she is away from them.   This isn’t a Biblical view: Jesus went into the mountains to pray but he wept over Jerusalem.  Much of the gospel action takes place there and the Bible ends with the revelation of the heavenly city.

Despite this belief in the effect of the mountains, it is Grandmamma, Clara’s grandmother, who has the most thought through faith in the book and she is very much a city person.  The old blind grandmother who lives in the mountains has faith, but her worries get in the way. She is in a permanent state of panic that Heidi will be taken away from her. Heidi, rather than God, is at the centre of her world.

As a child I took Grandmamma’s instructions about faith on trust.  Now I am not so sure.  In Frankfurt she tells Heidi that God always wants the best for us and that if we wait, he will answer our prayers. We will look back and realise that his way has worked out much better for us than our own original choices.  This becomes Heidi’s own experience: an earlier return to the mountains would not have brought the same benefits (friendship and gifts for the blind grandmother) as her later return does. But this theology has its drawbacks:

“But what if God Himself has sent the sorrow?” asks the doctor, whose daughter has died.  Heidi’s response that if we have patience, “something will turn up and we will see quite clearly that all the time it was all for the best” doesn’t quite work.  I cannot believe that such things as the neonatal deaths of our twins were in my best interests all along. I can’t believe it was in their best interests either.  They were real people with real lives, not just a walk on part in mine.  Eternity may prove me wrong but until then it is in my box “awaiting further light”.

In all fairness, Johanna Spyri does acknowledge this problem:

“You see Heidi, when someone has a great grief he cannot enjoy anything lovely, and beauty, like this around us, only makes him more sad…” the doctor responds.

The author doesn’t seem to have any real answers to this (who has?) except for Heidi to recite one of the blind grandmother’s favourite hymns.  Towards the end of the book she reverts to the simple God knows best.  Heidi tells Clara:

“… we must say then (to God) ‘Now I know, dear Father, that you have something better in mind and I am glad that you will make it all right in the end.’”

Often things are not “all right in the end”.  And yet, paradoxically, I continue to pray “Thy will be done” and mean it most of the time.

Although Grandmamma never misses an opportunity to share her theology, she does understand people.  I have always felt that Peter had a raw deal.  Heidi’s attention is always centred on the person she perceives as needing her most and Peter rarely makes it to the front of the queue.  (Even when she teaches him to read it is so that he can read hymns to his blind grandmother rather than for his own benefit!)

It is not surprising that Peter is jealous of Clara and pushes her wheelchair down the mountain.  Grandmamma talks to him about his conscience, and instead of punishing him rewards him.  Even as a child, I was glad someone gave him some attention.

I first came across Heidi at about five or six years old and have re-read it many times since.  How do I discern how it shaped my faith as a child?  I think the way to do this is to look at what has stayed in my memory.

Firstly, the mountain pastures.  Once the children reach them, they stop there.  It is a place to be and to wonder, rather than a doing place.  Here there is that sense of timelessness and peace, the lack of interruption that I needed as a child and still do.

Heidi’s exile in Frankfurt also made a strong impression on me.  In the city the inner kingdom is stifled and there is nothing in the sterile streets to bring Heidi close to what she has lost. Even the wind in the trees turns out to be carriages rumbling by.  I found Clara a more interesting character than Heidi (she has far more sense of humour!) but in Frankfurt I identified with Heidi, exiled from Eden.

But more than anything else I took away the idea that sin is turning away from God and that it is possible to turn back and be welcomed.  Although the Alm Uncle’s wrongdoings are mentioned at the beginning of the book (gambling and drinking) it is the way he has chosen to live, at outs with God and people that is wrong.  It is not the counting and classifying of sins that matters but what you turn towards.

The innocent child who redeems the hardened old sinner is a recurring theme in fiction, but this passed me by.  It was the story that mattered, the story that Heidi shared with the old man that spoke to him.  Looking down on the sleeping child, the old man repeats the words of the younger son:

“Father I have sinned against Heaven and in Thy sight and am not worthy to be called Thy son.”

It is this image and these words that have stayed with me.

Children’s books and church: 1 Milly Molly Mandy

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Does our childhood reading influence our faith?

As a small child, growing up in 1950s suburbia, Milly Molly Mandy books were the first ones that become part of my internal world. There were other books I liked, but these I loved.

Written 30 years earlier by Joyce Lancaster Brisley, these books described a world I didn’t know, but one I longed for.  For Milly Molly Mandy’s world appears totally safe.  Within its boundaries she is free to explore and have adventures.  The reader knows that nothing is going to go seriously wrong.

In theory my world should have been as secure as hers.  I had two parents, four grandparents, a house and garden, friends and a school that I mostly enjoyed.  But I was an anxious child.  I had my bed pushed up against the wall so nothing could get behind me in the night and I worried endlessly about the things I wished I hadn’t done – getting told off for jumping on the chairs or saying “Hello Old Thornsy!” to the sarcastic teacher.  (My father used to call him that – what possessed me as a small mousy child to try it out on him I will never know.)

My world was based on the same premise as Milly Molly Mandy’s: “Not in front of the children.”  The adults endeavour to hide their concerns and worries from the children. Milly Molly Mandy accepts her world, as small children do, as being how the world is.  There is no need for difficult questions.

But this is a safe world without God.  As a child I knew only the first three books, and God does not appear.  Church is mentioned only once – when Milly Molly Mandy visits Mrs Hooker in town.  This safe world has been created for the child by the adults in her life and they have been completely successful.

This is unsurprising when you remember that Joyce Lancaster Brisley originally wrote these stories for the Christian Science monitor, an organisation that was unlikely to consider churchgoing desirable.

However, the church is shown on the map at the beginning of each book.  It must have dominated the view for everyone who went out of the front gate of the nice white cottage with the thatched roof. Milly Molly Mandy went past it every time she and Susan took the short cut to school.

The events that give markers to village life are not that dissimilar to the ones that take place in villages now – the fete, the concert with local talent, the flower and produce show, carol singing. But today many of those events are organised on behalf of the church.  Surely this would have been the case in the 1920s?

Re-reading these books as an adult I can see that there are hints of a much darker world than the one I longed for as a child.

Money worries are mentioned – it is clear that pennies are rare and need careful thought before spending; there is no extra money for trips to the sea or bicycles.  Milly Molly Mandy knows and understands these limitations but they do not bother her. Other families are in similar situations.

It is more striking that most of the children in the books are only children: Milly Molly Mandy, Billy Blunt, Milly next door, Jessamine, Bunchy.  Only Susan has a baby sister and even she does not arrive until halfway through Book 2.  Was it something in the water? Had Marie Stopes moved into the cottage next to Mr Critch the Thatcher?  Did none of them want more children?

Aunty and Uncle are childless.  Uncle is the adult most able to enter into the child’s world – how did he feel about not having his own child?  And what about Aunty?  What did she think about during that endless round of dusting and sewing?

Even more concerning is the number of children who lack parents.  Miss Muggins’ Jilly lives with her aunt. Bunchy lives with her grandmother, Timmy Biggs with his grandad. Jessamine from the Big House has only her mother.  We are never told what tragedies lie behind all these missing parents – though if the stories are set early in the 1920s we might guess at the first world war and Spanish influenza.  Milly Molly Mandy’s world is not as safe as it first appears.

I read Milly Molly Mandy Again (Book 4) as an adult – and found that the author’s attitude to church and God had changed dramatically.  Milly Molly Mandy goes to harvest festival and the blacksmith’s wedding in the church and “Vicar” gets a mention at harvest festival!  Milly Molly Mandy and her mother even have a conversation about God:  harvest festival is to give thanks to God.  God takes the thankfulness and the vicar gives the produce to the cottage hospital – it is a double giving.  The book ends with snowy weather; everyone except Grandma who does not like the cold (who can blame her!) goes to church just as if they have been doing so Sunday by Sunday since the books began.  This book was published in 1948, twenty years after the original.  Joyce Lancaster Brisley had lived through the depression and second world war since then – her views have had time to change and she, like us, is looking back with nostalgia.

Is it possible for my faith to have been influenced by Milly Molly Mandy when the books I knew had no references to God and only one mention of church?  A world in which adults are in control rather than God is the antithesis of Christian belief.  The Biblical story tells us what happens when adults believe themselves to be in control…  But I do not think I ever believed in adults’ ability to create a secure world for children, on their own so this passed me by.

I think I did take away the emphasis on looking carefully and appreciating the small things.  Milly Molly Mandy’s family show respect for everyone though this is most noticeable in Milly Molly Mandy Again when the village rallies around the Traveller family and bring their pots and pans to be mended.

We would be like apple trees without apples if we weren’t useful, says Mother, echoing the Protestant work ethic.  But I’m not sure I believed that either…  I certainly didn’t practice it!

Though we are many…

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I have written this in response to Peter Anthony’s YouTube video in which he argues against virtual communion (Link here). Part of his argument is that virtual communion would be exclusive as it excludes those without easy access to the internet.  I have assumed from this that he sees inclusivity as part of the fundamental nature of the Eucharist. (This is also implied by the congregational response in the communion service: “though we are many, we are one body because we all share in the one bread.”)   

We are about two thirds of the way through the baptism service and there is a surprising feeling of unity amongst this very disparate congregation.  Most of those here today are connected to the baptism family and haven’t been in church since the wedding.  The usual congregation is feeling a bit overwhelmed but pleased to see the church so full.

Together we have sung “Morning has broken” and “All things bright and beautiful” (chosen by the baptism family.) We have listened and reflected on the priest’s short talk on the significance of being called by name and laughed at the humorous anecdote concerning their own name.  We have watched the baptism and smiled at the baby’s reaction to the water.  The children have shared the baptism cards they have made for the baby and there has been almost silence during the prayers for the world, the church, the community, the sick and ourselves.  Most have joined in saying the Lord’s Prayer. Sharing the peace has given us a chance to welcome and connect with the baptism party and for them to welcome and connect with each other.

“We break this bread to share in the body of Christ.”

“Though we are many we are one body, because we all share in the one bread” the congregation respond, including all those have not realised the implications of what this might look like in practice.

All this togetherness is about to change.

The priest has reached the end of the Eucharistic prayer and we are about to be divided into sheep, lambs, llamas and goats.

The sheep are the straightforward ones.  They are the people who take communion either here or in their own churches.  They are invited to come and take communion, to share in the one bread.

Next the llamas.  The priest invites all those who would like a blessing to come up with the communicants.  As we make our way up to the altar rail it is easy to distinguish between sheep and llamas because the llamas have been asked to bring the service sheet with them to show they won’t be taking communion.  (Why make it so obvious who is included and who is excluded?  Why not just ask people to hold their hands together at the altar rail?)  *

I think the priest is hopeful that all the baptism party will be llamas but apart from the baby’s immediate family most of them choose to be goats and stay sitting in the pews.   They sit in fidgety embarrassment as the rest of us file past on our way to communion, rereading the weekly pew sheet, chasing their children around the church or guiltily moving seats to chat to their friends.

No one has made any suggestions as to how they might use this time when they are excluded from this part of the worship.  This is something they just have to sit through. Unlike the oil, the water, the candle and the promises there has been no explanation of the significance of communion – perhaps the priest thinks this is covered by the Eucharistic prayer but I’m not sure it is.

The priest may be scarcely aware of the goats as they are physically distant from the altar and the priest’s focus is on the giving of communion and blessing those at the altar rail.

It is different for the laity as we have to walk past them both going and coming back.  (How do we walk back past those who have not taken communion?  Do we walk in some kind of sacred bubble, staring fixedly forward towards the back of the church where the loo is?  Or do we smile and attempt eye contact, while trying not to give off “look how I’ve been transformed by taking communion” vibes that create an unbreachable gap between those who are included and those who are not?)

And the lambs?  Churches differ widely on the lambs, both theologically and in practice.  In some the bread of life is offered to all baptised lambs with sufficient teeth to eat it safely.  Many churches offer it to church lambs who have reached a certain level of reasoning (generally assumed to be achieved about seven years old) and have undergone a preparation course.  Others seem barely aware that the lambs exist except as an added nuisance to the sheep they accompany.   But this is a different discussion…

“Almighty God, we thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ. Through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice…” begins the post communion prayer, said together (in theory) by the congregation, whether they have been fed or not.

Baptisms often highlight how exclusive the Eucharist can be as we are more aware of who is included and who is excluded.  But most Eucharists I go to include at least one goat or llama and even at times a few stray lambs.  I accept that this may be through choice, but where else in our lives do we experience this clear division of people into those who are excluded and those who are not?

Livestreaming and videoing of services have at least taken this away; sitting in front of our screens we are far less aware of who is “in” and who is not.

I am still thinking through the ideas around a virtual Eucharist and I think Peter Anthony may have a point about the need for physical presence.  But I would not choose the idea of the Eucharist as inclusive as a key argument.  It is hard to attend a communion service without being aware just how exclusive the Eucharist is in current practice.  While there may be theological reasons for this, I do not think it is right to assume the Eucharist is inclusive when experience indicates that it is not.

*  I do know some priests who offer an open table, especially for christenings and at Christmas.

A different kind of exile?

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The people of God looked at the smoke of the burning city and wondered if they would ever see it again.  (From Exile and Return, a Godly Play story by Jerome Berryman)

This time of the coronavirus feels similar to the people of God’s experience of going into exile in Babylon.  Our daily lives have changed dramatically in little over a week and the rate of change shows no sign of slowing.  This must have been true for the people of Jerusalem as well – one moment they were living their usual lives and the next they had been captured and marched off to exile in Babylon.  Not all of them made it; not all of us will make it either.

These times of exile have an impact on all aspects of our lives, and this includes our spiritual life.  The people of God had grown into the belief that somehow worship needed to take place in the temple in Jerusalem.  This was the place where they came close to God.  The exile began for them as a time of lament “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept, when we remembered Zion.”  As time went on, they discovered that worshiping God was possible in Babylon too.

Spiritually it can feel like that for us as well.  Our churches have closed, both for public and private prayer. The laity are unable to share in communion.  Our worshiping communities have been dispersed.  We have been told to stay at home and many of the voluntary activities that we did to serve our communities have stopped.

But there is I think, a key difference.  Going to Babylon, the people and the priests shared the same experience of exile from Jerusalem, the temple and all it meant to them.

For us it is different.  Although the priests are still able to receive communion this is no longer possible for the laity.

For those who find that they come closest to God during the Eucharist, this can be devastating.  During these difficult times the last thing they want is to feel cut off from God.  There have been several questions on social media along the lines of would it be all right to have my own bread and wine at home and is it possible to consecrate the elements over the internet?

As far as I can make out the church’s answer to both of these is no.  There is some discussion of spiritual communion and how priests can take communion on behalf of all of us.

Theologically and rationally this may be true.

But it doesn’t feel like it emotionally.

We, the laity, may in time be able to appreciate this position but we aren’t there yet. We can’t be.  It is too soon and until a few days ago most of us did not know that the idea of spiritual communion existed.  Many of us still don’t.  In recent years the church has stressed the centrality of communion in the Christian life.  If, for a time, this can no longer be so, this puts us (and the church) on a journey similar to that of the people of God as they travelled into exile.  Where will we find God during this time?

For priests, still able to receive communion, the questions may be different but just as difficult.  What is communion like on your own, unable to share with the rest of the church?  Is there some way in which it is fundamentally different? (I don’t know, I’m neither a priest nor a theologian so my questions are just guesswork. I’m sure their questions will be just as difficult though.  None of us is being offered an easy way through this.)

Sacred space is another issue. For many laity the opportunity to go into a church, experience the peace, and spend time in prayer feels necessary to their faith.

At this time of writing the guidance seems unclear.*  Many priests have been told that they too cannot go into church. However, government guidelines seem to indicate that online streamed services are allowed and some priests see no problem in entering a church for which they are the keyholder.

I think one of the difficulties is that priests are trying to direct the laity down roads that they themselves do not need to travel.  They are doing this out of concern for their congregations and because they can see the need.  But how do we, the laity, avoid thinking: “It’s all right for you.”  How do priests avoid wondering if the road the laity take will be more exciting than their own or lead them away from the church rather than towards it?

I am, I think, one of the lucky ones.  I will miss encountering God in receiving communion, in worshipping in church with my community and in the peace and silence of my local churches.  But I do not feel bereft as I also encounter Him walking in the countryside (today there were skylarks!), through storytelling, symbol and prayer and all these are still available to me.

At some point in the future, the different roads we travel during these times will start to come together again.  How will we show sensitivity towards each other’s experiences and how can we bring them together to enrich and renew the church?

The people of God returned from exile and began rebuilding the temple…

*Update:  The guidance from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York tonight has clarified this issue: “Our church buildings must now be closed not only for public worship, but for private prayer as well and this includes the priest or lay person offering prayer in church on their own…   …We must take a lead in showing our communities how we must behave in order to slow down the spread of the Coronavirus.”

Framing the nativity

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“I’ve found the children are quite confused about the nativity story and its characters,” a friend tells me, talking about her visit to a primary school. “Except for the donkey,” she adds ruefully.

This surprises me.  I have always assumed that everyone over the age of four knows the nativity story backwards.  Our Christmas nativities and crib services always worked on this assumption: the need to find a fresh approach to an over familiar story.

Were we wrong?  Perhaps children are not told the Christmas story in primary schools?  Or perhaps the story is just too complicated for them to remember?

Or perhaps this is about framing?

In primary schools the nativity story is usually framed by the school’s Christmas production. While some schools go for something completely secular (celebrating Santa, winter or a pantomime) many others opt for a “nativity play” loosely based on the Biblical narrative.

“The Lucky Owl” is about an owl in search of a home. He eventually ends up in the stable watching the nativity story unfold.  However, before this point is reached, he has visited several other woodland creatures, all singing about how glad they are to live in holes (or trees or nests or caves depending on species).

Another “nativity play” is about the Little Blue Star who was badly treated by all the other stars until the Big Gold Bethlehem Star comes along to sort everyone out.

In this context it is not surprising that the children are confused about the Christmas story.  A single retelling of the Biblical nativity story in class or assembly cannot compete with five weeks spent rehearsing and singing about being an alien or a forgetful angel.

Each year the actual story is framed by the school’s “nativity play” and becomes just one story among many.  How can we expect five and six year olds to discern that this is the story we want them to remember as “the Christmas story”?

It would be sad (if not impossible!) to ask schools to ditch their Christmas performances as they offer children so many other kinds of opportunities.

Instead I wonder if it would be possible to use the nativity story to frame the performance instead of the other way around.  Instead of waiting until Christmas to tell the story, tell it straight after the October half term.  Explain to the children that the play they are going to do includes Mary, Joseph, shepherds and wise men but that the writers have imagined all sorts of other things about the story – and that these things are just that: the writer’s imagination.

At times during the lead up to the production this could be re-emphasised, clarifying which parts belong to the original story and which parts have been added. The children could be asked what they think about the additions – do they add or take away from the original story?

But if we make the nativity story into the focus, we also need to think more deeply about the story we are telling.

Is it about the birth of a special baby or about the coming of the Messiah?  Is it a story that can be tweaked for moral purposes (stop bullying the Little Blue Star) or the mystery of God incarnate?   Are we short-changing children (who cope well with mystery) if we protect them from the dark and difficult aspects of the story?  The Godly Play story of the Holy Family finishes with the baby grown up, crucified, resurrected and “now with us in a different kind of way.”

It may be tempting to leave the baby trapped in the school nativity play; it is Christmas after all.  But some time we will have to pick up on the story and start along the road to Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter…

A day in the life of a Lying Politician…

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Who can we trust?

Over the last few weeks I’ve come across several people saying “all politicians lie” as if this is an excusable failing that can be allowed those who are aiming to rule the country.

Does this make lying the right thing to do in order to gain or retain power?  Is truth really expendable?

These ideas raise some difficult issues:

How do lying politicians (and others who favour lying) manage to keep lying out of other areas of their lives?

If they encourage lying – and are seen to encourage lying – how do they themselves decide who to trust?  How do they cope with daily life?

A behind the scenes look…

A day in the life of a Lying Politician

Breakfast:  The Lying Politician* has got up early in order to have toast and coffee with his wife.  She tells him that she will be spending the morning at the gym with her personal trainer, followed by lunch with a friend and an afternoon’s shopping.

But is she telling the truth?

Who can he trust?

A few months ago the LP (Lying Politician) employed a Private Investigator to track his wife for 3 weeks.  He ought to have been reassured by the report and photos which showed his wife leading a completely blameless life.  Even her personal trainer looked somewhat elderly and overweight.

But was the Private Investigator telling the truth?

Who can he trust?

What if his wife had paid the Private Investigator even more money to produce the report and photos?  Should he have employed a second Private Investigator to report on the first one?  And a third Private Investigator to check on the first two?  And a fourth… The LP envisages a long line of Private Investigators trailing each other around London at his expense…

Morning: At 10 o’clock the LP has a dentist appointment.  Last year the LP was suffering from mild toothache and visited his dentist who ordered X rays and a series of expensive investigations.  The dentist recommended several operations and as a result most of the LP’s teeth are no longer his own.

But was he telling the truth?

Did he really need those operations? Were the X rays even his?  Today the dentist is extolling the virtues of a completely new set of dentures that seem just like your own teeth…

Who can he trust?

Work:  Obviously the LP’s work involves a lot of other lying politicians giving it a striking resemblance to the television game show “Would I lie to you?”  but without the humour. As no one holds up the truth and lie cards the LP never finds out if he has guessed correctly.

Who can he trust?

The LP quickly discards the idea of flying pigs that can make their own way to the abattoir thus cutting congestion on the roads – surely that can’t be true?  However, there is a worrying ring of truth to the report that much of the chicken in a certain restaurant’s sandwiches is actually rat (free meat caught on the premises.)

Lunch: The LP decides against his usual chicken mayonnaise sandwich and goes for the vegetarian option instead.

But perhaps even the lettuce is contaminated?

Who can he trust?

Home: The LP stops on the way home to get cash out for the following day.  (For some reason few people will accept his credit card.) As he goes in the phone rings and he absent mindedly puts the cash down on the kitchen worktop while he answers the call. When he next looks, it has vanished.

The LP goes into the living room where his three children are sitting glued to their phones.

Quite rightly he never, ever trusts his children, but he finds himself asking the question anyway:

“Do any of you know what has happened to my cash? It was in the kitchen on the worktop.”

Without looking up his children respond in unison: “The dog ate it.”

The LP has taught his children that Lying is the Way to Gain Power and Get Ahead and they have taken him at his word.  (It is possibly the only thing he has ever said that they actually believe.)

He tries hard to make them see that lies need to be plausible and that even if they lie to everyone else, they should not be lying to him.  His children look up momentarily, before returning their attention to their phones.  They are baffled – what can he be getting at?  They are all £50 richer and they didn’t even need to think up a new lie.

Evening: When the LP goes into his study, he finds that his wife has placed the children’s school reports on his desk.  The children go to a very expensive private school and each of them takes about six extras a week.

The reports describe his children as brilliant students, natural leaders, kind, caring and honest.  Every teacher comments on the wonderful progress they have made over the last term.

But who can he trust?

He recently discovered that after a term of music lessons his daughter still did not know which way up to hold her violin and that his oldest son was unaware that frogs were once tadpoles.

As he gets ready for bed it occurs to him that when he asks the children what they have been doing at school all day and they respond “Nothing” they might, for once, be telling the truth…

How can he decide between truth and lies?

Who can he trust?

*It is perfectly possible that the Lying Politician is not a white, straight man.

Playing the labyrinth

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Annie, aged 9, is walking the labyrinth.

Today’s story has been about Wangari Maathai planting trees across Kenya and everyone has been asked to take something into the labyrinth that reminds them of the natural world.  Annie has chosen a lemon and some bark.  She has placed the bark at a junction and the lemon in the centre and collected a tiny tree button to take back with her.

As an adult walking the labyrinth, I walk straight in and straight out.  I follow the rules, trying to focus on what has been asked.  It is a peaceful and reflective experience.

On her way out, Annie is stopping at every junction.

“Where am I?” she muses out loud.  “Am I going in or coming out?  Should I go this way or the other way?  I know I’ll go this way,” she adds choosing the way that leads back to the centre.

I know that she is doing this in part to wind up her friend Tom, who is waiting impatiently for his turn.  In this she is successful.

“Hurry up!” he calls to her, leaping from one foot to another. “Don’t go back again!  Oh, come on!”

I tell Tom that it is up to Annie how she walks the labyrinth and he needs to let her be.  He stops talking to her and tries to contain himself.  Annie glances at us, and continues on her way, backwards and forwards, making each junction a decision point.

And I wonder, as I frequently do in children’s ministry, how much should I intervene?

It is difficult to make the labyrinth a quiet personal experience in this room.  The children range in age from a few months to 12 years and there are too many other activities going on – planting trees, painting, craft, sand, free play. It is a noisy room acoustically; when I tell the story to those who come later it can be hard to make myself heard.  It probably doesn’t help that I frequently get up from my seat by the labyrinth to replenish craft supplies or talk to a child who has brought something to show me.

It seemed right to stop Tom interacting with Annie so that the labyrinth remains a personal experience.  But is there a right or wrong way to walk it?  Should I be insisting that the children walk slowly in silence?  Sometimes they do.  At others there seems to be an eager rush to take in whatever they have chosen.  Even the smallest children are keen to have a turn.

Did it matter that Annie seemed to be playing to the audience?  When I subdued Tom did it help her to focus on her own experience?  I don’t know.

But it seems to me now that real life is far more like Annie’s way of walking the labyrinth than mine.  Perhaps I should take more time to stop and wonder at the junctions?