The banging of little metal cars against each other with the sounds of crashes made by young mouths. The shuffle of paper and the clack, clack, clack of a pile of markers being dumped out. An angry squeal by a younger sibling to ‘give it back!’
Any ordinary house with multiple children on a Saturday morning? Undoubtedly.
Surely not church on a Sunday? Actually, yes.
Are some of the people in the sanctuary disturbed by the noise? Yes.
Am I one of those people? Yes.
Is one of the “offenders” my child? Yes.
I love my 6 year old son with all of my heart, but there are certainly times when I wish ‘children should be seen and not heard’ was still an acceptable parenting axiom.
We attend what is considered to be a very family friendly church in our community. ‘Family friendly’ encompasses everything from a great church school program, excellent youth ministry, and a supportive network of fellow parents. I would say that most importantly though, it means that—as a congregation—we try our best to make all children feel welcome in church, and the ‘family’ service in particular is designed to encourage and support the attendance and participation of children.
As a helpful reminder, there are cards in the pews letting everyone know that ‘God put the wiggle in children…’ with additional tips and words of encouragement for parents. The cards also serve to drive home the point to other congregants in attendance: please don’t worry or freak out if someone else’s child is anything other than primly silent; that is not how we roll here (not in those exact words, but you get the idea).
Nor is this attitude limited to specific family-oriented worship and events. We have brought our son to all manner of services: the full Rite II, the quiet, spoken Rite I, and a meditative Celtic Eucharist. While I sometimes feel self-conscious when he is being rambunctious or chatty, we have never felt judged or excluded (if someone was personally displeased, they kept it to themselves). Being able to expose him to a range of worship experiences expands all of our horizons, and I am grateful for that.
But I am also the first to admit that I find it very hard to concentrate on the service when there are a lot of children present. I struggle with loud noises and it isn’t always easy for me to live the truth of accepting children and the noise that comes with them during church. At least once a month, my personal entreaty during confession is to ask forgiveness for making that silent, steely-eyed glare in my son’s direction as a way of telling him to Be. Quiet. Or. Else. and then immediately feeling guilty.
I get the need and desire for a nursery. Some young children just can’t sit through a church service. Some parents can’t either. There is a fine line between teaching and enforcing respectful behavior and acknowledging and even celebrating what is developmentally appropriate. I have escorted my son out of church before when he has crossed the very subjective line I have drawn as a parent. Each family in our parish has different limits and we are all given the space and mutual respect to manage our own children.
Earlier this summer, Anglican and Episcopal social media lit up over an incident in Cambridge, England, when a father and his two children were asked to leave an Evensong service at Kings College Chapel because his 9-year-old son—who is autistic and nonverbal—was making sounds that were considered disruptive and interfering with the experience of other people. The father, a professor at the University of Cambridge, wrote a scathingly ironic non-apology letter to the Chapel Dean, with a cc: to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, among others.* I encourage you to read the letter in its entirety. His point about the sounds his son made being ‘surely pleasing to God, the experience of other worshippers being secondary’ really made an impression on me.
Sometimes I want to be able to focus on worship, and yes, enjoy the experience, but worship and being in relationship with God isn’t about our individual, personal comfort. Excluding children in the name of peace and quiet doesn’t always make it easier to listen for God’s voice. The loud crash of a kneeler being lowered on a parent’s foot is one of many sounds of a church—and more importantly, a faith—that is very much alive. While it may not always sound pretty to our ears, God hears it, and I have to believe it is a beautiful movement in a cacophonous symphony of praise.
Not long after the feeling started to return to my foot, there was a piercing crescendo of a toddler’s cry, rising high above the voice of our priest as he performed the epiclesis over the bread and wine. He didn’t miss a beat, and I think I may have caught a hint of a concealed smile.
*In the end, the situation appears to have been satisfactorily resolved as apologies and promises to do better were issued and accepted.
How do children worship in your church?
How do you yourself worship with children?