Inviting people to church

A few years ago, I went along to an evening organised by Back to Church Sunday.

“Try to think of it as a whole season not just one Sunday,” said the leader, enthusiastically.  “After Back to Church Sunday, you can invite people along to Harvest, All Souls, Remembrance and then there’s all the Christmas services…”

“The main reason that people don’t come to church,” he went on, “is because people don’t ask them.  Research shows that 80% of people say that they would come to church if asked by a friend but only 2% of Christians ever ask anyone.”

At the time I found this compelling.  Why were only 2% of Christians asking people to church?  Why didn’t they at least invite people along to Harvest and Christmas?  Why not take the risk of being rejected?

Now I think that it is not so simple.

Many of the people I know are fragile.  Currently I know people experiencing recent bereavement, cancer, retirement, divorce, imminent new baby, depression, family conflict, new schools for their autistic children, constant pain…     

If I am going to invite any of these people to church, I need to know that church is a safe place for them to be.

Is there any bullying going on by either clergy or laity?  Is the church cliquey – do they welcome people warmly but then talk only to their friends at coffee time?  Are they inclusive of those who are different from them in any way? Who makes the decisions and how are they made – are they imposed from the top or is there space for people to develop their own gifts and initiatives?

If I am going to invite any of these people to church, I want church to offer them a place to encounter God.

What are the church’s priorities?  Does God figure or does it appear as if the main aim is to fundraise enough to pay parish share and have some over for the roof?  Is the worship (whatever it is) authentic and done to the best of that church’s ability?  Do I agree with the principles behind the worship? (In practice this means I can accept occasional computer problems and dyslexic stumbling over words but not the all age worship based on “God wants us to have fun and be nice” or the preacher who uses the sermon to describe the faults of the congregation.)   Is there space for God?

No church is perfect, but it is possible to have “good enough” churches.  It is also possible for a church to have one service that meets my criteria, even if the other services don’t.

And I have known a few churches where I do not ask these questions.

What distinguishes these churches?

It seems to me that it is a kind of humility.   

I do not have that kind of humility myself, but I have known and been part of churches where it exists. Sometimes it is one particular service rather than the church as a whole – I have come across it in all age, morning prayer and Eucharistic services.

These churches (or services) have fewer numbers than the more “successful” churches around them.  They are definitely not the “top church” in a multi-parish rural benefice, a town or a city locality.  Often, they are vulnerable to potential closure or pastoral re-organisation.

It is almost as if they have given up on being the kind of church that the diocese wants and so have been freed up to be the kind of church that God wants, the kind where He can send people.  I remember one occasion when a 19 year old who was having problems at work arrived at the all age service. Due to the structure of the service and an extended coffee time he was able to spend the best part of an hour talking to someone who listened to him.  He never came again; we did not expect him to. 

But two other people, both vulnerable in different ways and both unlikely to have church as part of their lives, came and became regular attenders.  The numbers were still very low, but this did not seem to matter.

These churches are a paradox.  They seem to have no awareness of how special they are – how could they since as soon as you become aware of your humility you start to lose it? 

Humility is included in the strapline for the Vision and Strategy Initiative put forward by Stephen Cottrell, the Archbishop of York: “Simpler, bolder, humbler.”

But how can humility be a top down initiative?  What would a diocesan course in “How to make your church humbler” look like?  How could they measure its success?  For this is the problem with initiatives – there needs to be some way of evaluating them and there is no way to evaluate humility.

So, for now, most of us will have to settle for being a “good enough” church. But if you are lucky enough to come across a church or a service with this kind of humility, cherish it.

Why didn’t you come back?

We were not having a good day at The Ark.

Earlier that week we had organised an event for children in the Reception/Year 1 class at school and those at our local pre-school.  We had based it on the story of the Lost Sheep and different areas around the church and churchyard had been set up for different parts of the story. The north transept where we held the Ark, our fortnightly under 5s service, had been set up as a sheep pen.  I had contrived sheep by using pillows, propped against each other and fixing on black paper sheep heads.  It was surprisingly effective.

This morning there were only two families, each with a three year old and a baby.  I thought that they would love the different displays, but instead they were unsettled.  The area was not how it usually looked and although we began with singing and activities as usual, it just did not feel the same.

We had just finished singing when Clare arrived with her one year old.

None of us knew her.  She had just moved into the village and had come to see what we were like, as she had been to a church toddler group in her previous parish.  We all tried our best to welcome her but the unsettled three year olds continued to make things difficult.  The child who never had an accident, wet herself and had to go home in the other family’s spare leggings.  The other three year old who never had a tantrum went into complete melt down and cried solidly for 5 minutes…  I don’t think any of us were surprised when Clare didn’t return.

Several years later I came across Clare in a different context and got to know her properly.  Eventually I was able to ask her: “Why didn’t you come back?”

She stopped to think.  “It all felt completely alien,” she said at last.  “I didn’t know anyone.  At the previous group we all sat round and sang Christian songs and they gave the children instruments to shake.  I hadn’t really had anything to do with church before our daughter was born. We hadn’t even been in a church much so it was hard just coming through the door. The vicar used to come along to the group and she was really kind and friendly and we had our daughter christened there.  It just felt so different here…”

What could we have done to help Clare feel more at home?

Strange though this seems, Clare was the first person in a long time who had come knowing no one.  The previous year we had been a much larger group, but several children had moved onto school.  These families had mostly come because they all went to the same under 5s group, organised by one of our church mums. She had invited a few along and then they had invited more.  Other families had a church connection or came along to our children and family events. Everyone knew someone, so this was an aspect I just hadn’t thought about.

A way through this might be to have extra adults around who can act as befrienders.  At Footsteps, our children and families events, I have Marie who is now in her 80s.  I usually give her a specific responsibility – decorating cakes or a more complex craft that will need adult help (sometimes I get the impression that I am not her favourite person!)  I find I am watching the whole room, getting up to sort out extra paints or craft materials, engaging with the children over their creations and welcoming late comers and sharing the story with them.  Marie is in one place, creating a calmer environment around her. Even more extra adults might be an advantage, to chat to those who are feeling a bit lost or alien.

Secondly, I wonder about structure – or rather about changing too much of the structure at one time. The Ark service was very structured and the children had come to expect this.  We began with gathering activities and songs, followed by story, craft, prayer and refreshments.  The children knew and felt at home in the space.  If I had at least kept the space and gathering activities the same, then the children would have been more settled and it would have been a calmer atmosphere for Clare and her daughter. (Though by contrast Footsteps has no consistent structure – we can be acting one month and play and pray stations the next.  The space is never set up the same twice running. Children and adults are free to choose their activities and change at any time. I think this works because the children are mostly older and the under 5s follow along, taking their cue from their older siblings. And again, this is what they are used to.)

Our singing at The Ark was very skimpy, mainly because no one who came was particularly musical.  I tended to get it over with early on – but perhaps I should have spaced it out and included some songs later on?  Even the tiniest children can wave ribbons or shakers and it is an activity that everyone can join in at their own level – and perhaps more importantly know that they are part of it.

At her previous group, Clare had found the vicar a friendly and known person, someone she could relate to.  The Ark had been set up by a previous vicar and me working together, but this was many years in the past and subsequent vicars had only come briefly to one session to see what went on.  They were either too busy to come again or it was their day off.  This had not bothered the families, who were mostly non church goers but for someone like Clare, who was hoping for more church involvement after her daughter’s christening, it was a definite negative.     

How could we have helped Clare and her daughter to feel more at home in the church building?  I wonder if we could have taken them to explore, pointed out the wooden angels under the roof, the carved animals and the window of St Anne and the children? Would this have helped – or not?  I’m not sure, but we do need to be aware how difficult church buildings may be for some people to enter; the church is a symbol of Christian beliefs and even entering might be seen as a commitment (or at least a sympathy with those beliefs.) 

All of these might have helped Clare to feel less alien but what about other newcomers?

I find it hardest to go to events where I feel it is cliquey.  I knew that we were not cliquey at The Ark (these particular families only met at The Ark and lived some distance apart.) But for someone who knew no one, it might have felt cliquey and some groups really are cliquey.  How do you balance people’s need to catch up with friends with a willingness to welcome outsiders?  One answer might be to recruit the parent/carer who talks to anyone and everyone to be on the lookout for outsiders… But then I worry about over formalising this; my own approach has been to let things find their own level.  Some newcomers are happy to start slowly, engaging in activities with their children and only gradually becoming part of the group. 

I am often reluctant to follow up, to visit or call someone who has been a few times but stopped coming.  I don’t want to be pushy, to intrude where I am not wanted, to face possible rejection.  It’s a risk I don’t want to take, but perhaps I should?

How much difference would these changes have made to how Clare felt?  I don’t know.  Neither Clare nor I are the same people that we were then; it’s hard to look back and view this in isolation: Clare had just had all the stress of moving house, I had spent the week organising several school and church events and checking my son’s uni project for grammar, word count and whether it actually made sense… 

I think what this has highlighted for me is the importance of not making assumptions: much of what Clare told me I would not have guessed.  I had never thought about the place of singing, contact with the vicar, what we could do to help someone who knew no one at all.  I needed to ask, for it is different for everyone.

Puppets

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…

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…   

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? 

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!