Yesterday was dominated by a Baptism service for two babies (noting that a Baptism service is for the glory of God, like every church service) up at our biggest church. We were expecting about 160 people, a rough count gave us 180 people there, and there wasn’t a seat left in the place (except for next to the organist on his bench, but I don’t think he’d have thanked me). Two lovely families. Two families wanting to come and bring their latest additions for baptism. Our benefice operates a generous baptism policy – the incumbent was charged by a bishop long ago to “baptise promiscuously” and has done so with enthusiasm ever since.
I love baptism services. I love being able to tell a Bible story in a way that people enjoy – I generally use a Children’s Bible and wander up and down showing pictures, often adding comments to the story. I love being able to relax the parents and godparents. I love pointing out to worried parents that as long as they keep their children away from matches, there is nothing a child can do that some enterprising little darling hasn’t already done in the church before (the advantage of old churches). I love being able to use the oil, the water, the physical symbols, to point to spiritual truths. Yep, I love it. Exhausting, but love it.
And then I came home to one of the saddest Twitter conversations I think I’ve had about church. Mothers of young children, mothers of children who used to be young, talking about their reception in church, not for special services, but Sunday by Sunday. I’m not trying to be sexist here, it’s purely that there weren’t any fathers in the discussion. Mothers who want to be part of church themselves, and who want their children to grow up in a church community. Mothers who are tired, frazzled after a week of family, being wife, mother, housekeeper, gardener, often with part time or full time paid employment too. Mothers for whom time is at a premium. Mothers who, like any other Christian, need to be feed, nutured and cared for by the local church.
I used to think that I was grumpily unique in my church experience. I showed up with a small baby under my arm and was pointed to the creche. It was a rug at the back of church, separated from the church nave by glass doors. There were some “well loved” toys. And there I sat. I’d like to say I stuck it out. And I sort of did – enough to become a vaguely recognised face. By the time second child arrived I was part of the creche furniture, on the creche rota. No-one noticed that I didn’t go except when it was my rota’d week. Because bluntly, for the first year, I could play and sit more comfortably in my own home. About then, they put a loudspeaker in the baptistry so that we could hear the service. It made it slightly better. But if ever I tried to walk into the main body of the church, apart from going up to receive communion, I got the looks. The ones which said “they’d better be quiet”. And if either child uttered a sound, I would take them out again. We usually made it to the start of the first lesson.
I had a row with a PCC Member who told me “I didn’t come to church to be disturbed by your children”. The only response I could think of was “I don’t bring my children to church so that they can disturb you”.
The only solution I found was that my children got older. But I had five years of going to church because I thought I ought to be making the effort with my children (remember that Baptism service above? The parents and Godparents promise to bring up the children in the Christian community.) Five long years of feeling as though I was a pain, a disruptive influence, part of a family that was endured rather than welcomed. That same church was one of the most welcoming to adults I have encountered. It is full of caring loving people, who genuinely want to help the Kingdom of God to grow.
I don’t know what the answer is. I know that sitting right next to a determinedly screaming toddler is a hideous experience. But mostly they don’t. I know that having toddlers running up and down the aisle is horribly distracting for some. But there has to be a way of feeding mums and dads, of welcoming children to normal services (how else will they learn to participate in normal services – should they learn or should the services change? Discuss.
This subject worries me more and more. I know that I can, with the help of a wonderful sidesperson, a gifted organist, and the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit, deliver a stonkingly good baptism service in which everyone feels welcome, from great grandparents to bumps. But how can I transfer that welcome into “ordinary” church, Sunday by Sunday?