a two year-old at St Paul’s…

We caught the tram down to St. Paul’s church for their Easter Sunday service. For all its grandeur and beauty, it was not a kid-friendly experience.

Lots of standing and sitting and singing of morose hymns. Much hushed silence and crowding into cramped, hard-backed pews. Hundreds of people straining to hear a single, usually male voice as the only action.

None of these things pose a problem for an adult (though they may bemoan them), but for a child (particularly one who has not grown up with such strictures), the rules implicit here are almost impossible not to violate.

I went outside with Chelsea halfway through. Excluded from even passive participation.

I have to say, I love a Catholic church service. It’s all so precise and correct (or mostly :D) and aesthetically beautiful; from the architecture to the choral singing, it radiates a transcendance I never experience in other churches. It stands solidly in a tradition, a strong tradition, that has never lost sight of its history, and has attempted faithfully to stand in the tradition of Jesus for almost two thousand years.

Yet it is these very same things which also indict the Catholic church, and all others who succumb its excesses. Two thousand years of tradition should mean that they’ve worked this stuff out better. After all, in biological evolutionary terms two thousand years might not seem like a long time, but for a religious tradition, you’d think they’d have got it a lot closer to right by now.

The picture on the left there is the booklet we received containing the liturgy recited on the day; in its post-Chelsea state, complete with purple pencil marks. It just struck me as a perfect image of order-meets-disorder at the crossroads between organised religion and children. (Incidentally, Chelsea kept pointing at the picture of the three women in the middle and announcing loudly and proudly, ‘Jesus!'” She had the right idea, clearly.)

The quote that kept returning to me over the whole time (a close second was Marge’s comment that Catholic church with all its standing and sitting and kneeling was “like Simon Says, without a winner”) was that of Jesus saying “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs.” (Mt. 19:12) Yet here we sat, in the most highly evolved Christian tradition in existence, after two thousand years of opportunity to get it right, and children were entirely excluded. If that’s not hindering, I don’t know what is.

I have to say the Catholic church is not alone here. I don’t think any of the churches that I’ve been a part of have engaged seriously with what it means to not hinder children in coming to Jesus. Sure, there’s often the token children’s talk or Sunday school time, but what of the serious attempt to integrate all ages and stages? What patience is there for those less intellectually or socially developed to be considered central to the process? I guess the question that really drives all of this is “Is it possible for me to sit in church without embarrassment or fear of retribution, knowing my daughter is making noise?”

I mean, for the whole “free worship” thing we Baptists have going on, what do we have to show for it? Throwing out half the good and necessary parts of gathered worship (when’s the last time you heard a prayer of confession in a Baptist service?) and then getting into a rut of doing it one way all the time doesn’t make you free. Of all traditions, we have the flexibility to work out some engaging and experimental worship, even to the extent of making it a fluid thing, reflective of the context – yet we don’t.

We’ve erred on the side of inclusion with inspiral (Chelsea is usually present for most of the night until she needs to go to bed), though at times that’s made things difficult for the rest of us. But she’s getting to the age where that’s going to be both more necessary and more difficult. Necessary because she can actually start engaging with the ideas, and difficult because she will no longer simply be able to crawl quietly around between us and play with toys.

I’ll admit too that it’s only been since having a child – or even more recently, since that child has been able to be actively involved socially – that this has become an issue. So in the interests of fairness, I can see why celibate priests might find it a little difficult to relate to the problem it poses.

But we need to do this better. Not only for the sake of the children – that only perpetuates the whole intellectual condescension that already goes on. I mean for our sakes – because, as Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

That tells me it’s not the children who need to grow up; it’s the adults who need to grow down.

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