But Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them...’ And he laid his hands on them and went away. Matthew 19 vv14-15
There is no record of Jesus preaching to children. In this his practice contrasts totally with that of the church, which has for centuries focused a great deal of attention on preaching to children, making them into little church-folk who, it is no doubt hoped, will in due course grow more or less automatically into adult church-goers. I’m certain Jesus was right; we need to be as careful with what we say to children about religion as we are with what we say to them about sex.
It’s easy to see why the church as an institution puts so much effort into children. Apart from the important consideration of helping to guarantee its own institutional future, the church like every religious institution is concerned about the promulgation and enforcement of social rules. Such rules are a closely-woven fabric which includes threads of religious taboo, socialisation and conservatism, and their enforcement has traditionally owed much to the fear of divine retribution. Enabling children to relate to other people as individuals and in society is obviously crucial both to their happiness and to making it possible for society to realise its potential. But the codification of this into rules which include taboo elements and are backed by fear of everlasting retribution is deeply damaging to those subjected to them. And none can be more seriously damaged by them than children. If – as surely we must – we define child abuse as treatment which compromises the ability of a child to flourish as an adult in the world in which they will live, the church stands accused of involvement in a subtle, insidious form of child abuse. Happily, some church teaching today seems to realise this. Ancient taboos about unauthorised sexual activity are going the way of similar taboos about unauthorised foods, and fire-and-brimstone preaching about the everlasting horrors in store for taboo-breakers is less common. Good; the church seems to this extent to be catching up with Jesus of Nazareth – only to be accused of undermining morality by those who think it is the church’s job to deploy the fear of God to keep the masses in order, though that’s another story.
The danger of this kind of child abuse is not the only reason religion needs to be 18-rated. Life dishes out a great deal of frustration, disappointment, hurt and failure. Keeping going in the face of this is sometimes difficult; for more of us than the rest of us imagine, the struggle sometimes seems not to be worth the effort. One of the things that the teaching of Jesus tries to do is to encourage us when the hope of flourishing is weak, when we are down or when we are afraid of taking a life-giving risk. These are important ideas to communicate to young people, as well as everyone else. But as church-going adults have meditated on these themes, a note of resignation has crept in. There comes a time when we do need to be resigned to things, when age or misfortune finally closes off some possibilities, when we need to reinterpret the hope of flourishing. This is emphatically not a message for young people. It is especially wrong to impose upon them an inappropriate spirit of resignation with the promise that in an afterlife they will receive all the satisfactions they prematurely resigned themselves to not having in their lifetime. Ask yourself what a thoughtful child is supposed to learn from a verse such as this from Keble’s hymn New Every Morning:
The trivial round, the common task
Would furnish all we ought to ask:
Room to deny ourselves, a road
To bring us daily nearer God.
This might have been a helpful sentiment to offer to Keble’s parishioners in Hursley, stuck in their role as mid-nineteenth century agricultural labourers. But why in the modern world would we want to teach a child, by the regular singing of such a verse, not to be even moderately ambitious in their hopes for their adult life?
The experience of life, as you look back, is that things are often given to you. Things sometimes do just turn up at the right moment, and you have to be ready to accept these serendipitous gifts and make the most of them. This is a difficult point to make to young people, for you must somehow steer between the Scylla of letting them overlook serendipity and synchronicity, and the Charybdis of telling them that there is no need for them to plan and work for things they want, that all they need to do is wait for it all to be added unto them. We need to be careful how we present to young people a saying such as ‘Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ ... Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.’ How easily could it be misunderstood by a young person to enjoin indolence in the happy confidence that someone else will find you a job, solve your problems, and provide for your needs!
It’s not difficult to spot other bits of the church’s teaching whose presentation to young people needs to be handled with enormous care. For instance, it’s easy in discouraging overweening pride to teach instead that church-going youngsters are less worthy than other people; life usually corrects pride, but it rarely corrects a sense of unworth. Or the story of Samuel in the
: do children learn from it that the voice of God comes from outside, like the voice of a teacher, and consequently fail to notice what their own souls are telling them? Or sin, a much richer notion than the mere disobedience or hurting other people which all-too-easily spring to mind if you feel you really must tell children about it. What children need is not so much ‘religion’ as a rich mix of bible stories, history, folk tales, fables, the classics and contemporary stories, and the opportunity to discuss what they hear with someone who is able to provide the responses they need and are ready for, and who will not push an adult agenda. They need to be given the tools that will enable them, eventually, to make their own discoveries. That’s what good sex education does, and it’s what religious education should do too, because religion, like sex, is for grown ups. Temple