A different kind of exile?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theologically and rationally this may be true.

But it doesn’t feel like it emotionally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

L-E-T-T-E-R-B-Y-L-E-T-T-E-R

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It is a sunny morning at St Cuthbert’s and the all age communion service is about half way through.  Angela, the vicar is preaching on the Gospel of Luke Chapter 15. The children, sitting at tables on one side of the church, are engaged in activities on today’s Bible passage.  The younger ones are colouring a picture of the father welcoming the younger son home while the older ones are doing a wordsearch.

Lily, who is five, is engrossed in colouring the father in a bright, cheerful orange.

Every now and then she looks up and gazes around the church.  From her position at the side she can see the altar, the stained glass window of Jesus’ baptism and the eagle lectern.  Sometimes she listens to the Bible readings and the prayers.  If she likes a particular hymn, she hums along and swings her feet.  She likes watching Angela when she consecrates the bread and wine; she is a bit far away, but Lily can see well enough to watch when she is breaking the wafer and holding up the cup.

Lily is able to dip in and out of the worship because colouring is that kind of activity.  There is nothing lost if she puts down her orange crayon for a few moments and even while she is colouring she can absorb the sound and feel of worship.

James, who is nine, is doing a wordsearch.  The words and music of worship are passing him by, for his mind is totally engaged in searching for P-R-O-D-I-G-A-L which has been arranged diagonally backwards:  L-A-G-I-D-O-R-P

It is hard to see what the point of this activity is and how it helps James understand, remember or reflect on the story.  The words are arranged in alphabetical order but this means little to James, who is working down the page rather than across it: “Father hungry kisses pigs rings two”*.  While some may wonder why a hungry father is kissing pigs or just who are the two he is ringing, James has long stopped expecting word searches to make narrative sense.

It also does not matter that James does not properly understand several of the words: repentance, prodigal, fatted calf, for he does not see them as words but as combinations of letters.  He has learnt to look for the more unusual “j” as a starter for jealous without once pausing to wonder why the word was included.

The key words have been chosen by others and act as a veneer, allowing the adults involved to think that James is engaged in a fruitful Christian activity, while they worship undisturbed.  But in reality, the wordsearch is hindering James in his journey of faith.

My friend is telling me the story of her disastrous experiences with the plumber; it is so reminiscent of Flanders and Swann that both of us are crying with laughter.  She does not however end her story by giving me a list of key words to find in a wordsearch in the hope that I will appreciate her story better:  P-I-P-E, H-A-M-M-E-R, T-H-U-R-S-D-A-Y.  This is not how adults engage with stories and it is not how children engage with them either.

There is no discussion of the concepts behind the words, but even if there were it would not help James for as soon as the discussion is finished, he is back to looking for strings of letters that have no connection with what the word actually means.

The freedom to create her own response might have helped Lily engage more deeply with the story, but even within the parameters of the colouring sheet she has some degree of freedom.  She can choose the colours and patterns, think about the action and emotions shown in the picture, pause and reflect.  James has none of this freedom and the wordsearch requires his full attention.  He is using his brain to solve the puzzle, a completely different kind of activity from the engagement and reflection that could lead him towards a deeper faith.

It could be argued that children “love” word searches and they certainly keep them quiet and occupied.  But children “love” other things as well without anyone feeling the need to include them in worship every week: sweets, water slides, alien destroying computer games…

But perhaps I’m wrong… perhaps word searches can help people on their Christian journey… Perhaps we should be offering this activity to the whole congregation and reflecting together afterwards on how it has helped us spiritually…

*I did not make this wordsearch up!

Invisible children

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A couple of years back I went along to a service in a charismatic church, which was somewhat outside my usual experience of Anglican Holy Communion.

We began with a time of worship songs, accompanied by a band of guitars, drums and keyboard.  People sang, prayed (possibly in tongues), waved their arms and participated with emotion and enthusiasm for about forty five minutes.

Meanwhile what about the children?

Near the front sat three boys who spent the time in that kind of jostling, shoving, mock fighting usually reserved for long journeys in the back of the car. “He pushed me!” “He banged my elbow!” “Stop him!”

Further back a boy of about 10 or 11 spent the time on his ipad. Next to me the 12 year  old girl tried to amuse her 3 year old sister while their mother took part in the praise and prayer. A smaller child paid about six visits to the loo…

Were these children invisible to the congregation? They had been welcomed on entry but after that no one seemed to be aware they were there – until the end of the praise session when they were sent off to groups.

The previous week I had been in a community church where the praise session lasted about half an hour.  The children sat on the back row, kicking their legs, doing puzzle books and holding conversations about dinosaurs. They too appeared invisible to the worshipping congregation.

I wondered if these churches saw this time of praise as a coming together of the whole church family. But although the children were physically present they were absent in all other respects.  I saw no child taking part in these times of praise.

It would be good to be able to say that things are different in middle of the road Anglican churches. Mostly they are not.  Words to the hymns and songs are either in hymn books or projected onto screens.  They need a reading age of at least seven years old which takes out most of the younger children and any child who is dyslexic. These children stand ignored, fidgeting in boredom, while the adults sing around them.  Occasionally a token action song is included.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

The other week I saw a four year old joining in enthusiastically with the hymns, playing an assortment of musical instruments.  Although this was almost her only participation in the entire hour long service, she was recognised and visible for these brief moments of time.

If a church’s musical standard is too high for pre-schooler percussion there are the quieter options of flags, ribbons and banners to wave.  I have seen an evangelical church where four children came forward to wave long streamers during the praise time (and mini versions for all the children would have been even better).  Some songs (for example Taize) can be signed. There are art projects that could add another dimension to a time of praise.

For I just don’t get it.  If we are truly listening to God how can we be so unaware of the children in our midst, who are always visible to him?

 

 

 

The Penelope principle: worship is for all

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“I’ve spoken to the baptism family” says our new vicar at coffee time, “and I’ve told them all about your service for toddlers.  I suggested that once Danielle is three they might like to bring her along.”

And she goes cheerfully on her way, completely unaware that I am standing there open mouthed.

Three? Three?  What can I have said that has given her the impression that a child needs to be three to come along to the toddler service?

Or perhaps it isn’t anything I’ve said.  Perhaps it is the idea that Christianity needs cognition; that there is no point in introducing faith or worship to someone who cannot understand it?

Several years back now I wrote a guest post on the blog “Explore and Express” called “A Year with Penelope”: https://exploreandexpress-sheila.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/guest-post-babys-first-year-in-church.html

In it I wrote about baby Penelope’s first experiences of church – from starring as baby Samuel at 8 weeks old to watching Godly Play stories intently at 12 months.

Looking back at it now, it seems to me that this sentence is key: “We can never tell how close a person is to God, but it seems unlikely that the God we worship does not come close to small, wordless children simply because they cannot speak.”

If God indeed comes close to small children and babies, then they should be with us as part of the worshipping community from birth.   No one is too young.

Recently Mary Hawes (the Church of England’s national children and youth adviser) asked a follow up question:  “I’d love to know the next part of the story – is Penelope still part of the worshiping community? Was she welcomed with 2 year old tantrums, 3 year old determination…”

The simple answer to this question is that sadly this particular worshipping community no longer exists but while it did exist (in various formats) there was never a time when Penelope was not welcomed.

But there is a further aspect to this.  Even as a nine month old baby, Penelope was someone who loved to be involved, and this continued during her toddler and pre-school years.  This made it easy for her to be part of this small worshiping community, where there were many opportunities for her to take an active role.

But what about the other small children?  The wandering toddler, the two year old in a temper, the independent three year old?

When we first began (before Penelope was born), the time before the service was spent with us rushing round trying to get everything sorted while our two and three year olds rolled over and over each other in a heap on the floor.  The service usually began with us separating out the children and restoring them to their families while the leader began, “Welcome to our all age service.”

For despite the chaos, they were welcome. We might have envisaged a service where the children sat quietly beside their parents, waiting patiently for us to begin; it wasn’t what we got.  We worked at it. We put down toys to engage the children before the service began and looked for ways (such as taking a prayer leaf or a candle to a chosen place in the church) to involve them in getting ready for worship.

And somehow an ethos of welcome developed at this service.  It extended not just to the babies and the tricky two year olds but also to the adult with dementia, the person with learning difficulties, the autistic older child…

If we believe that no one is too young to take part in worship, then it follows that no one is too different or too difficult either…   Worship is for all…

Dancing in Church

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We are in the cathedral for some kind of afternoon celebration – it might be Pentecost. It isn’t specifically an All Age service but there are several children present.  The congregation are singing “How great thou art…” and in the small space in front of us a tiny two year old is dancing quietly.  Then a lady leans forward, taps his mother on the shoulder, and indicates to her that she should be keeping her child in order. The mother picks him up and restrains him.  He doesn’t dance any more. Many of those around me are aware that we have lost something special – but what can we do?

There are about 60 children present for All Age Worship in this large evangelical church.  For the first twenty minutes, while the children are present, there are choruses and a children’s talk, interspersed with the opening hymn and prayers for the adults.  The introductory hymn is “Shine Jesus shine”.  A four year old girl and her little brother step forward into the small square space in the centre and begin to dance.  They weave around each other, creating intricate patterns. At times they catch hands and whirl each other around.  No one joins them; all the other children stand sedately with their families in the pews.  It is hard to gauge the response of this church to the dancing – tolerated but not encouraged perhaps?  There is almost a feeling of relief when all the children are brought forward to take part in a well-known action song, a kind of religious version of the Hokey Cokey. Perhaps it’s safer when everyone is doing the same thing at the same time?

There are fifteen at the village All Age Worship service, five children and ten adults.  The congregation are singing “God forgave my sin in Jesus name” and three of the younger children are dancing (two eight year old boys and a five year old girl).  Ribbon rings have been offered and they all have one or two in each hand. Their dancing is spontaneous and experimental and sometimes gets carried away.  There is little interference from the adults; everyone accepts that dance is part of our experience of worship.

As I watch I wonder if the adults long to join in… Do they dance like this in empty churches, as I do?