Perhaps I learned it from my wife. At any event, it was there as far back as I can remember: a conviction that it is wrong to speak of children as “the future of the church.” While it may be true that children will be important for the continuance of the church into the decades to come, that’s not why they are important now.
They are important now because they are Christians, just like the rest of us.
So when I became a rector, I started talking with people about the place of children in church. Our parish had a practice of Sunday school classes during church, with children coming upstairs to the church at the offertory and thus being in church for communion. My concerns about this practice were (and remain) several, but the main one was this: separating the children from church conveys the message that church worship is not for them.
That strikes me as an error only an adult could make! Worship is an environment that is unlike anything else in the everyday experience of children—and of adults, too, but we are inured to its unusualness from habit. Just think of the “room” in which you worship: almost always, it is large. The ceiling is high. There may be candles and colored glass. It’s unlike almost every other space of our lives.
And think what people do in church. They sing! We sing together hardly anywhere else in the world anymore. (And this is why we must figure out a way to return to singing as soon as possible.) We also stand up and say things together. Where else does that happen? Try to imagine what this room, this light, this space, this event, might mean to a one-year-old. Ponder the wonder of it to a three-year-old, or a five-year-old, a ten-year-old. A cross gets carried around. Sometimes everyone holds a candle. It’s dark; it’s light. It’s quiet; it’s loud. Everyone is hushed in prayer; everyone is standing and speaking loudly. Not to mention the walk to the altar, the Bread and the Wine.
If children have to be able to explain things in words before we let them have the experience, well, let’s just pull the plug on baptism. (And should we institute eucharistic-literacy exams? Would you like to have to pass a test?)
What we did at Resurrection in Hopewell Junction, New York, was move Sunday school to the time after Communion. I held off the sermon until then, at the end; at the same time the children were downstairs in classes. Earlier in the service, after the Gospel, where we are supposed to have a sermon, I had a children’s sermon. So our parish’s children were in church for the whole thing.
We started this, first, as an experiment; I was aware of the possibility of a new rector inadvertently stepping on toes, and a wise parishioner said, “Try it as an experiment.” There were details (“bugs”) to work out, but it worked very well. One bug: I don’t like the name “children’s sermon,” for reasons you can probably figure out. So I called it, initially, “The Short Sermon.” After Communion, we had “The Long Sermon.” A friendly warden said to me, “Father, it might not be the most attractive thing to advertize you’re having a long sermon.” So I revised things and called that one, simply, “The Sermon.” The earlier one became “The Sermon for Short People.”
When I first gave a children’s sermon at Incarnation, I greeted those who had come to the crossing: “Hello, short people!” One of them said (quite justifiably): “I’m not short!”
Now I just say, “Hello, Christians.”
I could go on for several thousand more words, but let me end with a thought about sickness and death. When I was seven years old, my sister was stillborn. My mother needed hospitalization and was not able to be at the funeral. My father brought my brother and me. He told me, many years later, that people questioned his doing so, asking whether it was good to bring young children to such a sad thing. But he was right. It was good to be there. (Today, his body lies besides hers in the town cemetery.)
I have some younger adult friends who miscarried a baby. They told their other children, both of whom were under six years old. There was a service; the child was named; and they pray for her. In fact, my friends tell me, it is wonderful how they think of their brother. They rather like thinking of a brother who is in heaven. It is not, for them, a particularly sad thing; it’s just part of life, the wonderful mysteries of life.
Of course, it really is sad, as we adults know. But the children, who take in reality more intuitively, are also right: it truly is a thing that has joy.
I believe this, theologically: that a life of only a few months in the womb is as much and as real a human life as that of mine, a man who is old enough to get into grocery stores an hour early. Children are people too. Their lives are not in the future: they are right now.
Thank God for this human life we share in Jesus Christ.