Can Churches welcome young children and value silence, or does one or the other have to be sacrificed? Here I suggest that silence in church matters immensely – but that the right way to achieve it is to invest in and provide for children and their parents.
It is a fact increasingly acknowledged – indeed, I would be surprised to find anyone disputing it – that it is important to welcome young children into our Church communities. They are real and full members of the community and congregation to which they belong. Church community should be there for everyone at every stage of their lives, whether two, twenty-three, forty-four or ninety-five.
However, I have become thoroughly disillusioned with the normal means of welcome in many churches, which approximates to “let babies and young children cry/play/run about during church services and never mind about the noise”.
There are two reasons for feeling that this isn’t a good approach. The first is that I don’t have the impression that it works well for most young families, and it is not inclusive in the way that word would usually be meant. Inclusivity implies allowing different people to join in in a meaningful way. But in general neither the children (who are doing something unrelated in an environment not set up for them) nor the parents (who are fully occupied in looking after the children) are being enabled to join in with worship.
The second reason is that it is important that people can come to church and find in the liturgy and the worshipping space the conditions that are optimal for encountering God. While people vary enormously in their personal distractibility and in the extent of the role silence* has in their spiritual journey, outward stillness and silence, and an environment that promotes attentiveness, are well known to be important aspects of creating a space that facilitates encountering God. For everyone’s sake (including that of the children when they are slightly older and their needs change) it is important not to set these considerations aside. Simply tolerating noise and disruption – whether from young children (who have every excuse), or from adults chattering about the weather (who probably don’t) – doesn’t promote people’s capacity to use the liturgy for its proper purpose, and therefore doesn’t assist the church in fulfilling its primary role (indeed, its entire reason for being) of bringing people to God.
This creates an extremely complex pastoral and practical challenge, which hardly admits of a single, complete solution that will work in every community or for every child regardless of age or temperament, and it seems likely that the extent of the challenge is why “play-and-noise” has gained so much prevalence.
Here are some pick-and-mix suggestions for ways in which real inclusivity and real silence might both be valued and protected. None are supposed to be stand-alone solutions – indeed, a combination of whichever approaches are possible in a particular community is probably most likely to be successful.
1.Take the children out for Sunday School throughout the whole of the main Sunday morning Eucharist. A good start where possible; the usual challenges are finding ways of providing for children of all ages, and for the worship of the adult volunteers. The children may also need support to make the transition to attending the service when they are ready.
2.Take the children out for age-appropriate activities through the sermon, prayers, and intercessions. This allows the adult volunteers to join in with the most essential parts of worship, and the children to get used to being in church, while taking them out of the least accessible part of the service, and reducing the length of time they are coping with “adult” church. This can also be used as a transitional stage – full Sunday School to age six or so, and then “half” Sunday School for a few years after that.
3.Provide a fully enclosed (adequately soundproofed) room with windows into the church, and equip it as a children’s chapel. This allows children to attend an ordinary service and have a space where they can be children, joining in as they become ready, with both maximum silence elsewhere in the worshiping space and minimal separation of the children and their carers from it. It potentially makes provision for all ages and for every service in the year, which is usually impossible with Sunday school provisions. Though less ideal, CCTV and speakers could be used instead of windows, if good quality and well maintained. This type of provision is likely to be more effective for parents if effort is put into maintaining the atmosphere within the children’s chapel as that of a family service, rather than a creche, perhaps by asking for non-parent volunteers to take it in turns to sit with the families in the children’s space during services.
4.Run children’s worship/activities at a time other than the main Sunday Eucharist, and involve non-churchgoing volunteers with babysitting on Sunday morning. Some local areas may have people – older youth looking for community service opportunities, or lonely single people – who would be delighted to spend their Sunday morning playing with children and joining the congregation for after-church socialising. Involving non-churchgoers in the social aspects of the church community may also be a means of evangelisation.
5.Designate at least one weekday/low Sunday Eucharist as silent, and look for babysitting volunteers inside or outside the congregation if there are parents who want to attend. It may be easier to find volunteers at another time of week than Sunday morning. And the parents of pre-school children are likely to be among those who find it most difficult to find time and space for silence and prayer, and would most gain from being able to access a dedicated space for it.
6. Preserve a period of dedicated silence after the Sunday Eucharist/other services. Perhaps in the context of exposition**. This is dependent on having a separate social space, to which both adults and children can withdraw to play or talk. (Making the social space work for both children and adults is a different aspect of holistic welcoming). This is a bit of a side-step, as it doesn’t provide for anyone during the liturgy itself, but it may be a helpful compromise in a church community where there are no resources to provide more fully for the children during the service.
7. The above, with the addition of a “babysitter” at after church socialising. In the case of arranging for “after-church silence” running concurrently to the start of “after-church socialising”, having a rota of non-parents to watch over children during socialising would allow parents to join in with the after-church silence too.
8. Have worship buddies to support parents during the service so there is always at least one adult per child. My perception would be that it isn’t very difficult to assist a child who is ready to join in to do things like following the service sheet and finding the right hymns, but it is not easy to do if you are also trying to care for an infant. Children who are just becoming ready to join in in an “adult” way may be among those most distracted from worship by a younger child playing close by: finding ways in which they can be moved a little way away from younger siblings may be of help to them.
9. Ask for older parent mentors to take a family with young children under their wing. Older churchgoing parents may be able to give a lot of advice and encouragement regarding what they found helped in integrating their own children, and generally be able to make sure that the parents don’t feel isolated in the worshipping community. This is a slightly different type of buddy system, and could in theory also be offered to other groups of people who find it challenging to come to church. Offering these things formally (rather than assuming they will happen naturally) helps to make sure people “belong” whether they find it easy to fit in socially or not.
10. Greet children at the door with a children’s service book and a Sunday School activities sheet. This is hardly a one-size-fits-all solution, as children are delightfully individual in their needs and preferences, but it acknowledges the need of children for age-appropriate material, and it encourages them to be quietly occupied with something relevant. It may also help send the message that families are welcome and considered. Probably most useful to churches who don’t currently have child-congregation-members, but do have visiting children from time to time.
11. Provide teaching material to the parents, which they can use to help their children engage. This depends a bit on local demographics, as it is most likely to be useful to parents who are well educated, but in subjects other than theology. The capacity of the parents to discuss different aspects of the service – the days’ readings, or some part of the Eucharistic prayer, or the particular festival of the day – with their children is likely to be helpful in enabling the children to engage as fully as possible as they become ready.
*“Silence” in this context, is shorthand for both actual silence – that is the absence of any noise at all – and for the silence of liturgical worship, in which there is no noise going on except the words and/or music of the liturgy.
These two things can be significantly different in terms of the role they play in facilitating prayer, but the pastoral issue is similar in both cases. It may sometimes be a problem, though, if the presence of one type of silence is considered a complete substitute for the presence of the other.
** This is a Roman-Catholic/Anglo-Catholic practice in which the Consecrated Bread of the Eucharist is placed on the altar for adoration.
I realise I have been dreadfully remiss in not fulfilling the proper duties of a blogger – I have not acquired a sweet little kitten to post cute pictures of whenever I don’t have the time and/or inclination to write a “proper” post.
“Squeeak” is the closest onomatopoeic approximation I can find to the noise of a sewing machine sewing through a layer of high quality A-four printer paper.
Earlier this year, I purchased some orange-gold velvet to make curtains for my prayer corner, partly so it could be closed off, and partly to cover the rough backs of the bookcases which enclose it.
It turned out to be one of the most frustrating sewing projects I had ever done. I have worked with velvet before, when I made a skirt for an outdoor wedding in Wales in April, but in that case the velvet was non-stretch, so while it was a bit slippery, and cutting it caused an awful mess, it wasn’t difficult to sew.
But this velvet was stretchy. Moreover, as a curtain fabric, it had been treated with unpleasant fire-proofing chemicals, which are worth having on something that’s being used in close proximity to candles, but came off on my hands all the time I was working, leaving them sticky and making the work difficult. Whether the cloth would have behaved differently had it been “clean” I have no idea.
I didn’t need to do any sewing together, as the width was adequate, but each piece needed a hem all the way around. Naturally, this was machine work.
But the machine kept “eating” the fabric, pulling it down into the hole from which the bobbin thread emerges. I think it might have been quicker to sew them by hand, by the time I’d worked out how to solve that. The machine also wouldn’t sew anything approaching a flat seam, and stretched the cloth dreadfully. Moreover, having the stitching put in and pulled out, let alone being dragged into the internal workings of the machine and out again, did quite a lot of damage to the fragile fabric. The hem on one of the front curtains remains shorter than the other, as a result of my cutting the damaged edge that I experimented on off.
The problem was the extent of the stretch. I tried sewing through only two layers instead of three – a knit fabric doesn’t really need to be edged as they don’t fray. It still didn’t work. I tried lowering the feed dogs and sewing with a hand feed, but the presser foot was too “heavy” for that to help. The machine won’t sew with the presser foot up, and though it will sew with it removed, it is difficult to know where the needle is without it there to delineate, and I didn’t quite have the nerve to try that.
Eventually, having looked up possible solutions online, I took some solid paper – an old guide dogs magazine – and sewed all the hems through sheet after sheet of it, placing it under the cloth over the feed dogs, which are quite happy to pull paper through. Then I only had trouble with the cloth being “eaten” when I got to the edge of the paper and left an inadvertent gap, or if the feed through failed or stuck. I also worked out that pushing the edge of the cloth about with the closed, flat blade of the scissors was less liable to cause the cloth to stretch than gripping and moving it with my hands.
Sewing through paper that thick caused the machine to squeak loudly every time the needle goes through the paper. And was quite slow. The feed was ok, but not brilliant: some twist remains in the hems of the hung curtains, though I’m unclear if that is the result of problems stitching, inaccurate cutting (I marked out the project with a ruler and dressmaker’s chalk, and I find it difficult to cut precise rectangles that way), or insufficient pressing (I steamed the velvet, which is the usual convention, but perhaps it could have done with being actually ironed). And tearing the paper out of the seams was a rather frustrating task. It is perforated by the lines of stitching, but little tufts are left in all over the place, and have to be taken carefully out, without pulling up the rather loose stitching.
The cloth, despite the difficulty of working it, looks lovely, with a few irritations such as a tendency for the hem to twist round leaving the wrong side visible. It is hung at the front over a bar rail, of the sort used in wardrobes for hangers, and along the sides with panel pins put through at regular intervals.