Children, Church, and Holy Chaos

I stand on the vanguard of a lot of movements in the Church promoting the agency of previously marginalized groups, specifically from my social location as a queer person of color. These conversations are interested in decentering dominant narratives and opening the entire community to an experience of holiness that lies beyond prescribed norms, and necessarily so. For hundreds of years the Western Church has been dominated by straight, white, men who claimed a sacred canopy for that domination. According to some, scripture makes clear that Jesus chose men to be ministers, not women (never mind Mary Magdalene – the first to preach the Resurrection, Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe). Others assert that anything other than heteropatriarchy to be “inconsistent with Christian doctrine” (never mind the reality that the Gospels portray Jesus himself as uninterested in living into the gender-norms of his day). Still others assert the racist perspective that the primacy of Rome represents G-d’s tacit support of Eurocentric Christianity as normative praxis.

These conversations are necessary to shake the Church out of an oppressive past and into a more liberative future, and I wonder if another conversation needs to be had as it pertains to the adult-centered-ness of Church. To be certain I do not want to draw a direct line between the exclusion of people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and other minorities from the church to the incorporation of children. The two conversations are not the same. I merely want to ask the question about how who we understand to be part of the body of Christ makes certain demands of us. In recent weeks I have been involved in many conversations around a similar topic: the inclusion of children and youth in collective worship. My current position places me in an interesting role where I am constantly advocating for deeper and more intentional engagement of children and youth in worship, not as extras, but as equals. My basic premise is this, if baptism is full initiation into the body of Christ, then the cry of an infant must be seen as equally spiritually efficacious to the chant of the priest. If not, then we have some work to do.

There is so much concern about proper “decorum” and “respect” in church, but who gets to define those terms? Adults? I wonder if it wouldn’t be worth excavating what we mean by “decorum” and “respect” outside of our adult-centered sensibilities and comfort. As with most things Church-related, these conversations must be contextual, but if the only ones being asked to be respectful are young people, I wonder if we adults might be monopolizing a space that we need to hold more loosely.

One way that we can understand the ministry of Jesus Christ is one of decentering dominance. Jesus refocused the centers of communities away from groups who previously held power. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus centers the focus away from the rich and powerful towards the poor and the humble. This mirrors Mary’s song where the rich and powerful are dethroned while the poor and meek are exalted. It is possible to read these as a radical reordering and upending of society, and there are times that I do. And it is possible to read these as a broadening and expansion expansion. From the perspective, it might that Jesus isn’t turning people away, but pointing to the abundance of the table. The conversations around privilege of any kind are often upsetting for those in positions of power because the descent from dominance to equity often feels like oppression, particularly when accompanied by the fear engendered by the loss of control. I wonder if we might not also carry this conversation into the ways adults dominate and worship spaces. Every time I hear the spirituality of children and youth being dismissed in any way, I hear Jesus saying “suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not.”

One of the phenomena the Church in the West is facing is the decline in power and wealth and one of the markers of that decline is attendance. I for one don’t think the fall of Christendom is a bad thing. We who call ourselves the Church might do well to consider what we could be apart from temporal power and worldly fame. There are any number of reasons why this decline might be the case, but I wonder if among the myriad reasons fueling the decline is the fact that the Church has made clear to children and youth that they are not wanted, that they are a liability to “real” worship, that they are extras at best and are only truly welcome and incorporated once they’ve become adults. I wonder if our strict insistence on “decorum” and “respect” has forced our young people to find ways of experiencing G-d outside of the Church by making it clear that the inside is not a safe place for their particular spiritual expression. If worship both a primary method of formation and evangelism, I wonder if we are forming young people to see G-d as more interested in perfection than participation. To be certain, as a priest I am interested in honoring the different orders of ministry and how they frame our common life, but I wonder if we might revisit how we see and understand children and youth in worship from the perspective of their full membership in the body, and I wonder if we might revisit the vice-grip we have on the Spirit’s ability to speak to us in new ways from unexpected directions.

A friend recently reminded me of my time many years ago serving an inner-city mission that served a community of people many of who were homeless. The Church of the Common Ground was a space of holy disruption. We worshiped outside every week – rain or shine. Without physical walls of safety, we were open to disruptions and interruptions of all kinds. It was a physical incarnation of the blurred lines between secular and the sacred. I remember vividly one week the vicar, a partnered lesbian, was celebrating the Eucharist when a man walked by hurling homophobic and sexist epithets at her. I never asked her how that experience made her feel, but she didn’t let it stop her. The elements were consecrated and community nourished by the body and blood of Christ. Another time I remember preaching and having my sermon interrupted by a man who had a question about the tree I was standing under. I wasn’t even preaching about a tree. These interruptions didn’t inhibit the Holy. In fact, at least for me, these interruptions served to highlight the holiness that was present among us – holiness that breaks bread in storms and swirls beyond our well-worn paths.

The conversation of incorporating children and youth in worship is one that will take place in different ways in different communities, but I wonder what it might sound like if we took off “fear” and “respectability” and asked ourselves where we might experience G-d anew if we weren’t in control. What might we hear if we literally took new creation seriously in the cries of newborns, or if we allowed ourselves to play like children? What if we heard Pentecost in the babbling of a child discovering their vocal chords? What might happen if we smashed the idolatry of “perfect worship” and allowed ourselves to imperfectly worship a perfect G-d? What if we took “welcome” seriously and made children feel so welcome and so included that they fall in love with Church so deeply and could imagine themselves nowhere else but in the family of Christ?

I don’t remember who me this story, but it is a helpful reminder when I find myself taking my job as a liturgist too seriously. Whenever we offer G-d our best worship – no matter how well done it is, no matter how perfectly in-tune the choir was or wasn’t, no matter how well the homilist preached, no matter how precisely the verger orchestrated – G-d takes our worship, cuts it out, places it on the refrigerator, and says, “Look at that. Isn’t that cute?”

The very first change I made when coming to my current parish as a (then-soon-to-be) priest was with baptism. We let our children fill the font. I got the idea from a friend who did something similar in his parish. When I envisioned it, it went perfectly. In actuality it never goes that perfectly. Inevitably the children trip over each other. They squirm and giggle as they impatiently wait in line. The congregation holds their breath waiting for some unfortunate child to tumble down the chancel steps (it hasn’t happened yet). It takes too long and interrupts the flow of the liturgy. But to see the wonder in their eyes when they pour the water into the font, to hear them articulate how they “helped baptize” their baby brothers or sisters, to see the Spirit of G-d hovering over the deep makes it all worth it. I’m sure someone doesn’t like it, and that is perfectly fine. The kids do. They love it, in fact. They say so as dozens of them line up to share in the sacrament of new birth.

Perhaps the root problem lies in the reality that we have placed ourselves (our rules, our preferences, our sensibilities) at the center of worship. Nothing in all of creation is the center or focus of worship – G-d is. Each of us is called to participate in the divine drama of liturgy where G-d alone is the object of our affection. With G-d as the center the question is no longer what we prefer, but what G-d prefers. At least as Christ articulates us, G-d is desirous that all nations be drawn into communion with G-d. That is not to say that we do not offer our best. In fact, it is precisely our best that we offer because our focus is on G-d who gave G-d’s best for us. But our best must be OUR best. We are tasked with drawing as many people as we can into the risen life of Christ, even those whose way of worship may challenge our own. We have to make intentional choices in our worship knowing that we might give up some in the degree of perfection, but we are sowing seeds of participation that have the potential to grow into mighty oaks of righteousness.

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