For decades, if not centuries, Christians have wrestled with the questions surrounding young people and attendance at worship. They can be a little disruptive, say some; but they are part of our community; say others. They don't want to to be here, say the permissive; it is good for them, say the rigorous. They are our future, say the anxious; they are our present, say the affirming. (The one thing all seem to agree on is that their presence serves the salutary purpose of preventing preachers from speaking with any frankness about sex, death or Santa Claus.)
But what if we just cut the Gordian knot? If we took a deep breath and tossed the little rugrats out on their diapered bums? Jane Watkins suggests that this might not be the worst thing for anybody.
If you have not yet had the pleasure, we warmly commend to your attention the novelist Phil Rickman and his books about the Rev. Merrily Watkins. Merrily is a priest in the Church of England, serving both as a village vicar and as the diocesan exorcist -- or, in modern church-speak, "minister of deliverance."
Near the beginning of our current Rickman, The Prayer of the Night Shepherd, Merrily takes up the question of children in church with her 17-year-old daughter Jane who, as she points out, was recently a child herself. Jane is Rickman's own voice in the books, a quasi-pagan distant from but respectful of her mother's faith. This is her answer:
‘Who needs kids in church, anyway? Look at it this way – kids are not supposed to drink in pubs until they’re eighteen, so pubs are slightly mysterious... therefore cool. So like, obviously, the best way to invest in the future would be to ban the little sods from the church altogether. That way, they wouldn’t turn out like me.’
‘So the monthly Family Service, with kids doing readings, the quiz...’
‘Totally crap idea, I always said that. It just makes the Church look needy and pathetic. You have to cultivate the mystery. If you don’t bring back the mystery, you’re stuffed, Mum.’It smacks of modest proposal, to be sure. But there is a kernel of truth there, too, and don't you deny it. Ban the children, and the church is a place where adults can speak freely, of adult matters. Ban the children, and the church is a place children wonder about, and long for.
But, children or no children, pagan Jane is onto the most important matter, the one that sociologists and intellectual historians sometimes call "re-enchantment." A church that is preoccupied with worldly things -- even good and important things, like care for the poor and welcoming strangers -- is at base a rational creature, comprehensible by the world on the world's terms. A church preoccupied by works of civil righteousness is just another nonprofit, with fancier costumes than most -- and less effective fundraising.
But a church that offers what some pagans call a "thin place," what others simply call temple, altar and sacrifice -- in either instance, a place where the mortal encounters the eternal, where the rational is set momentarily aside in favor of the irrational, where the numinous overwhelms the prosaic -- that is something else entirely. A place that offers the sort of savage, ecstatic, extra-rational mountaintop experience that most modern people can only find on a dance floor or a sports arena? That is something that people need, long for, and will travel far to find.
So listen to pagan Jane. Keep the kids, if you like. But above all, cultivate the mystery.