Analysing elections: an exercise with Year 6

I once did an “election” with a Year 6 class during General Election week.  (It was part of “How can we keep the children engaged in learning after SATs?”)  

I divided the class into four parties who chose colours to define themselves: Blue, Silver, Purple and Green.

They spent a week writing manifestos, designing posters, making ballot boxes and preparing speeches.  Each party could make school based promises though they had to be somewhere in the realms of deliverability: no uniform, pony riding as part of P.E. and ice cream on Fridays were all allowed but not weekly trips to Legoland or your own flying horse.  The promises were drawn up independently but inevitably there was some overlap: no homework was popular! (We did make it clear to the younger children that this was “all pretend”!)

On Thursday morning each team member had to make a speech on behalf of their party in one of the other classes.  (“Think about your audience,” I told them, looking at the Literacy tick boxes.  “There’s no point in making a really complicated speech to the children in Reception.”)

In the afternoon, the school secretly voted with election officers, counters, and specially painted black boxes and at lunchtime I took the Year 6 children in small groups to look through the door of the real polling station next door. The returning officers went round to each class to declare the result and the winning team went on a victory tour to thank their voters.

On Friday we analysed the results: why did the children in the other classes vote the way they did – and why do adults vote the way they do?

One team hit the ground running.  It was the team with the most obviously charismatic leader and by break time on Monday his team were out in the playground asking the younger children to vote for them (bribes were strictly forbidden). 

“It’s not fair,” cried the others (no surprises there!)  

In the end I had to put some restrictions in place as the other teachers reported that the younger children wanted to be able to play, without being pressured for their vote. Interestingly, this team was starting to run out of energy by Thursday; there is a limit to how often you can talk about voting during break.  (They did not win.)

Another team took the entire first session to choose their colour.  This team had no obvious leader; the child I had expected to take the lead was not feeling well and did not take much part in the discussions.  There were no personality clashes (I had arranged the teams very carefully!) but there was no one prepared to make decisions and little enthusiasm, and this was reflected at the ballot box.

The winning team (Purple) trailed in three classes but won because of the overwhelming vote in the Year 1/Year 2 class (six and seven year olds).

On Friday we discussed why people voted the way they did (children in this election, adults in the General Election). 

As this was the first election there were no historical reasons for voting – no one voted Silver because their grandfathers and grandmothers had voted Silver. (We did not think to look at how siblings voted but we should have done – if your sister was the leader of the Green party did this make you more or less likely to vote Green?)  

But we did identify other emotional reasons for voting: perhaps some children liked the colour (voters who identify with a party but have no real idea what they stand for), or one of the team had been especially kind to them (things had changed for the voter because of action taken by the party either on their behalf or generally.)

We looked at the role of the charismatic leader (without getting too personal!) Did some children vote Blue because they knew who Andy actually was (football Captain, leading role in the school play, prepared to speak up in assembly)?

One thing quickly became very obvious: The length of the manifesto made no difference – or if it did it was a negative one.  The teams that had written ten promises did no better than the ones who had written five – and generally worse. 

I confessed to the children that I had not read the entire manifesto for any of the political parties.  I was pretty sure, I told them, that the number of people who read the entire manifesto was very small and the ones who used the entire manifesto in deciding how to vote even smaller.  The number of things that even adults can think deeply about at any one time is very small – four or five at the most.  Often there is one key issue that stands out.  (At that time, twenty years ago, I used to focus mostly on education as this was the issue I knew most about.  Now, I look first to a party’s stand on the climate emergency).

None of the promises related to the world outside school.  Several children in the class were involved in raising money for charities, often on their own initiative but this did not figure in any of the manifestos.  Most of the promises would have benefited the children in the short term rather than the long term.  I think this was due more to the way in which I had set the parameters, rather than the way in which the children viewed the world.  Children’s prayers often reflect a real concern for those who are hungry, refugees or are affected by natural disasters and many look for ways to help. (Recently, for example several children have grown their hair for the Little Princess Trust for cancer sufferers.)

So why did Purple win and why did they win because of this one particular class?  Thomas, the child who gave the manifesto speech, was a quiet boy, not at all charismatic and did not usually have much to do with the younger children. We were all surprised at the impact he had made.

Thomas kept his speech brief and to the point.  I think he focussed on only one election promise (free ice creams on Fridays) but he had made a poster with a picture of an ice cream which he held up at the crucial moment to add emphasis to his speech.  Perhaps when the children voted they remembered the ice cream, when they had forgotten the more abstract promises of the other teams.   

The analysis was fascinating, the class often giving me suggestions for things that I had not thought about.  I think now, looking at Thomas’s success that he was simply the right person at the right time. (Would his ice cream promise have been so successful in the winter term?) 

Interestingly, of all the promises made that long ago summer this is the one that was actually delivered. Before the pandemic the PTFA (who knew nothing of Thomas, the Purple team and their promises) used to give out ice pops to every child on Fridays at the end of school…             

Symbol and story: Tread softly…

Someone has laid out brightly coloured circles as stepping-stones across the hospital grass and Leo, my youngest son, is spending the summer evening leaping across from one to another.

When he reaches the end, he turns round and comes back. He does this over and over, scarcely pausing at the turn.  

We both know that it will be a long time before he is able to do this again.

Leo has cerebral palsy and in recent years his joints have become tighter, his right foot has lost all flexibility and he is walking (or rather running) higher and higher on his toes.  He is now eleven and the consultant thinks the time has come to operate. Tomorrow he will be having a multi-level operation at the Nuffield Orthopaedic Hospital in Oxford. They will break both his femurs and rotate outwards, put in rods, lengthen various muscles and move one of the quadricep muscles to the side on each leg.

There is no alternative: “Without surgery he will be off his feet in two years,” the consultant tells us. He also tells us that it will take a year (if things go well) for him to get back to the level of mobility that he has now.

The operation itself lasts five hours and goes well.  Other parents tell us that we do not need to worry about pain relief as the hospital is brilliant at it. 

At first things are fine. Leo’s dad, sister and brother come in to say goodbye before they go home.  Leo, who is on morphine, is cheerful but sleepy.

But once they have gone, things start to get difficult. Despite the morphine, Leo is clearly in a lot of pain.  The nurses discover that the morphine pump is leaking and decide that as it will be removed later that day, they will take it out now. As well, Leo develops nerve pain in his right foot, causing him to stop suddenly as a wave of excruciating pain overcomes him. He is given amitriptyline, which helps, but other things like massage and desensitising with hot and cold water will have to wait until his foot is out of plaster. 

Worst of all: HE NEVER SLEEPS.

As his Devoted and Caring Parent, I never sleep either. I lie beside him on the makeshift parent bed, ready to offer comfort, support and hope whenever he needs it.  At last, on the third night, all is quiet and I begin to hope that I might doze off.

Suddenly Leo sits up in bed, reaches into his mouth and holds out a tooth. “It was getting looser and looser,” he tells me triumphantly.

“He’s all yours,” I tell the nursing staff, somewhat bitterly, before making my way to the parents’ room.  “If I don’t get some sleep, I’ll probably murder him.”

By Saturday, apart from some brief physiotherapy sessions, Leo is spending the day lying listless and inert on his bed. He does not even have the energy or interest to listen to his Harry Potter tapes.  He is a long way from the energetic child of a few days ago, bouncing across the stepping stones.

But Saturday is the day when the family come to visit.  His father and siblings arrive, bearing gifts.  Nancy has brought him the soundtrack to Lord of the Rings. Timothy, our middle son, is currently into woodwork and has spent the week making Leo a wooden sword.  He gives it to him now.

And instantly Leo is transformed. 

He sits up and asks to be transferred to the wheelchair. Apathy and depression drop from him. He is chatting, laughing and waving his sword as he gets Nancy and Timothy to take him on a conducted tour of the ward. 

There are still difficult days ahead, but the sword is a turning point. Naturally strong willed he pushes himself at physio. The staff (who are all brilliant!) work with him and by the time we leave two weeks later he can walk the length of the corridor using the kaye walker.  

The rest of the summer is spent with my sons and their friends making a film (unintentionally hilarious and sadly unfinished) called the Ascent of the Craybie. There is a lot of set piece fighting and Leo, with his sword, has a key role from his wheelchair as the Grand Master. 

What did that sword symbolise to Leo?

I tried, while writing this, to offer some suggestions as to what the sword might have meant. But each idea, when translated into words, seemed somehow to diminish the power of the symbol.   

(I made the mistake recently of asking him: “Violence,” he responded cheerfully. “War. Death.  Being able to overpower weak non sword people.”  Okay Leo, forget I asked.)

So now I have left it, except perhaps to ask: Was it about who he was, who he is or who he might become? 

Reading over this story, I was struck by Leo leaping across the stepping stones the evening before his operation.  I wondered if this was his attempt to create a memory that would act as a symbol: that what he could do once, he would do again?  Do we use our memories as symbols of who we are and what we might become? 

It seems to me that we cannot consciously create the symbols that have power in our lives, for if we try to do so we become too objective and the symbol loses its emotional impact. 

I also wondered if the sword was a symbol for Timothy, who created it, as well as for Leo…

Although some symbols appear to be in common use (for example candles for light) we do not know what their impact is on individuals because symbols are beyond words.  (And of course, symbols can be negative as well as positive.)

If I had not been there to see the transformation, would I have realised the importance of the sword?  We are aware of symbols in film and books – possibly because some writers tend to overplay it: surely that’s not another cobweb shimmering in the moonlight?

But how aware are we of the symbols that others are using? Especially with children, we may be ignorant of the significance of the plain grey stone, the frayed end of yellow ribbon, the need to “run down to the lake, dip our hands in and wish” (Arthur Ransome in the author’s note for Swallows and Amazons).

Tread softly…

Leo took the sword to uni and it has travelled round London with him as he changes accommodation.

He has it still. It hangs on the wall behind him, part of the background for  endless zoom meetings…

Just another day

It is evening in a small village in Judea and two old people are setting out their supper dishes.  They have lived here all their lives; it’s a good place to be – only a few miles from the city when they want to go there for festivals. Their family live close by with children and grandchildren always dropping in. 

This evening their daughter has brought them a dish of her special lentils for supper.  The old man places it in the centre of the table and the room is filled with its warm spicy smell.

The old woman still makes her own bread, and she fetches it now and places it on the table.  They sit down opposite each other, and the old man takes the bread and breaks it in two to share with her.    

They look at each other and smile. For they never forget that other supper, so long ago now, and those other hands breaking the bread. 

They have never been the ones at the centre of the action.  Not for them the years spent leading the early church in Jerusalem or careering around the Mediterranean preaching to anyone who will listen.  They seem to have avoided the years of drama, the dangers of persecution, imprisonment and death.  Even when he was alive, they were not amongst his inner circle of the twelve and the women at Bethany. 

Living their lives of quiet witness, they do not know (and never will) that the story of their walk home from Jerusalem will be retold every year at Easter for the next twenty centuries.

It does not matter that they are not the important people, the leaders, the inner circle.  Walking home to Emmaus that night, the Son of God walked beside them and used his limited time to tell them his own story.  As he broke the bread at their supper table, he was with them in a new and different way.

He still is. 

Sloppy Theology: Naughtiness and sin

Some time ago, I came across a resource that suggested children keep a stone by the side of the bath.

The idea seemed to be that every night the children would place the stone in the bath and ask God to wash them clean from sin – “all the naughty things we do”.  

“Why ever would you do that?” asked my friend Heidi, baffled. “When I was putting my children to bed, I wanted it to be a calm, happy time with songs and stories.  I didn’t want them lying awake worrying about everything they’ve done wrong since breakfast.”

I knew what she meant. My own children would have been: openly scornful (eldest), dramatic embroidery (youngest) and arriving in our bed at three in the morning to confess something he had forgotten at bath time (middle child).

The writers of the resource presumably thought that the very act of washing the stone would be enough for children to go to bed feeling clean and forgiven.  But how many of us have not experienced times when we haven’t felt forgiven, even though we know that we are?  

(Perhaps I am being over critical. There may well be families who find this activity helpful.)  

However, the main problem I have with this resource is that it equates sin with naughtiness.  This is sloppy theology.

I am fairly sure that neither the writer nor those sending out the resource actually think naughtiness is the same as sin.  

No church service directed at adults ever includes the words: 

“Let us now remember the times when we have been naughty and ask God to forgive us…”

This is because naughty is a word that has a different connotation for adults and children.  For adults, naughtiness is a mix of illicitly consumed chocolates and Carry On Doctor.

In the child’s world naughtiness is about disobedience or mischief. Disobedience that is to adult rules, adult wants and adult needs. Disobedience to adults not to God.

It is possible to see sin as disobedience to God – though I think I would add in that it needs to be intentional for it to be sin.  But as I see it, sin is when we put ourselves at the centre instead of God.  When we are at the centre, it is difficult for God to reach us; we turn away from him. We all do it, every day, all the time.  This self-centredness leads to the actions we call sins: lying, pride, jealousy, lack of compassion.  But the self-centredness comes first.

Many years ago I used to visit church schools to report on their ethos, Collective Worship and R.E.  Most schools had a list of golden rules displayed in the classroom.  Usually compiled by the children they included things like listening while others speak and taking care of the classroom.

I used to ask the children individually which rule they thought was the most important.  Most answers were about being kind to each other but at one school the children all assured me that it was the rule about not running in the corridors.

It is very easy for children to get the wrong idea about what is intrinsically important.  If not running in the corridors is mentioned daily in assembly for a week, it naturally gains importance in children’s minds.  The adults probably assumed that the children knew that they placed a higher value on kindness and honesty. 

Children do not always make the connections that adults expect them to. I once watched an assembly devoted entirely to being kind to each other and not bullying, and then watched two children reduce a third to tears, literally on the way back to the classroom.

When adults equate children’s naughtiness with sin, it is through a desire to simplify the abstract nature of sin into something that children can understand. Children, they think, know when they have been naughty and they know that naughtiness is wrong.

Although children do know when they have been naughty, this is usually because of adult reaction.  Often adult anger and upset is their first indication that they have done something wrong.  Who could imagine that playing hairdressers and cutting a friend’s hair, shrieking games in the garden in the middle of the night or using the clean washing to mop up paint water were intrinsically evil? 

Also some things can be “fun” one moment and “naughty” the next.  Who has never encountered the adult happily engaged in games with wildly excited children who suddenly switches to the adult who wants them to stop and calm down because it is bedtime and the adult has had enough?

Naughtiness is not sin.

It is possible to teach children about sin without talking about naughtiness.  In junior church I once set up the little wooden figures to show how people turned towards God and then turned away and chose to follow their own path. We talked about the things that people did that cut them off from God – they suggested bullying, greed, prejudice and lying – and they drew pictures to illustrate these themes. We then talked about forgiveness (and the little wooden people turned back to God) and the children decorated the other side of their pictures with stars and stickers and wrote the word “Forgiven” in large letters.  We later used the pictures for the confession in our all age service.

Perhaps most importantly this activity placed God in his proper place as the determiner of sin.  Naughtiness is determined by the adults in the children’s lives, not by God. We should not be putting adults into God’s place.

Candlemas: a reflection

“Lord now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation…”

I didn’t think it would be like this, the promise you gave me. I thought that you would be coming in glory, as Isaiah saw you in the temple but oh! so much more.  I imagined your glory overflowing the temple, spilling out into the streets, the sound of your trumpets in our ears.  We would be falling to the ground in awe or dancing for joy through Jerusalem, our enemies running in fear.

I didn’t think it would be like this – this baby, this moment of quiet recognition.  When I knew who he was I took him from his mother, so that just briefly, I could hold the Chosen One. 

I didn’t think it would be like this.  It seemed easy at first: “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, for the glory of your people Israel…”

But the baby in my arms was getting heavier. How can a six week old child be so heavy? He seemed to be heavy with the weight of all the grief and despair and evil in the world. He had no path of glory ahead, I could see that.

“A sword will pierce your heart,” I said to the girl, standing beside me.

The baby became heavier still.  How much longer could I hold him, I wondered.  I couldn’t give him back to his mother like this.  She was not strong enough to hold him.  He was too much, even for me.  Soon I would crumple to the floor under his weight.  Desperately I looked round the Temple for help. I could hold him no longer.   

Anna saw.  She hobbled towards me, leaning on her stick. Anna is old, older even than me.  For more than sixty years she has lived here in the Temple, praying and fasting, day and night.       

She took the baby from me and held him as if he was as light as a bubble. 

And then she was running through the temple, shouting in joy, pausing only to show him to the people crowding in.

You kept your promise.

She saw the joy and the glory in the baby, while I saw the way… the way to what? I could not see where it led but I knew it would be a desolate place with the baby alone in the dark…

But I knew then.  It is two sides of the same thing, the glory and the despair, the light and the dark.  I saw the desolation and Anna saw the joy, but it doesn’t matter, for both are there.

She is coming back now, her feet tripping lightly on the temple floor, carrying the baby, light as air. She hands the baby to his mother and he snuffles and wriggles as all babies do.  Anna and his mother smile at each other.  His father puts his hand on the baby’s head and the baby smiles up at him.

Anna turns to me and I see that she understands. His mother will too, some day…

Anna picks up her stick and hobbles away. She will carry on praying and fasting, night and day.

Lord now let your servant depart in peace, for my eyes have seen your salvation…   

Children’s books and church: 3 The Sparrow Child

Does our childhood reading influence our faith?

The Sparrow Child by Meriol Trevor (first published 1958)

The church I grew up in offered me only a two-dimensional Christianity: I was there to learn and attend services (worship seems too strong a word for what I was actually doing.)

Luckily, I had books to fill the gaps. 

Books added depth and excitement to what I experienced in church; they told stories of encounters with an active and mysterious God and encouraged me to think and wonder and make connections.  As an adult I realise how much they framed my theology – and still do.      

Recently a comment on Twitter has made me think about the relationship of light and dark.  “How does it feel,” they asked in the context of Black Lives Matter “if dark is always portrayed as evil and light is always shown as good?”

And I am instantly taken back to this:

“Perhaps there is a heavenly darkness as well as a heavenly light.  There would be nothing dreadful in that night.  Perhaps you could call it rest, and the brightness energy and delight. Or that day would be speech, as the poet in the psalm says, and the night wisdom. Or we could even call the light in heaven, knowledge and the darkness, love.”

The Sparrow Child, Meriol Trevor 1958

I find Meriol Trevor a very uneven writer.  Many of her books (especially her adult romances) are formulaic with little depth or characterisation.  She was a convert to Roman Catholicism and her uncritical admiration of John Henry Newman tends to overwhelm several of her novels for both children and adults.    

But The Sparrow Child and The Rose Round (for children) and A Narrow Place (for adults) are in a different category.

In The Sparrow Child thirteen year old Philip is sent to visit his unknown adult cousins at their old house in Cornwall, while his mother recovers from her illness.  Here he meets Jenny, the housekeeper’s daughter and is later joined by his difficult cousin Mirabel, whom he has never met.  There is a search for a lost chalice (found) and a fight to stop an area of wasteland being turned into an atomic station (successful).  Philip learns to overcome many of his fears.   

So far so predictable.  But the main theme of the book is about the healing of relationships.  Philip’s cousin Carey is unable to walk as the result of an accident.  He was once in love with Mirabel’s mother, who left him to marry his stepbrother Rex, Arnold’s son.  (Yes, it’s complicated!) Growing up, Carey was the one who made a stand against his stepfather’s bullying, both for himself and his brother and also for Rex, Arnold’s own son.  Angry, unhappy Mirabel becomes a pawn in a fight for her affections that both Carey and Arnold intend to win.

Unusually in children’s books, The Sparrow Child shows adult development and adult healing of relationships.  The adults have no more arrived than the children.  It is Carey who has to turn back towards Arnold and ask for forgiveness before the story can be resolved for a happy ending.  His family are baffled as it seems clear to them that Arnold is far more to blame for the situation than Carey. But:

‘And suddenly Philip saw, and said to himself, “It’s our own dragons we must worry about, not other people’s.”  Carey could not make Arnold be sorry, but he could be sorry himself, and that in turn made the beginning of a change in Arnold’s mind.’   

I return to this phrase whenever I need to remind myself that it is my own dragons, rather than other people’s, that I need to be concerned about. 

The Sparrow Child is rich in mysticism and symbol.  Philip dreams of the Grail, the destruction of the house and its resurrection and looks to his cousins for understanding and interpretation.

Is the missing chalice the Grail, the holy cup used at the Last Supper, that will bring both physical and spiritual healing? 

“Ah but what is the Grail?” says old Joseph Thorne, Carey’s grandfather who is described as ‘lying between the two worlds of time and eternity and all his life he’s been more in the great world than this.’

“It is not the cup, however old, however sacred.  It is what the cup carries to us.”

All through The Sparrow Child there are these short passages that shaped my theological thinking.  But perhaps it is this one that most defines my own faith:

‘Philip gazed at the tabernacle, with the small flame burning in the silver lamp before it.

“Why does our Lord always hide?” he said at last.

“I don’t think it is that He hides,” said Carey slowly.  “I think it’s that we don’t expect Him to be where He is.  People thought of the divine Saviour as an emperor descending from heaven, but He came into the world the way we all come and lived as we all live. They expected Him to rule them like a King but instead He gave Himself up to be executed like a slave.  Even now people expect to find Him organising the ideal state on earth but instead He is giving himself as bread to feed those who are hungry for love.  He is hidden, but it is we who hide Him.  We are blind people: it takes Him a long time to open our eyes.” ’  

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


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


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


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!