‘Let the little children come to me’

Published October 1, 2002

At Holy Trinity Church in downtown Toronto, Ian Sowton, 73, helps 4- and 5-year-olds hunker down at a table with scissors and glue as they listen to the story of Sarah and Isaac.

At St. Paul’s Calgary, where Colleen Eggerton and her husband take their autistic son, three different parishioners offered to watch over the boy so his parents could attend the service after he refused to go into church.

In Vancouver, a cathedral youth group decided to have “priest-on-a-hot-seat” Sunday and grilled the dean and two other priests on tough queries like “Can the Holy Spirit really change people?” and “Why did Jesus need to eat if he could walk through doors?”

While there are sterling examples of inter-generational involvement and caring in pockets here and there across Canada, the overall picture of children in the Anglican church is one of inconsistency, experts say.

There is confusion over whose needs should come first – adults seeking quiet contemplation, or parents searching for community. There is no policy on where children stand in the church in the first place.

Parents are left to search out “child-friendly” churches through word of mouth, say Susan Graham Walker and Janet Marshall, co-authors of God, Kids and Us.

Resources may be absent or stretched. Right after the two women published their book, for instance, the diocese of Toronto, the largest in Canada, decided it would no longer fund ministry to children, says Ms. Marshall.

That was a few years ago. Now, she said, “more people are far more concerned about the aging of their congregations and the future of their congregations.”

The church has not grappled in any uniform way with how to make itself a place of comfort “so that kids will like it here,” said Ms. Marshall in an interview.

“Our best evangelists are children. They bring their friends to church. They are like pack animals,” she said.

Still, Ms. Marshall said, she sees more and more congregations grappling with the fact that if they want their parish to grow and succeed, they will have to put up with some shrieks and tears and genuinely welcome kids.

And that doesn’t mean whisking them out of sight into the church basement as soon as they cross the threshold on Sunday morning, nor does it mean leaving everything up to parents, she added.

Churches that do put energy and resources into children and youth programs have noticed the numbers are growing, defying earlier predictions.

In a recent survey published under the title Restless Gods: The Renaissance of Religion in Canada, sociologist Reginald Bibby found that attendance by teenagers at United, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Anglican churches has grown from 17 per cent in 1984 to 23 per cent in 2000.

But it’s far from uniform. Some Anglicans still gravitate to parishes noted for solemnity and others flock to those where children run between pews getting hugs from various adults, or freely sit with their favourite adult ” not necessarily a family member.

Colleen Eggerton of Calgary noted that a brochure that came along with the Whole People of God curriculum used by many churches, reads: “Sunday morning is the only time during the week that is just for me. It is my time to relax and meditate and get centred for the week. Please don’t take that away from me.”

“With needs and expectations such as these,” she said, “it is not surprising and very understandable that many people feel resentful about the presence of children during their weekly quiet time.

“However, the solution cannot lie in excluding our youngest members from worship. The simple truth is that those who feel this way need to be encouraged to change their expectations of Sunday worship.”

Some say that as the Anglican population ages, there are more and more people going to church who don’t have small children in their lives and who forget that the community is for everybody.

There is no policy that says children and youth are members of the church.

However, Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, director of faith, worship and ministry, said children are full members of the church. “The question is, how do they exercise membership that most appropriately uses their gifts?”

Ms. Barnett-Cowan acknowledged that the membership issue has not really been defined. “Does membership mean voting in a vestry” Does it mean just having been baptized” Does it mean having your name on a parish roll along with your mother or father?”

Members of the Council of General Synod have not been able to define what membership in the Anglican Church of Canada involves, she added.

“They threw up their hands and ended up tabling the legislation because while baptism makes you a member, we also have this thing called confirmation which we no longer know what to do with,” she said.

Confirmation used to be the adult profession of faith. It was required for vestry voting and for communion. Now it faces extinction.

“It became kind of redundant in the 1970s and 1980s when children were allowed to take communion without having to be first confirmed,” said Ms. Barnett-Cowan.

Confirmation has also been affected by changes in Canadian lifestyles. The days of mom and pop going to church every Sunday and then home for Sunday supper are gone. “It is now very difficult for families to make a constant effort to go to church because of the demands on the other parts of their lives, whether it’s the kids” routines in sports and lessons, or their parents” own professions,” said Susan Graham Walker, co-author of Kids, God and Us, in an interview.

Youth and smaller children have different needs. The marketing of church involvement to youth, who can refuse to attend, is challenging. Community seems to be the key.

Jeremy Merkur, 14, is a regular at Holy Trinity in Toronto. He sits with the youth group on Sundays and is often asked to read during regular services. “It gives me a sense of accomplishment,” he said in an interview. “People come up and tell me how good a reader I am and that’s really nice. I feel like I am contributing to the community.”

In Penticton, B.C., members of St. Saviour’s youth group get daily devotionals e-mailed to them by their youth leader, Alex MacCrae, who stepped in to take over the group when nobody else wanted to.

“They read their e-mails,” she said. “And it’s a way of staying in touch during the week and over the times they can’t make it to church. They e-mail me back about all kinds of stuff.”

Mrs. MacCrae is a strong advocate for youth and spoke out for more resources at the diocese of Kootenay’s synod in Kelowna, B.C. last June.

“I think our youth are more important than a memorial stained-glass window,” she said in an interview.

“Kids are crying out for a place to come where they can be loved and be real just because they breathe. When times get tough, there is a place where they belong,” she said.

Not surprisingly, Mrs. MacCrae’s youth group has grown to between 16 and 20 kids and yet most of the congregation is seniors.

Mrs. MacCrae said residential schools worries have taken energy and focus away from Anglican youth. And yet “our teens will still be there when the residential schools issue is resolved,” she noted.

Social changes, second marriages and two-parent working families make it tough for a parish to develop programs for kids when it still assumes that families will be able to make it to church every week.

“This goes against the pattern of attendance,” said Mrs. Graham Walker, “which is now irregular.”

She also noted that the pace of life and quick flow of information in the media is not there in church. “The liturgical life and the lectionary and everything moves so much more slowly (than what they are accustomed to outside),” she said.

“Church is unlike any other place in their lives. The activity, the language is more formal, there is a different set of expectations. There is not a lot of physical activity connected to it,” she said.

Some parents are finding that the consistency of the Anglican church’s welcome to children is at best spotty, a reality noticed by Mrs. Graham Walker as she visited different churches in her role as consultant in ministry with children for the diocese of Toronto. Her job then was to provide verbal snapshots of worship practices and attitudes.

“We found that often education in the church was for the children, and worship was for adults but in fact, we all need both.”

Educators now ponder how to fit children in, or rather fit church in to today’s faster pace of life for children.

Mrs. Graham Walker notes that the church has not put many resources into meeting children’s style of learning. “If there is a division between what kids and adults do, there isn’t much in it for them (the kids). There’s no connectedness between the generations in church.”

What is needed is multi-faceted: a more welcoming and accepting attitude, and significant adjustments to program that fit with the lifestyles of today’s parents and youth.

Author Janet Marshall agreed. “Most churches can’t compete with Nintendo or hockey. We can’t and we don’t try. But what we can do well is love those kids as though they are our own. Parents want to find people who really care about those kids. It’s not about affording a computer program with the greatest Sunday school curriculum.” First of two parts.


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