SERMON: Communion is about Relationship

Travelling with Children — reflections on children’s involvement with Eucharist. Revd Graham Low’s Sermon for 2nd Sunday in Lent, 16-March-14

In his sermon last Sunday David discussed three vital and sacramental elements on our Christian journey: Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist. In the Church of England until well into the 20th century it was usual for baptism soon after birth to be followed in the teens by confirmation and the start of Eucharistic life. While infant baptism continues today, there are now very few teenage confirmations. Instead there is a move to encourage children to begin to receive communion at 7 or 8. The reason for this is to include children in the whole of the Eucharist, from which the church draws its inspiration, its strength, and its very life in and with God.

Today I’ve been asked to say something about my experience with children and Eucharistic life. My curacy in Brighton in the early 1990s was in a suburban parish with quite a number of families with children, whose attendance tended to be sporadic. Either the children went to Sunday school and returned to the church at the end of the Eucharistic prayer, or they sang in the choir, or, if they were boys, they were servers. But the introduction of shopping and more sport on Sundays began to reduce both the frequency and regularity of their attendance. By the time my second Mothering Sunday arrived the parish was in interregnum. In response to conversations with parents of children, I took the great risk of preparing a much simpler communion service than usual, and one in which children took a prominent part throughout. The reaction from the congregation was extremely positive. The parents were particularly pleased to worship with their children rather than leaving them in Sunday school. Most of the older people liked the contrast with the usual pattern. But, as I expected, there were some militant opponents. Then a new vicar arrived and the there were no more such services.

Once I was in my own church in Crawley I was free to develop Eucharistic worship which was as accessible to children as I felt it could be. Two  points are important here. Firstly, the gospels reveal the welcome that children received in Jesus’ ministry. Secondly, we agreed that children are part of today’s church and should not be spoken of as tomorrow’s church, as many still said. The PCC was fully in favour of developing all-age Eucharistic worship. So we looked at why we should do this, and the arguments for and against it. Firstly we thought that the following groups of people might come: nuclear families with parents and young children, children from Sunday school (which, importantly, struggled to have sufficient adult leaders), the choir, single parent families, single people, older people, teenagers, younger married couples, and people from the richly diverse ethnic community, some of whom had only lived in the UK for a very short while. We thought that we should avoid the word family in the title of the service as many of the potential or actual congregation were not in a traditional family structure. Secondly, we particularly wanted to encourage children to experience Eucharistic worship fully. We recognised that children are very fast to learn: they like talking, singing and doing things together and with adults; they are very responsive to dialogue, drama, music, movement, ritual, colour, and smell. They are especially responsive to silence. They sense the numinous, sometimes far more readily than adults.

Among the arguments against all-age worship are that it can be over-simple and lack depth for adults, that single people can feel marginalised if there is a focus on families, that its content can be so free-wheeling, especially in the hands of inexperienced lay people, that it loses its Anglican identity, and that teaching may overshadow the worship.

Among the arguments in favour of all-age worship are that it can be more relaxed and appealing for those unfamiliar with Anglican liturgy or even Christian worship in general. It can easily include some of the basic teaching which people now miss in today’s schools. It provides inter-generational activity for learning, reflection and worship. Regular attenders can be refreshed by new elements in worship, such as music, drama, story-telling, preaching and teaching, and contemporary audio-visual aids. It provides a place where a variety of people can develop their skills in planning, leading and contributing to worship. And it was the place where a number of vocations to the ordained ministry were at least in part perceived.

I’d like to tell you about a typical all-age Eucharist in my last parish. About 30 minutes beforehand a group of anyone who played an instrument gathered round the grand piano with Janet for a rehearsal of the music for the day. Meanwhile children and adults began to welcome the congregation. They were all called welcomers and trained in the front-line ministry of welcome. We abandoned the terms sidesmen and sidespeople. Everything needed for and around the altar at the Eucharist was taken to the back of the church. There was a brief time of quiet at the beginning and then all youngsters – often 30 or so – came to the front, picked up an instrument to make up a band They stood near the altar as we sang the first hymn. It was not perfect musically, but it was joyful and percussive. The words were on a service sheet, and digitally projected onto a screen: after the initial shock of doing this, many people found it liberating to be looking forward at the screen rather than down at printed words. The opening greeting was followed by a sung kyrie-form confession, absolution, a sung Gloria, sometimes the Peruvian setting, with children and instruments, and the briefer alternative collect set for the day. Young children then returned to be with their families. A lively acclamation was followed by the gospel, arranged so that different groups read different parts of the text: for example a single voice might read Jesus’ words and other parts would be read by all the children, then all on the north side, then all women, and so on. The sermon included visual aids, dialogue, and points for both adults and children to discuss briefly together.

We used the brief responsorial form of the creed. The succinct intercessions were prepared in advance by various groups. Each petition was spoken by a different child or adult and followed by a sung response.

After the peace was exchanged, children were in charge of the collection while a hymn was sung. During the hymn other children brought everything needed for the Eucharist in a slightly chaotic procession. The nave altar was laid, the president put on a chasuble, and children came and stood round the altar, each holding a candle: young children were accompanied by a parent for safety’s sake. We used the responsorial Eucharistic prayers D or H, with a variety of musical settings. Children were encouraged to watch the president closely and to raise their candles as did the acolytes at the words of consecration. I was always very struck by the sense of concentrated attention, awe and reverence that children of all ages had during the Eucharistic prayer. At the end of the Eucharistic prayer they returned to their seats. There was always a brief but complete silence at this point. At the communion children came to the altar either for a blessing with a grape or a piece of bread, or, from the age of about eight, communion. During communion the music group offered either sung or instrumental music. We said the post communion prayer set for the day together. Banns and very brief highlights of the notices were projected and spoken, followed by the final hymn with the children’s band again, the blessing, the dismissal, and then noisy chatter and play with snacks and drinks in the hall.

The children who received communion did so after their parents asked for this. There was appropriate instruction and a formal welcome (we did not use the word admission, which seems to imply a barrier) to being communicants. This happened about once a year. Some of those who were critical of this said that children aged seven or eight would have an inadequate understanding of the meaning of communion. When I asked these critics what their understanding of communion was, very few could say much about what they understood. Instead they realised that communion is about a relationship which is largely beyond understanding. It is a mysterious encounter, a sign, an instrument and a foretaste, of the kingdom of the God who makes, redeems and sustains us.

On the four Saturdays before Advent, Lent, Pentecost and Harvest we had an all age workshop with five or six hours of teaching and music for the following day’s service, as well as games, cooking, a cooked lunch, and general fun. We all enjoyed it, and lots of people on the fringe began to join in.

In the course of time we realised how important it was that even young children became familiar with the shape and scope of the Eucharist before becoming communicants. It was at least as much about hearts as about heads.

We found it best to have the all-age Eucharist once a month. It was our best attended service, and it was the one service that attracted baptism families, and newcomers to the faith, to our church. It was the principal instrument of our mission.

I shall be very pleased to discuss all of this with you after this service.