The below is a response to an article recently posted on the “Covenant,” a project/blog of The Living Church. Many of us in The Episcopal Church acknowledge that this publication / organization is part of the conservative (ie: homophobic) branch of our denomination and articles are often cloaked in academia and theological discourse. Trigger warning (especially to my LBGTQ+ siblings): the article is written by a priest from a parish and school in Diocese of Dallas (Texas) that does not appear to be a welcoming place for all.
A parishioner shared this article with me, seeking my response as a person who has called Christian formation her vocation and profession for over 40 years in the Episcopal Church on the parish, diocesan, and church-wide level. In discerning my response, I felt it important to share with Fr. Jordan and “The Living Church” readership my thoughts in response.
My experience in the church and the academy is very different. Summarized in the Episcopal Church’s document Called to Teach and Learn, Christian formation (whom many still called Christian Education or Sunday School) is a catechetical process. We are “formed” by participation and practice of the Christian life of faith; a natural conforming and transforming process about which we (the Church) need to be intentional. We are “educated” by a process of critical reflection on participation in light of the gospel. We are “instructed” by processes by which knowledge and skills important to the Christian life of faith are acquired. In many ways our churches fail to embrace these three interrelated life-long processes, only focusing on the instruction piece for children as well as adults.
I’m not sure what was so great about the “older, better way” of passing along the faith – at least since my Baby Boomer days in Sunday School when the teacher was the “sage on the stage,” children were seen as empty vessels, and I had to memorize – not question – what well-meaning adults interpreted what God said. I believe we know what works better today. One example that comes immediately to mind is Godly Play, a method in which we engage the child in story, allowing their innate spirituality to wonder and embrace the mystery of God. Children truly “fall in love with God” in Godly Play. As a storyteller, I am not “forming” the children – God and God’s Story does that. As a child I was formed by God, surrounded by a community that loved me. How dare I assume to be the one forming (or needing to change) anyone.
Ultimately, we are only formed by God. As part of God’s creation and given free will, we can help provide a healthy, spiritual environment for children that fully welcomes and includes them in our (1) worshiping communities (leitugia), (2) allows them to accept pastoral care from us as well as giving care to us (it’s a two-way street), (3) joins in our mission to seek and serve God in all persons (diakonia), (4) learns how to apply the teachings of Jesus to everyday life (didache), and are full members of an embracing community that shows no boundaries or litmus tests (koinonia). Together we do this to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ (kerygma) in word and action in our daily lives – inside and outside the church building. Each of these areas help us (and our children) to make choices. As Lent approaches we are reminded to turn from the evil forces of our world that surround us: war, violence, greed, fortune, and fame and turn toward the ever-embracing love of God as shown in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Anyone who serves in the role of teacher or guide should know the developmental, cognitive, spiritual, and ethical stages of growth. It is the obligation of church leaders (lay and ordained) to ensure they have the training to take on these roles. There are many opportunities available for individuals who do not have an education background to increase their skills; Forma, Bexley-Seabury’s online Pathways for Baptismal Living school as well as other diocesan schools of formation, Building Faith, and Grow Christians to name a few. It would behoove parishes and dioceses to promote these resources to our leadership, and I would invite Fr. Jordan to check them out for use in his parish and school instead of models of antiquity from the Greeks and Romans.
The three proposals mentioned as an “older, better way to form children” already exist in most of the congregations I have served or advised. (1) Formation is lifelong and it is imperative that we embrace multi-generational opportunities in our congregations. (2) Our desires should be toward God above all else. All people are worthy of respect and honor because we are made in the image of God. (3) Anthropomorphically, humans are ritualistic. Yes, our children need to be in worship – it is where we hear the story of God and God’s people and are fed to go forth into the world to bring about God’s shalom. Shame on those who continue to relegate children to the nursery or basement during the Holy Eucharist.
I have always understood that anthropology is the study of what makes us human. As a Christian, my faith informs what makes me fully human, as if I’d be anything other than full in God’s eyes. According to the Book of Common Prayer (845), we are part of God’s creation, made in the image of God. It means we are free to make choices: to love, to create, to reason, and to live in harmony with creation and with God. No matter our race, gender, ethnicity, age, or abilities we are made in God’s image and fully loved for who are, each uniquely made (Psalm 139:13-14). I do not believe it is a coincidence that “The Living Church” chose to publish this article on their Covenant blog on the same day that the governor of Texas put many of our human siblings “under the bus.”
My hope is that Part 2 of this commentary disassociates itself from the harmful rhetoric implied throughout this piece. It is a far cry from the teaching of Christ and our Baptismal Covenant that acknowledges all are God’s children, fully loved and uniquely created.
I commend to “The Living Church” readership the following documents:
- The Children’s Charter for the Church
- Called to Teach and Learn
- The Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation