It is a sunny day in August, many years ago, and I have been helping out with the church’s annual Teddy Bears Picnic.
The children, who are almost all under 7, have listened to a Bible story, engaged in craft, played parachute games and sung along to “If you go down to the woods today…” They have eaten their picnics and have now come into the church for the day’s highlight: the puppet show.
The leader’s puppet pops up onto the makeshift stage and starts to interact with the children. He introduces himself as Jerry and asks the children to shout “halloo”, wave their teddies and clap. The children join in enthusiastically.
So far so ok…
“Baa! Baa! Baaaa!”
The assistant’s puppet is clearly going to be a sheep and I relax slightly, thinking that we are going to be watching a retelling of the story of the lost sheep.
“Baa! Baa! Baaaaaaa!”
The assistant’s puppet appears. She is not a sheep.
Jerry introduces her as Sally and asks why she keeps going: “Baa!”
Sally replies that she wants to be close to Jesus.
So why is she going: “Baa”?
Sally has heard that sheep are close to Jesus. If she pretends to be a sheep she will be able to come close to Jesus.
Kindly, Jerry explains that you don’t need to be a sheep to be close to Jesus.
I set my face in lines of polite interest while I wonder frantically where this is going and what the children and their parents/carers are making of it.
Three year old Libby, sitting beside me at the back, tugs at my sleeve. She has lost interest in puppet theology and has turned her attention to the church’s nativity display. Why are the animals so close to the baby? Will the baby be frightened? Why did the shepherd bring the sheep? Why did they come to the stable?
In low tones, I fill Libby in on the nativity story.
“Boo hoo! Boo hoo! Boo hoooooo!” cries Sally the puppet.
“What’s the matter?” asks Jerry.
“I don’t want to be a hippy chick. I don’t want to be a hippy chick,” wails Sally.
“What’s a hippy chick?” asks Jerry, apparently as baffled as the audience.
(But what about all the other sheep? whispers Libby. Won’t they be frightened all alone on the dark hillside?)
“You mean a hypocrite,” says Jerry in patronising tones, after Sally explains where she came across the word. “You don’t want to be a hypocrite.”
And for those at the back, he explains that a hypocrite is someone who thinks they are close to Jesus but aren’t really.
(But the other sheep might have wanted to see the baby Jesus too, says Libby. Why didn’t the shepherd bring them all? They could have taken turns.)
Jerry and Sally have moved onto singing a song in which the lyrics are mercifully indistinct.
And I wonder now, as I did then, what was the purpose of this puppet show? Was it to tell the audience that anyone can come close to Jesus? If so, why introduce the word “hypocrite”? It is not a concept that is familiar to children under 7.
On reflection, I think the purpose was much simpler: Children love puppets. Children love puppets so much that the content does not matter. However as we have a captive audience, we might as well take the opportunity to slip in a few theological truths in a “fun” way.
The hypocrite definition left me feeling chilled. The puppet interchange went completely over the heads of the younger children but there were adults and a few older children present as well. No mention was made of the idea that a hypocrite is someone whose words and action do not match their principles. Instead it was framed as “someone who thinks they are close to Jesus but aren’t really.” How can you tell if you really are close to Jesus? What can you do to be closer to Jesus? How much do your failures matter? What if the relationship you have believed to be true, just isn’t?
A few years ago Alan became vicar of St Brandon’s and found he had inherited a somewhat tired and dull family service. After a few weeks he decided to liven it up by introducing Walter the Wombat, a puppet from Australia.
The children loved Walter! Alan used to begin the service with some banter between him and Walter, who turned out to be very good at one line jokes, delivered in a fake Australian accent. Walter was also useful for explaining the day’s reading in a fun fashion before the children went out to their groups. Once a month, at the all age service when the children stayed in, Walter acted as compere. He rapidly became Alan’s right hand wombat and something of an alter ego.
But as time went on there were problems. After the first few weeks, Alan started to run out of material. Some weeks he spent more time thinking up Walter’s jokes than writing his sermon. He tried leaving Walter at home one week, but the children were so disappointed. Rather than ditch the puppet he had to invent a heavy cold that made Walter too ill to go out. Every child he met during the next week asked after Walter’s health; three children made him Get Well Soon cards.
Alan invested in “Cheeky Chatter for Popular Puppets” which gave him 52 weeks’ worth of material. But much of the material was on themes that he hadn’t planned to use, some of it was theologically dodgy and none of it had any connection to the lectionary.
While the current five year olds still loved Walter, the original five year olds were now eight and starting to turn their noses up at Walter’s jokes. Alan felt that he needed to up his game. But “Marvellous Magic for Popular Puppets”, the sequel to “Cheeky Chatter” filled him with horror. He had always failed to achieve the desired result in school science experiments; however would he cope with magic tricks – especially with one hand in a puppet?
But worst of all Alan had started reading some books about children’s spirituality and worshipping with children.
Was it possible that Walter was actually getting in the way of the children worshipping rather than enabling them? Were there Bible stories where Walter’s jokes were inappropriate and detracted from the narrative? Were Walter’s constant interruptions during the all age service a distraction rather than a help? Was the focus of the service on Walter, rather than on God?
The two stories above might make you think that I disapprove of puppets in church. I don’t.
What I do disapprove of, is puppets being used as a gimmick to make church “fun” with no regard for the content and structure of the worship or for the quality of the material that is being used.
So how could puppets be used?
The under 5s service (if you have one) is a good place for the welcoming puppet. I didn’t have a puppet as such but each week our under 5s service began with a hunt for Bobby Bear around the church. Once found he was passed around the circle to welcome everyone individually. We then placed him on a table so that he could “see what’s happening.” (I should have brought him back to the circle at the end to say goodbye, but I always forgot.) Puppets would work well in this context and could take part in any introductory discussion as a prelude to the story or theme. Children this age really enjoy puppets and as there is a natural end to their time in an under 5s service, they won’t outgrow them in the same way.
Puppets can be used for storytelling – but not every week as a varied approach works better. While many churches use them as a “fun” and superficial way to share the Christian message, this is a recent development. Of course, there is a place for comedy, but giving children and adults a diet of continuous comedy does not help them with the lives they are actually living and offers a distorted view of the Christian story.
Puppetry has been around for over 4000 years and has been used to tell stories that are dark and serious as well as those that are comic. (It is believed that the word marionette comes from the Italian word for Mary doll that was used in Christian morality plays.) Punch and Judy shares with pantomime the slapstick humour that can be taken at many different levels – for example there is an anarchic strand in which it is those in authority who are hit over the head or plastered with custard pies.
But the best place for puppets is probably in the children’s corner. Provide a selection – people, Bible characters, animals – and allow children to use them in response to what is going on in the worship. Some children may use them to create their own stories or re-enact the ones they have heard or read. Others may use them as confidantes and mouthpieces. And some may use them to ask anarchic questions about the status quo. Encourage them…