Monday, December 19, 2005

Christmas, children and church

Facing changes in demand
The liturgy for the Sunday before Christmas has, over the past few decades of my experience, become the occasion for anticipating the telling of the birth of Christ in child-oriented acts of worship. This Sunday is closest to the end of school term, and soon afterwards, it’s not unusual for regular church congregations to be diminished by an exodus of young families going on holiday or travelling to visit friends or relatives in other parts of the country. So, if there are any children attending church, or a Sunday school group, this Sunday is the occasion to do something special with them in the context of the entire church congregation.
Decades ago, when the city centre was densely populated, St John’s had a large and lively Sunday school plus a neighbourhood church school. Today, no more than eight children attend, usually not all at the same time, and sometimes, not at all. Parents and children have to travel into town, which is difficult given the poverty and arbitary nature of early Sunday bus services, it’s all rather hit or miss.

Tribute to Norma
However, Norma Thomas is always there to welcome whoever arrives. She has befriended and taught the faith to generations of children, in recent decades, almost single handed. Current child protection law requires adults to work in pairs with children, and that has been something of a challenge to the notions of previous generations of parents happy to dump their children at Sunday School without concern for who was caring for them. Extra commitment is required to welcome and care for just a few children, and this can’t happen during a regular morning service unless someone is there to accompany and assist Norma. Ironically, nobody could ever feel unsafe with her, but rules have to be obeyed. She has worked with kids in a creative and imaginative way for much of her long lifetime. She is still a youthful figure, walking everywhere, and spending a morning a week at St Monica’s school listening to children read. A quiet magnificant inspiration to the whole church.
During November and early December, Norma quietly prepares a nativity presentation, making use of whatever children are available, tailoring the material to their gifts and confidence. For some years we had budding young musicians, playing harp and guitar, but they’ve grown up and moved on. This year’s group doing the nativity presentation was only five, and two of them arrived too late to take part, because of the vagaries of public transport. So three children aged between seven and twelve stood up before a congregation of nearly fifty, and confidently re-told the story of Christ’s birth in a way that captured the heart and the admiration of the congregation. Credit to Norma for building their confidence.
I listened to Radio Four’s ‘Sunday’ programme en route to church for the eight o’clock Eucharist. It reported and commented on the decline of the children’s nativity play in schools, and the impact this would have on awareness of Christian faith in society in future. Maybe in time only churches will maintain this tradition in their children’s work. I’m not sure if the transmission of Christian faith has benefitted from having its foundation stories used as an educational commodity to be consumed and tested upon by a secular educational system. Unbelievers with University degrees in Theology, and adolescents with ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels in R.E. may never have experienced the rich creative experience of being part of a worshipping community, loved, encouraged and supported by the likes of Norma, discovering what it means to be prayerful, to look beyond the surface meaning for truth that emerges from the heart of the Gospel story. The church will live so long as there are people who can transmit its stories to children in a way that imparts confidence to re-tell them to the church with all the beauty and freshness their young voices contain.

God on Mondays - the follow-up
For Jenny and I the next service of Sunday morning was a kind of test of the effectiveness of the work we’ve done over the previous three weeks in our ‘God on Mondays’ after-school service sessions and St James’ church. Would anyone take up our invitation to attend a late Sunday morning Christingle service, to conclude our Advent series on preparing the way for the coming of Jesus? Well, the usual ten regular members were there, and in addition, fifteen children and another fifteen adults, including two Tredegarville school teachers – forty of us in all. We shared the service and teaching between us, using an icon reproduction, and the church’s set of crib figures to re-tell the story in a catechetical dialogue with the children. We had to go about it this way since there was no possibility of a children’s presentation this year at St James’, as there were no adults to work with the children to achieve this.
Sunday School at St James died in the autumn, with the abandonment of the few remaining children by those who had been teaching them. They just gave up without explanation or apology, perhaps not knowing how to articulate their needs or their frustrations to churchwardens or pastors. In this part of the parish, membership is not drawn from the confident middle classes. A gulf of expectation and communication existed between the few Sunday school teachers and the rest of the church. Nobody had the time or the patience to address the problem, and finally without warning Sunday school sessions in the church hall simply stopped.

Children's faith
The handful of children who turned up regularly just carried on coming, sitting well behaved through the entire Eucharist instead, week after week. Which says something special about the life of faith in children. Their presence challenged my preaching to this remnant of a congregation. Now I take my theme for the day and start speaking to the kids about it, then attempt to draw in the adults. It struck me that in the classroom children don’t get talked down to, so there’s no reason to do so in church either. For me this is experimental preaching, rather than ‘sermons for children’. Both children and adults are responsive, and I come away feeling that I haven’t merely repeated myself at two different venues.

Re-learning how to evangelise
Today’s Christingle venture was well received, and this encourages us to plan further services of this kind in the new year, with the aim of what is, in effect, primary evangelism - re-telling the essential Gospel story as if it’s never been heard before, challenging the hearers to consider where they are in relation to it, hoping, with the response to re-build a church community out of the constituency of families whose children attend Tredegarville church school. The time is now right and it’s something Jenny and I can achieve together.

One of God's surprises
Two young women turned up at the service. I guessed they were mothers of children at the school. One of them approached me after the service and asked if I would baptize her child. Her accent was Slavic, and it turned out that she was one of the latest wave of migrants from the Czeck republic, who are Roma gypsies, escaping marginalisation at home.. There’s a group of families locally, sending its children to Tredegarville church school, which has the distinction of employing a Czeck speaking second language support teacher. I asked when they wanted the ceremony. Would Christmas Day be possible? How could I say: “No, it’s too much to ask after services at Midday and 11.00pm on Christmas Eve, followed by 9.30 before St James at 11.00 on Christmas day”? Such a special occasion to baptize a baby. I couldn’t refuse. And the regular members of the congregation are delighted at the prospect. Do they realise, do they care that we're not Catholic but Anglican? Do they care? What may be the case is that their local church is recognisable to them, and welcomes them. IN the end, what does it matter which Bishop is in charge if Christ is there for them? All in all, it was a rewarding morning.

Carols with and for St John's
After lunch, I joined the local St John Ambulance Division for their annual Carol service at St Paul’s Grangetown. Although I’m a St John Headquarters Chaplain not a Divisional Chaplain, it seemed right that I should attend, since I know a fair number of members from visiting them on duty at public events around the city centre, and the Millennium Stadium. The service these people, of all ages, offer to the public as First Aid volunteers is hugely impressive. I prize highly my association with the troops on the ground, event to the point of adding one more Carol service into my routine.
I went straight from that event to co-preside with Jenny over the St John’s festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The choir acquitted itself well. Memorable among the readers was Bethan, a seven year old who had also been there dressed as Blessed Mary in the morning’s nativity presentation. It’s just amazing how naturally keen some children are, and how much they give back to the community attempting to nurture them.

What a wonderful day!

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