Are we destroying our churches by how we treat the very young?

After an extremely troubled early childhood in Jamaica and Barbados, where my father had been working for one of the larger Anglican missionary societies, our large family fled back to my grandmother's house in Pulborough, Sussex. It was a large, glorious, rambling, Victorian neo-Gothic affair called The Elms, complete with orchard and croquet lawn, which naturally was pulled down without a second thought when she and the trees died at about the same time, although from different causes. A block of modern flats stands there now.

Living in Pulborough was a joyful experience, due to my grandmother, Sybil Rathbone, and her companion, Evelyn. It was a blissful interregnum in a childhood with extremes of poverty and distress – the consequences of mental illness and the repeated electroconvulsive therapy inflicted on my father in Barbados. (This is a subject that I will certainly return to in future now that, at 57, I am finally reaching a stage in life when it is possible to talk, think and write about it without simply passing out with the shock of the memory.) 

With parents leaving church along with their kids, do we need to rethink how we do Sunday school?Pixabay

One of the reasons Pulborough was a haven - literally, in fact, a salvation - was the parish church, St Mary's. Our grandmother, whose husband Reynolds had died long after suffering shell shock in the trenches during the war and spending most of his remaining years in a large shed in the garden, was one of those gloriously eccentric English women. The house was littered with antique relics of the empire. And of course, besides living in the grandest house in the village, Sybil was secretary of the local Labour Party. She was also a Sunday churchgoer traumatised, like all of us, by Honest to God which had only recently been published. She carried on going to church but I'm not sure it was ever quite the same for her after that.

So we went with her, walking every Sunday along the path to St Mary's, saying 'good morning' to everyone in their gardens on the way. And in church, while adults stayed in the nave for the service according to the Book of Common Prayer, we had catechism around a table in the parish hall. The key thing was, our parents stayed in the nave. Children longed to be confirmed so they could join the adults there.

I accept of course that these things cannot remain the same. But I am troubled by what seems to happen in so many places now.

At a recent church service I attended it was really noticeable that when the kids went to Sunday school, all their parents went with them. The church felt suddenly totally empty. Because it was almost totally empty. There was just a handful of adults, mainly in the older age bracket, left for the sermon and intercessions. What is more, they were nearly all seated at the back of the church.

Most of the kids at this church are very, very young. There are few teens. A top primary school is linked to this church.

Meanwhile, a whole lot of adults are learning how to make little advent calendars and other things out of tissue paper and sparkly bits. Church is such fun – and I wish I had a small kid so I could go and do that too as it sure beats the Anglican dirge of the modern prayer book – but is this really a good way forward for the future?

The current model of Sunday school leaves some Anglican churches bereft of adults who stay for the sermon.

I'm by no means the first person to worry about this. Tim Smith wrote on Patheos  about modern trends in Sunday school, and he foresaw a problem even when kids were being separated from parents, after modern era changes in worship patterns: 'So began a shift from kids worshipping with the big people for one hour followed by all ages attending a second hour of Sunday School, to churches creating Sunday School experiences for kids that ran concurrently with their parents' worship service. In other words, kids and parents were separated from each other, having different Sunday experiences.' Jonathan Aigner picked it up a couple of years later: 'The church needs a similar, doxological education. We need to expect kids to participate, to sit (reasonably) still for a little while (and love them graciously when they can't), to stumble through the words and sing the notes as best as they are able. Even 17th-century hymns.' 

But far from addressing the problem of separating the kids from parents for all or part of the service – something my own experience tells me actually works well when done properly – it seems some or perhaps many Anglican churches are sending the parents off to Sunday school with the kids! Possibly this is for reasons of child protection. Or maybe it is because little three-year-old Summer lets out a big wail if mummy leaves her in a room with other kids for half an hour and modern parents have yet to learn the art of delaying a child's demands for instant gratification. (Good luck at that school gate!)

So this is my solution: Just turn the whole of church into one big Sunday school.

Maybe we can rewrite some nursery rhymes. 'Jesus on the bus...' Have cookies and OJ instead of the sacrament. And get rid of those old fashioned guitars. So last century. Let the kids play the latest monster house hip hop on their baby ipads. 

Or maybe not. Actually I have no idea what the answer is. What I do know is that our family's too-short year at St Mary's, Pulborough, rooted in the Book of Common Prayer and catechism, saved my life and my soul. It helped me recover from my early years trauma and gave me the strength to survive what was to come. And I also know that, fast forward nearly half a century, and the sight of a packed, vibrant church emptying of adults and kids so early on in the service, not to return 'til the end, with the prayers and sermon heard by a mere remnant, does not fill me with hope for the future of our church. 

Ruth Gledhill is Multi-Media Editor of The Tablet and an editorial adviser to Christian Today. Find her on Twitter @ruthiegledhill