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Mass Education

As many churches are forced by the pandemic to reconsider their Sunday School or Children’s Church, Sam Dennis asks whether the Mass is the best place for teaching the faith.

For many of us in parishes up and down the country, a major concern will be for our children’s groups that, pre-COVID, ran alongside the Liturgy of the Word during the Parish Eucharist. In my own parish, renewing these groups in recent years has helped contribute to making our congregation more welcoming to families, and has been an area of growth.

I’m sure we are not alone in finding that the space our group has used is unsuitable for social distancing, and not all our volunteers or helpers are ready to return. At the same time, social distancing means we can’t do what we normally would during our monthly all age Mass.

During the months of lockdown, and since our muted return to public worship, I have been wondering what we can learn through this experience, and how it might inform our approach to catechesis, teaching and discipleship moving forward.

Like many churches, our ‘young church’ is led by volunteers, mainly parents, and they follow the lectionary readings. Our leaders and helpers do an excellent job – especially given that a lot of the readings contain no stories, and sometimes might seem of limited applicability to children. Yet when they return to the main congregation, you can usually tell they have had a good time, and our children enjoy showing off their work, and telling us what they’ve been learning about. The children feel at home and part of the Church.

But I do wonder how far the young churches and Sunday schools that we have run either teach our children the key stories of the Bible, or inculturate deep sacramental worship. There have been times when I’ve prepared children for their First Communion when they haven’t been able to name a parable or miracle of Jesus, let alone a story from the Hebrew Bible, and the doctrine of the Real Presence always comes as a surprise.

From time to time, on Anglican Twitter, we hear people lament the decline of biblical literacy – within as well as outside the Church, even among ordinands during training. I suspect that some of this can be attributed to the way we have approached Sunday worship, as the world changes around us. The Catholic movement within the Church of England sought to restore the centrality of the Eucharist to the life of the Church, and the Parish Communion has been one of its greatest legacies, but it has unforeseen consequences.

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis gives some advice around the homily, which is telling. He writes how the homily should be seen as part of the Eucharist, “not so much a time for mediation and catechesis as a dialogue between God and his people… this context demands that preaching should guide the assembly, and the preacher, to a life-changing communion with Christ in the Eucharist.”

The Eucharist is our place for communion with God, and conversion. It is not primarily the place of teaching, or learning the story of salvation, and so many Bible stories rarely find their way into the Sunday lectionary. When I’ve asked young people and adults at Confirmation classes to put biblical stories into order, they have often struggled to. Our stories have been fragmented, even when they are half-remembered.

In the past, I suspect that this would have posed less of a problem. So many of these stories would have been taught in school, or at home, and were held by a wider Christian culture. So I don’t believe this decline can be blamed on Anglo-Catholicism, or Liberalism within the Church of England. Indeed, much of the art and imagery in our churches is testament to a lively and deep biblical imagination. Instead, I think, the fragmenting and forgetfulness of our story has more to do with how we’ve responded to the social changes of the last century.

Some of us might have been able to ignore what’s going on around us, as we look at our vibrant Sunday morning congregations. Last year, I did some research into our parish registers going back 40 years. The story they told was more complicated than a simple one of growth or decline. Over that time, with ups and downs along the way, the median number of communicants at the Parish Eucharist had increased 20%. But during the same time, Christmas communicants fell by 27%, infant baptisms by 67% and church weddings by 70%. From the more fragmentary old returns I could find there’s been a similar drop in funerals. Over that time, we’ve lost uniformed organisations, parade services and parish am-dram groups.

Many of us will have been inspired at theological college by Stanley Hauerwas’ vision of a more distinctive, less compromised Church after Christendom, and welcomed Christendom’s demise. However, we can forget how much we have relied upon its pervasive reach to communicate our sacred stories. And as Christendom crumbles, eucharistic worship has been expected to do what it was not created for – becoming the main place for Christian teaching for adults as well as children, rather than letting it be the thin place within a Christian culture where we encounter the divine, and are transformed.

Trying to fit too much into the Eucharist might also be one of the reasons our ‘Parish Communion’ Masses can take so much time, feel crowded, unbalanced or busy – as we struggle to fit in teaching, community notices and the children’s show and tell, before tea and coffee at the end!

Mindful of people’s short attention spans whilst scrolling, we’ve adapted our online content so we’ve got used to shorter online Eucharists, with shorter homilies during the lockdown. Through this time, much of our teaching has been separated from our worship – in online content that more people can access than did at our old midweek groups. Since returning to public worship, our Masses have been shorter and all age, without being ‘all age’, and our young church has gone off lectionary and online.

It’s very tempting to want to return to familiar patterns, or to feel stuck when they aren’t available to us – as if we can’t do anything until that’s possible again. Many of us are rightfully concerned by attempts to put a positive spin on this awful, disorienting time as an amazing opportunity for change or growth – especially when they seem dismissive or undermining of the traditions that root us in Christ, and the parish system that roots us in our local communities.

One of the greatest legacies of the Catholic movement within the Church of England is the spread of the Parish Communion. But, just as Jesus is not the answer to every question, so the Eucharist is not the only solution for the world we now find ourselves in. So perhaps now is also a good time for those of us who cherish the Eucharist and value its place in the heart of our worship to read the signs of the times. We are being called to find new ways to share the gospel and teach the faith – with the children who are still brought to church, the adults who still bring them, and our communities beyond.

The Rev’d Sam Dennis, Vicar of St Luke’s, Croydon Woodside

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