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Do not hinder them

Last Saturday, my wife and I welcomed with joy the birth of our second child. With the aid of modern technology, I was able to send a picture of him from the delivery room to my mother who was watching our older son. After studying the picture intently for a while, my son said of his new brother, “Well, I like him.” We took this as a declaration that he at least temporarily welcomed his brother’s arrival.

The idea of what it means to actually welcome someone has been on my mind recently. When our first son came into the world, one way that I welcomed him was with an up-front apology that we were going to be practicing our parenting with him, along with a request that he be merciful in his judgment of us later in life. Watching our oldest grow, seeing the evidence of faith bloom in his life, and now welcoming our second child into our lives has all worked to put the question of whether the Church welcomes children, and how we do so, in the forefront of my mind.

Suffer the little children?
Suffer the little children?

Despite what one would hope, we cannot assume that each local congregation will be welcoming to children. Andrew Petiprin wrote recently of an experience in an Episcopal Church that bears this reality out. I have encountered examples of this fundamental lack of hospitality in other contexts as well. Several years ago I was attending a presentation at a local church, and I was struck by the image at right, which seemed (and still seems) so antithetical not only to appropriate formation of children in the faith, but to Jesus’ own approach to children (cf. Luke 18:15-17, Matt. 19:13-15, Mark 10:13-16). And yet, in spite of the ample evidence that people are still people (and therefore prone to bouts of multifaceted sinfulness and vice at the expense of others), we also live among Christians who truly try to make others welcome, whether strangers and aliens or widows and orphans, the elderly, or children. I doubt that so much would’ve been written on, or so much energy expended in the pursuit of, the right paradigm of children’s and youth ministry were the concern felt by other Christians not authentic.

But where do we look for our paradigms? It is certainly possible to look to the latest educational models and attempt to fit them into the context of a Church community. But I worry that some of our current difficulties stem from too broad an acceptance of the grade/age specific paradigm of the recent past. As congregations face new demographic realities, they often discover that they cannot sustain a Sunday school model that follows a school-grade structure because they do not have the necessary number of volunteers or children in each age group. Or, their volunteers do not have the ability to dedicate the necessary amount of time. This reality, coupled with the fear that many in the Church have that children are not continuing to worship as they reach young adulthood, means that congregations, dioceses, or other judicatories, as well as whole denominations, have struggled to find “the answer” to the question of how best to pass a living faith on to our children.

These concerns — mostly from a practical and organizational perspective — have been constant in my ministry. From the time I volunteered as a Journey to Adulthood mentor while in college, to my time in seminary, through my now eight years of ordained ministry, the earnest concern of many within the Church and, often, the strain and frustration of those tasked with arranging and implementing some form of formation for children and youth have never been far out of mind.

More and more, however, I’ve found myself thinking  that this cannot be a new concern. Christians have had children ever since there have been Christians. How did our forebears approach these issues? No doubt there were as many or more ways of approaching the issue of formation or catechesis of the young in the Christian past as there are in the Christian present. But this reality should be an encouragement to us, as it makes it more likely that there could be something useful for each of our communities if we plumb the depths of the great tradition.

In considering the ways in which Christians of the past have passed the faith on, it is clear that a strong connection exists between catechesis and the worship of God by the whole community. This connection, once identified, seems essential, for worship is a primary arena for the ongoing role of the Holy Spirit in catechizing and shaping the adult. It is only fitting that children engage in this process and that the community learn how to enable them to do so.

Moreover, such a reality parallels the results of recent studies that have demonstrated that the biggest single determining factor of ongoing involvement in a congregation as a young adult is involvement in intergenerational worship as a child and young person.

With this concern as my motivation last year, I began searching for texts that discussed the ways in which Christians in earlier times approached the formation of children and youth. By chance, I ran across a tantalizing element in a text entitled Anglican Church Architecture with some remarks upon ecclesiastical furniture by James Barr, architect, published in 1842. One of the parish churches that Barr illustrates had some interesting features. At first glance it looks like a standard English parish church, but when I looked more closely at the key, something stood out. Take a look:


Hasley Church, Oxon


The first thing I took note of was the location of the tower, and the porch which serves as a main entrance. I noted that the font is located at the entrance of of the church, and that the pews are shorter at that side of the nave to accommodate it. I noticed that the vestry was sort of tacked on, seemingly as an afterthought. The position of the reading pew (B) right in front of the pulpit (C) struck me as interesting, but indicative of a particular time frame; my understanding is that the clerk would sit there and lead responses during the service. Then I noticed the pews that were sideways at the front of the church, around the pulpit. But there were also pews running sideways in the chancel area. Generally speaking (assuming there aren’t transepts), pews oriented that way tend to indicate the presence of a choir. But, in my experience, the choir is almost always seated in the chancel area. So where would the choir sit here?

Then I noticed it on the key. Letter H. Referring to the pews in the chancel: Children’s seats.

My initial thought was that they may have had a boys choir. But then I thought that it would make more sense, even if it was a boys choir, to actually refer to it as the boys choir or even just choir. Also, the word children has always been inclusive of both sexes, so add to that the fact that at this date the Church of England would not have had children’s choirs consisting of boys and girls. So, could it be that the chancel area was reserved for the seating of children?

What would be the possible benefits of this arrangement?

Folks who study congregational development and children almost universally suggest that children should sit toward the front during the service so that they can see the action. Perhaps that was part of it. Sitting in the chancel would’ve given the children a good view of what happened in both the liturgy of the Word and during Communion. There may have been another benefit, in that, while they would be able to hear the sermon because of their proximity, being positioned behind the preacher may have made the noise from fidgeting and the occasional whispered comment less likely to carry into the nave.

Still, I was curious. I had never heard of or seen anything like this before. So, I started to dig a bit. I ran across a modern text: Nigel Yates, Buildings, Faith and Worship: The Liturgical Arrangement of Anglican Churches 1600-1900 (Oxford University Press, 2000). I searched this book, and found several references to children. In discussing the design and renovation of congregations in England during the 19th century, Yates notes that of the parishes in this region, “Most had seating for the congregation provided by open benches rather than box pews; some had stalled chancels but for children rather than choristers…” (page xxiii). In another text, I saw reference to a parish church that was renovated in in the 1680’s and put small box pews in the chancel for children.

In keeping with this interest, I also recently read the book by Odd Magne Bakke, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Fortress, 2005). There’s a lot of interesting information in it, and I heartily commend it to you.

The description of the role children played in worship is of particular interest to the question of how they participated and were nurtured in the faith in the early Church.

First, Bakke indicates that children were indeed present during the service and took part in it. They (at least the boys) were lectors (readers of Scripture). They sang the responses, with particular emphasis on the Kyrie, which in at least some settings, they sang first, followed by the adults. They joined in hymns and were cantors. While many of the functions of lector, in particular, were reserved for boys, the fact of such participation is, I think, the important lesson to take. And such participation began at an early age. The Emperor Justinian passed a law setting eight years old as the minimum age of a lector, for example.

Bakke sums up children’s participation in the worship of the early church by writing the following:

From the mid-third century, and perhaps from the New Testament period onward, children received the sacraments: in a wide geographical area, they were baptized and took part in the Eucharist. This implies that they were regarded as subjects with needs of their own and with the capacity to receive the same spiritual gifts as adults. The fact that they received baptism and communion also shows that they were perceived as full members of the community. Children’s active participation went further, however. The sources tell us that they played an active part in hymn-singing, that they were cantors, and that they had a special responsibility in praying the Kyrie eleison. They also read scriptural texts in the liturgy. In other words, they were visibly present and made their own contribution to worship (When Children Became People, Kindle Edition, Locations 3898-3899).

These examples serve as tantalizing clues for the way in which the faith has been handed on in previous generations. Certainly there were elements of past practices that did not take the faith of children seriously, instead mapping onto them a sort of pristine nature which made their voices, particularly when singing the Kyrie, preferable to adult voices. And yet, even in this, it seems like a more serious form of patronizing than that which occurs in many congregations today, where children take part and are paraded out in front of adults primarily because they look cute to those watching. In contrast, at least those who thought the voices of the children were more pure and their character less stained by sin were inspired by a desire to give greater and more acceptable devotion to God.

A few modern examples of taking the spiritual lives of children seriously exist. One is “Catechesis of the Good Shepherd,” the perspective on children’s formation developed and pioneered by Sophia Cavelleti, a friend of Maria Montessori. Her approach to children’s formation (set out in The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with Young Children [Liturgy Training Publications, 1992]) is one that takes the child’s faith seriously and recognizes that the child still has something to teach the adult and that the appropriate role of the adult is to guide the child in discovery.

Another example was, I believe, touched upon in a post here on Covenant a few weeks ago by Emily Hylden. In The Future of the Church she writes about the Cathedral Choirs of Boys and Girls at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, SC:

Just ten years ago, no such group existed at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral; it is not the result of decades of tradition or cultural expectation — the sort of depth and clarity which enabled the young boy’s quotation came from his simple exposure to teachers who have joyfully expressed and modeled the Gospel to him through reverent worship, faithful work, and devotion to community.

This example demonstrates a context in which adults are passing along their faith in a manner that recognizes that children are children, but also that children are capable of deep religious insight and can participate fully and seriously in the worship of the whole community. Children do not need, nor are they appropriately served by, being allowed to take part in the worship of the body on “special occasions.” This is not to say that children’s or youth Sundays are intrinsically bad in theory, but if they are used as a way to wall off the participation of the children and young people in the everyday (or every Sunday) life of the congregation, then they are actually counterproductive. Indeed, it is not within the rights of anyone to allow or disallow anyone else their role in the worship of the Almighty. We are gathered together to support one another, not to set up barriers for one another.

So how do we welcome our children and not hinder them in their search for Christ? We begin by honoring them as people made in the image and likeness of God and taking seriously their ability to worship God in a manner that is just as full of awe, wonder, and power as any adult.

The image features above is “Children in Laos” (2014) by Dietmar Temps. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


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