Prayer, Spirituality, Storytelling, Well-being in education

An Epiphany Celebration – for families or schools 20+C M B +23

This can be a gloomy, decorations down, back to work/school in the dark time of year. But, celebrating is GOOD for us and the more we do, the better we feel.

So, why not, as you take down the tinsel and cards, celebrate Epiphany, which is when the Magi, (wise men – or women!) actually arrive in the Christmas story?

You could: Bake an Epiphany Cake – google it and you’ll find lots of recipes.

And/Or hold a little ceremony and Chalk the Door as a house/classroom blessing and an expression of hopefulness for the year ahead?

The custom of chalking the door is an old Epiphany custom, one that is still used and is growing in popularity again.

The 20 and the 23 refer to the date, the + to the Cross of Christ and the C M B EITHER represent the traditional names of the Magi, Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar OR Christus mansionem benedicat – Christ bless this house.

So, why not…..

Celebrate Ephiphany by reading the story of the Magi from Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 2 and chalking your door or the door of a friend or relative. Teachers, you might process around your school and chalk every door you can find!

Here’s the reading…

“After Jesus’ birth, Wise Men from the east came to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the child has has been born to be king of the Jews?…..King Herod sent them to Bethlehem…The star they had seen when they were in the east went ahead of them. It finally stopped over the place where the child was….

The Wise Men went to the house. There they saw the child with his mother Mary. They bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures. They gave him gold, incense and myrrh”

Then Chalk 20 + C M B + 23 (in any colour) and say, if you wish,

God is love. The infant Christ was born as God’s love on earth. Christ dwells within each loving person, each loving act.

May God dwell in us and in this house in 2023. May She/He bless us richly and may we be God’s blessing to others. Amen

And you might talk before or after about your hopes as a family/class for 2023 – personal or as a community.

And THEN eat more gold coins……….and cake!

With thanks to Mark Earey at the Queens Foundation Birmingham for this idea.

Prayer, Spirituality

Being human, well….

Given the coverage of the Lambeth Conference in both church and secular press in recent weeks I have decided it is time to say clearly and simply that I am an ordinand (trainee priest) in the Church of England who hopes, and prays, that my church will soon end its discrimination agains LGBTQ+ people (and end discrimination on grounds of sex, class, race, disability and age, too). I hope and pray that we will welcome and respect all equally and marry same sex couples, as the Episcopal Scottish Church, the Chuch of Scotland, the Church of Wales and the Methodists in the UK have decided to do.

So I support the signatories of Bishop Michael Curry’s letter

And I was moved by Sandi Toksvig’s letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury

And I hope, very much, that he meets her and listens to her and that they become friends.

Because, most of all, I want us to learn to disagree better – without shouting at each other, walking out of the room, or going to war. I don’t, personally, think Jesus of Nazareth said ANYTHING about sexuality. What he taught us was how to tackle the difficult task of being human, well and how to challenge antihuman forces, practices and beliefs that bring death to people, rather than life.

The issue around sexuality masks a deeper issue that is really about the different ways people of faith read their holy texts. Do we read them literally, as handbooks, telling us what to do and what not to do? Or do we read them as complex products of their time and place, holy poetry, Wisdom literatures that can and do speak to us and inspire us but which also come to us from violent times and places where women, children, sexual minorities, the disabled were seen as ‘less’ than?

With other feminist theologians I want to point out that our scriptures and our creeds were written by and mostly about the actions and beliefs of powerful (straight) men and present us with male imagery for a powerful and masculine God. Our holy texts have been and still are mis-used to oppress and bring death, not life, despair and hate, not hope.

That does not mean I reject the bible or the traditions of my church but I don’t simply ‘accept’ them either. They are to be wrestled with, argued with and searched for the treasures they can and still do yield to us. I revere the bible but I don’t think it’s a simple book with a single message. It inspires and moves me, angers me and troubles me, comforts me and helps me to be human.

And as there are many voices and messages in the bible, though some are quieter than others, so I would like us as people of faith to acknowlege the value of multiple perspectives, many voices. I want us to listen to the voices of the LGBTQ+ community, of children, of women and the poor and the disabled, of minorities and learn what they can tell us of the Divine.

And I very much want Christianity to move on from its obsession with disapproving of what people do in bed and to focus much more on that difficult task of being human, well. Because that’s what I think religion is for …. to help us to be kinder to each other and to the planet and to ourselves. Simple. Albeit, not easy.

And obviously, feel free to disagree with me 🙂

And if you want a radical feminist liberation theologian and Roman Catholic nun to read try

Those nuns don’t pull their theological punches……

Prayer, Spirituality

The spiritual practice of picking up litter

Recently I have developed an alter ego. This alter ego is a litter fairy. She is fast becoming just a little bit obsessive about keeping her locality free from litter.

Now, I have always hated litter. My family will tell you that my usual liberal tendencies fly out the window in the face of people who just can’t be bothered to put their crisp packet in a bin and leave it for others. I thought prison was probably too good for such people. And I got cross about it – I even ranted about it. And yet I still DID nothing about it. It was ‘the council’s’ job – an SEP – somebody else’s problem.

But whether it has been the increased focus on climate change and our environment in the news or the drip, drip, drip of reading Richard Rohr’s Franciscan Daily Meditations from the Center for Action and Contemplation I am not sure but I now see things a little differently. I have decided that this is MY planet, MY town, MY street and I can and want to do something, just a little thing, to care for it. And that little thing is, most days and most walks, picking up the crisp packet, the chocolate wrapper and the beer can or McDonald’s cup and putting them in the nearest bin.

You could say that, from being an SEP, somebody else’s problem, I have made it MY problem. But, here’s the interesting thing, it no longer feels like a problem. Seeing picking up a crisp packet as a way of caring for our Mother Earth somehow changes the feel of it. I don’t feel angry anymore – I feel it’s an opportunity to do something, something admittedly very small – for my neighbours, for my street, for my town. And now, rather than getting angry with the folk who drop litter, it occurs to me that people who are careless probably don’t feel very cared for. People who drop litter can’t see the beauty of their environment – don’t know that it is a gift to them to be enjoyed and appreciated – and that is very, very sad. So now, when I pick up the crisp packet I also pray for my Sister or Brother Litter Dropper – that they might see a little more of God’s beautiful world and feel just a tiny bit more cared for.

So, a spiritual practice for Lent? If we all picked up three pieces of litter on every walk we took in Lent our town, our country, our city would look – and feel – more cared for. Which I would call Good News.

Book Reviews, Prayer, Spirituality, Well-being in education

Book Review: Appreciating Church

Tim Slack and Fiona Thomas

Appreciating Church: A practical appreciative inquiry resource for church communities

ISBN: 978-0-9955594-1-7

Publisher: Fiona Shaw

Appreciating Church is a handbook style resource book based on an ecumenical project of the same name. The aim of the project is to create ‘communities of practice’ – groups that foster change in positive, hopeful, inclusive and encouraging ways. Behind the project, and behind the book, is the organizational practice of Appreciative Inquiry, a practice that is based on looking for the best in people and in organizations. Developed by David Cooperrider, appreciative inquiry and, by extension, Appreciating Church start NOT from the viewpoint that organizations are problems to be solved, but that they are miracles of human organizing and ingenuity – to be appreciated.

I heard Cooperrider speak once. He is both the son and the father of Christian ministers. His belief in the potential of human goodness to bring about positive change in the world was palpable and deeply inspiring. He was perhaps the most hope filled person I have ever met. Cooperrider’s key insight is that if you go looking for problems you will find them – and you are then likely to get bogged down in them. If you ask different questions – questions about when an organization is at its best, when its people are at their best, you don’t cover over the difficulties but you do help to generate the imagination, the creativity and the energy needed to move beyond them. In every system, every church, every person – something is working, something good is happening. Appreciative inquiry seeks to find that goodness and to grow it.

Appreciating Church is a practical resource for bringing some of that hope filled appreciation into churches and church projects. It does this by bringing together a bit of theory, a lot of stories and a lot of resources to help communities see themselves and the future a little bit differently. As a church leader, I particularly liked – and will be able to quickly and easily use – the practical suggestions for introducing an appreciative approach into meetings and also its use for the discipline of spiritual journaling.

Richard Rohr describes contemplation as a way of seeing that includes recognizing and appreciating. I have worked with appreciative inquiry in the past and recognize its overlap with the contemplative path. Appreciating Church seems to me to be one more way in which the essential spiritual path of contemplation is being reinvigorated for today’s church.

Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality, Well-being and the Alexander Technique, What's On

Prayer and the Body: A Workshop

  • A workshop for people of any faith or none
  • Explore what an embodied spiritual practice might look and feel like
  • As part of the workshop we will make and share bread
  • Free workshop, donations to cost of church heating welcome

Facilitators: Jenny Fox Eades, Alexander teacher and Third Order Franciscan; Nick Eades, Qi Gong and Tai chi practitioner

Saturday 7 December 2019

St Peter’s Church, Windmill Street

Macclesfield, SK11 7HS

11am – 3pm

Wear comfortable clothes, bring a light lunch and a blanket or shawl

At the still point of the turning world, there the dance is’

Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality

Cynthia Bourgeault and Centering Prayer

Yesterday I attended a workshop at St Dunstan’s Church Liverpool on Centering Prayer, given by an Episcopal Priest, Cynthia Bourgeault. The workshop was called ‘Centering Prayer – from Performance to Gift’. And, for me, the whole day felt like being given a very important gift.

I have been attempting to practice this form of contemplative prayer since reading Cynthia’s book, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, some years ago. Yesterday’s workshop was an inspiring encouragement to keep going, with some very practical pointers to help us to do precisely that. Cynthia said she has been practising centering prayer for 40 years and that it has transformed who and how she is in the world. She spoke simply and clearly but with great power and depth. A small, loving, vital, intelligent and erudite woman she is a good advert for the results of a life-long commitment to this ancient Christian wisdom tradition.

She spoke first about the tradition of meditation, of which centering prayer is a part. She called meditation ‘a universal human sacred activity’ and a ‘universal activity of the human spirit’ which can be found in every religion and every philosophical path in some form or other. Though meditation is widely known and practised in the East, many Christians are unaware that there is an ancient tradition of Christian meditation too and the teachings of centering prayer are part of a rediscovery of the riches of this tradition.

All forms of meditation aim to still what is sometimes called the ‘monkey mind’ – the endless inner chatter that humans engage in. Many forms of meditation seek to do this by training the mind to focus on a single point – the breath is perhaps the most common of these, and mindfulness meditation is a secularised form of this. Another form is the repetition of a mantra or repeated word or phrase. In the Christian tradition, the work of John Main and the World Community for Christian Meditation encourages this single point form of meditation.

Cynthia Bourgeault describes centering prayer as rather different. Though it is a form of meditation, it is called prayer, she said, rather than meditation in order to honour the intention of the practice, which is to enter a presence that is characterised by love. And rather than focusing on a single point or word, it is based on the principle of learning to let go of each thought, to release, to consent to just being in the presence of the divine in each moment. It is about intention not attention. God, she said, is IN the silence, in the noise of the inner chatter, in the consent to let it go. Centering prayer is a way into a different way of being, a different way of perceiving reality. Each thought that arises is an opportunity to practice that letting go, that release, that consent to be in the presence of God.

The aim of centering prayer is not a deep state of bliss, or profound quiet. The subjective experience of your prayer time doesn’t really matter. The noisiest and least settled prayer times may actually teach you the most. The aim is simply to practice letting go of thoughts when they arise, gently, with kindness. It is not hard to do, she said, but it is hard to value and it is of immense value. The value of each tiny act of letting go is that it mirrors the self-emptying of God that Christians see in Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection. It is nothing more or less than the way that we learn, thought by thought, day by day, prayer time by prayer time, to ‘put on the mind of Christ’ – which is the calling of every Christian, the key to walking the ‘Jesus path’ as best we can.

And unlike secular meditation methods, like mindfulness as it is widely taught in the West at present, centering prayer is not something you do for yourself. It is not about YOU at all. It is not done in order to ‘de-stress’ – it is not ‘me time’ or about reducing your anxiety levels. It is something you offer on behalf of a suffering world. It is not about acquisition but about generosity of heart. It is about creating a space for love to be a little more present in the world, a little more often, about opening up points of eternity in the every day. It is a gift YOU give to the world.

If you want to make a start, these are the four guidelines of centering prayer. It really is VERY simple.

  1. Choose a sacred word as the symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. (At our workshop, Cynthia said this would ideally be quite a neutral word or short phrase, like ‘Wait’ or ‘Quiet’ or ‘Let be’ or ‘be still’. It doesn’t need to be a ‘holy’ word as such)
  2. Sitting comfortably and with eyes closed, settle briefly and silently introduce the sacred word as the symbol of your consent to God’s presence and action within.
  3. When you notice yourself thinking, return ever so gently to the sacred word. (You don’t repeat it the whole time, just when you notice a thought)
  4. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

Four Guidelines

Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality, Well-being and the Alexander Technique

Be Still and wait: prayer, the body and the Alexander Technique – reflections on a workshop

What I LOVE about teaching the Alexander technique in groups and workshops are the WONDERFUL people who rock up to them! AND how much I learn. And last Saturday’s workshop, Be Still and Wait: Prayer, the body and the Alexander Technique, was no exception.

A few were people I knew already – including my husband who was an extraordinarily kind, unobtrusive, supportive gofer. Mostly, they were people I didn’t know – from Manchester, from Whaley Bridge, from Wildboarclough.

I was nervous. I hadn’t run a workshop on prayer and the AT before. But mostly I was thrilled that people had come to explore and to be open – and above all to PLAY – with these most important topics. And I opened by saying that I am not an expert on either the Alexander technique nor prayer. But I am a student of both and that I was grateful for fellow students to study with.

And my first question could have generated another workshop just on its own. What, I asked, does the Alexander Technique mean to you now, in one word or short phrase? And what does prayer mean to you now, in one word or phrase?

And they said, after time for thought and discussion, that the Alexander technique means……openness, friendship, skeletons (!), balance, rootedness, awareness, posture, environment, connection, self-awareness, embodiment, harmony, alignment, poise, possibility.

Honestly, I was in awe of those responses! From people with a very little, or in some cases no, previous experience of the technique. Those who are relatively new to a discipline sometimes see it with a freshness and clarity that those who have studied for longer can miss.

And they said that prayer means ……silence, stillness, deep silence, laughter, connection, alignment, comfort, openness, harmony, uncertainty, conversation with God, environment, spiritual awareness, spiritual connection, balance, and friendship.

And we looked at our lists with some amazement, all struck by the overlap, the similarities and connections between them. And I COULD have asked – are there any words or phrases from either list that could NOT go on the other? But we had sat and talked long enough and I wanted them up and moving 🙂

So I will save that question for another workshop.

So what did we do then? Well, we did some contemplative anatomy, something I have learned from one of MY teachers, Bruce Fertman, Peaceful Body School. We looked at the fact that we have, not two arms but one arm structure and at how wide and spacious that arm structure is. And then, in threes and in silence, we made bread, softly, creatively, with love and gentleness and awareness of that spacious arm structure. It baked while we ate lunch, filling the space with a wonderful aroma and waking up the sense of smell as our morning activities had woken up our senses of touch, sight, hearing, kinaesthesia and proprioception.


And I read, after lunch, from a book by Kabir Helminski Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness and the Essential Self. And we engaged in patient, waiting, open listening and discussion. And we went for a walk, channeling our inner dinosaurs because the room was quite chilly by that time. And then we gave one another bread, the bread that we had made with love and attention and openness.

And we used our senses of touch and sight and kinaesthesia and proprioception to explore and choose and add a Christmas decoration to the Christmas tree in the church we were meeting in.

And then we said our goodbyes and said what we were taking away from our four hours together, four hours of playful exploration of the Alexander technique and prayer. And mostly what I take away is a memory of how beautiful humans are, how kind, how generous, how thoughtful, how funny. We are not all like that all the time. But we all CAN be like that, some of the time. And that, in this season of Advent, of waiting, gives me hope.


My workshop plan – a playful plan for a playful workshop. And no, for students who know me well, we DIDN’T get through a fraction of it!

Character Strengths, Prayer, Spirituality, Storytelling

St Francis, a failure and a friendship

We think of Francis as a saint. But Francis didn’t think of himself that way, I suspect saints never do. Francis saw himself as a failure and this story is the story of one of those failures. It is a story set nearly 800 years ago, in fact it will be 800 years next year. It is the story of how Francis tried and failed to stop a war.

The war was the 5th Crusade. It is worth remembering that Christians have not always been people of peace. The 5th crusade was a crusade by Christians, against Jews, Muslims and heretics and it was breaking Francis’ heart. Francis had once been a soldier, he knew what violence was and he knew what it was to be a prisoner of war. But when Francis fell in love with the Risen Christ, he fell out of love with everything that puts barriers between people, the barriers of pride, power and wealth.

And in 1219 pride and power and wealth had already killed many people. To try and end the bloodshed, Francis went first to the Christians, begging Cardinal Pelagius, the Christian commander, to end the fighting. Pelagius refused.

So then Francis, and his friend Brother Illuminatus, went to the enemy instead, to the Muslim army against whom the Christians were fighting. They went to stop the war and they went to try and change the hearts of the enemy so that they would follow the Risen Christ.

And they walked, the two of them, unarmed, through the camps of that enemy. They were captured and they were beaten. They were taken, finally, to the Muslim commander, the leader of their enemy, to Sultan Malik-al-Kamil of Egypt, an enemy leader who had offered a gold piece for the head of every Christian. And when Francis was led into the Sultan’s tent he said ‘May the Lord give you peace’. It is said that the Sultan was startled to hear a greeting so close to the traditional Muslim greeting of peace, Assalam o alaikum (as-saa-laam-muu-ah-lay-kum), Peace be upon you.

And in the meeting that followed, I am first going to tell you what Francis DIDN’T DO, because I think it’s important.  Francis did not try to deny the truths of the Muslim faith. He did not insult Islam. He did not argue or attempt to convince this enemy unbeliever that he was wrong.

What Francis respectfully did was to tell the Sultan the truth of why he was there – that he was there because of the gospel of love, that he was there because of his love for the Risen Christ, that he was there because he had been sent there by the God who IS love, And that he was there because of his love for his enemy – for Sultan Malik – al- Kamil. And the Sultan listened to this gentle, foolish, ridiculous man of God, sitting in his tent, speaking truth about love.

And then, in his turn, the Sultan told Francis, truthfully, about the faith and the prayers and the practices that HE loved.  And the gentle, foolish ridiculous man of God listened in his turn. Because that is what love does, that is what friendship does, it listens.

And then Francis left. And the war continued. And the Sultan continued to be a Muslim. Which meant that Francis had failed. He had failed to stop the war. He had failed to convert the Sultan.

But it is said that the Sultan was changed by his encounter with Francis, with the gentle, foolish follower of the Risen Christ. It is said that after meeting Francis he treated Christian prisoners with unusual and unexpected kindness and respect. And perhaps that is as much because of what Francis didn’t do, as what he said. As much because of what Francis WAS – a gentle, foolish, ridiculously loving man of God.

And it was not only the Sultan who was changed. Francis loved the fact that the Muslims prayed 5 times a day. So when he went home he asked his brothers and sisters to do the same. And though Francis refused the many rich gifts that the Sultan offered him, because Francis was not terribly interested in stuff, he did accept the gift of a horn used to call Muslims to prayer. And when he got home he used it to call Christians to prayer. Five times a day.

And perhaps he listened, too, to the beautiful Islamic tradition of the 99 names of God. Because when he got home he wrote a song, the song we are about to share, called the Praises of God. There are not 99 names in it. But then Francis was a humble man. But, if you count carefully, there are 33 names in it. 33 names of the God Francis loved, the God who sent him not to argue with his enemy but to listen and to speak truth about love and to be changed by his enemy, to become his enemy’s friend.

Francis saw himself as a failure. I think that the Sultan and the Risen Christ saw Francis as a friend.



Prayer, Silence and stillness, Spirituality

Prayer, social justice and children

A reflection inspired by the following passages….

 ‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’ Julian of Norwich

‘The best we can accomplish for posterity is to transmit unimpaired and with some increment of meaning the environment that makes it possible to maintain the habits of decent and refined life. Our individual habits are links in forming the endless chain of humanity…we can retain and transmit our own heritage only by constant remaking of our own environment’ (Dewey, 1922, p. 13)

‘People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’’ (Luke 18, 15-18)

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ (John 12, 24-25)

The Third Order: Doing things in threes

I am a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, or TSSF, which means that I try to follow Jesus Christ, after the example of St Francis and of St Clare, who was Francis’ close friend and guide. At the heart of Francis’ life there was a tension which reflects a tension many of us experience, that of the balance between inner work or contemplation and prayer and outer work or activism. This lived out tension was one of the things that attracted me to the life and example of Francis and to the Third Order. And I draw on the example of St Francis as I try to live out a commitment to social justice in my home, in my work and in my church.

An underlying theme behind the work that I do, and behind my home life and my spiritual life has always been well-being and in particular the well-being of children and young people and those who care for them. In work, home and church I try to create an environment in which people, old and young, can be well – and can experience the Divine, the source and giver of Wellness.

In the Third Order, we do things in threes. We have three aims, three pathways to achieve those aims and three key notes. Our three aims are firstly, to share the love of God in Christ as we understand that; secondly, to spread a spirit of love and harmony– or to work for social justice – and the breaking down of barriers between people; and finally to live simply. The three pathways through which we try to achieve those aims are work, study and prayer. Our three keynotes are love and joy and humility, and without these three characteristics or graces, we believe we cannot achieve our aims.

We are not all required to pursue all the aims equally or to practice all of the pathways to the same extent. Each person finds their own balance in their own particular circumstances and across our community overall we hope that we will also achieve balance.

Social justice in education: our cultural view of children

My own particular interest and focus in thinking about social justice is in the area of adult/child relationships and how children are viewed in our society.  I have worked with children and young people throughout my life and I have been a parent for 27 years. And I think that, culturally, adults in Britain have a problematic relationship with children. Both in the way that we educate children and in how we parent children our attitudes often seem to me to be characterised by injustice and by a lack of love, joy and, indeed, humility. In Britain we tend to either idolize and worship our children or demonise them. On the one hand we can worry too much about our own children, paying them excessive amounts of attention and letting them dominate our lives and thought and hopes. On the other hand, encouraged by the media, we can see them as problems, as ‘feral’ or simply as ‘terrible twos’ or ‘terrible teens’ respectively. We focus on what children lack, on what they cannot do or cannot do properly.

I think that this view of children and young people as a ‘problem’ and somehow ‘lacking’ rather than as fellow travellers and full and unique human beings can lead to unhappiness for all of us and to a lack of mutual respect.

One of the quotes above is from the philosopher of education, John Dewey, an American professor writing in the 1920s. Dewey is an interestingly radical philosopher. His views of education are still regarded as dangerous and subversive by politicians of the right and the left and he is alternately demonized and idolized by politicians and by educators, almost none of whom know anything about what he actually said.

But what he said WAS radical and I think it was profoundly influenced by a deep commitment to social justice. Two of his ideas are particularly important to me and underlie how I see children and how I have tried to parent and to work with children. One is that we never educate directly, only indirectly – we create the environment in which learning takes place. The second is that true learning is mutual – I learn from YOU as you learn from ME and we are both changed by it. And what is particularly radical about Dewey is that he applied those principles equally to children and to adults – he didn’t think that children are, so to speak, a separate species to be educated and treated in a way that is radically different to how adults should be educated or treated. So he didn’t start, as I think our education system largely starts, from a sense of what children LACK or CAN’T do, but from a sense of what they already know and can do. He thought children could think for themselves and had views and experiences worth paying attention to.

When I first worked with 4 year olds at the start of my career, as a very young teacher, I hadn’t read John Dewey. But I did have an instinctive sense that children were worth taking seriously. I very much treated my class of 4 year olds the way I would have treated a class of adult learners – though we perhaps had more fun sometimes – and the children, for the most part, behaved accordingly. Yes, sometimes, everything went pear shaped but mostly they responded to being given responsibility, trusted, listened to, treated with respect by behaving responsibly, being trustworthy, listening to me and being respectful. In other words, usually they behaved with and showed an immense maturity that all too often they are seen as incapable of showing.

I tried to create a safe, respectful, stimulating environment and took what I now realise was a relatively humble view of my own ability to directly TEACH them anything and a correspondingly high view of their ability to learn and for me to learn from them. I studied the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe with my 4 year olds when they were all watching it on TV, ignoring the horrified comments of my colleagues that ‘they wouldn’t understand it’. The comments I overheard in my play area/White Witch’s Palace showed me they understood it perfectly. And I quote, ‘If YOU don’t do as you’re told I’LL turn you into stone!’

That was one simple way I tried to put into practice what I would now see as a commitment to social justice. Later in my advisory work with schools I deliberately used democratic teaching methods with younger teachers, such as P4C, or community of enquiry. This is a dialogue based teaching method which involves respectful listening and requires the teacher to listen as much as the children. And I used oral stories and storytelling – another democratic teaching method. When we tell an oral story the meaning or interpretation of the story is not imposed on a listener, whatever their age. Rather the listener creates meaning for his or herself and interprets what they hear in the light of their own lived experiences. It is why all of our great faith teachers told stories and left us to work out what they mean – to us.

Social justice in the home: learning from our children

When I had children of my own I consciously tried to take these principles of equality and mutuality into my parenting. As a young parent I read a book by the contemplative Christian writer Henri Nouwen, who said that children were the most important guests we would ever have. And that phrase stayed with me. I was a far from perfect parent as my children would be the first to say. But I did always at least try to make the space to listen to my children, to treat them, fundamentally as equals, and to be willing to learn from them and to be changed by them. I always apologised when I got it wrong and aimed to create a hospitable, loving environment in which they could learn, in which they could be well. That willingness to be changed by my children is even more important to me now that I am aging. I find myself very deliberately asking my young adult children to challenge my thinking, particularly in the fast moving and changing arena of gender and sexuality. The temptation as we age is to cling to the past and to narrow in our thinking and it is listening to the prophetic voice of the young that can help us resist that temptation.

Children in church?

I attend an Anglican church. And it seems to me that the Church of England, by and large, tries to educate its children about the Christian faith the way that our state education system educates our young about history and chemistry. The traditional Sunday school model separates children from adults, older children from younger children and, I think, defines children by what they LACK, seeing them as potential Christians – not by what they already ARE, which is children of God with a knowledge and experience of God to share with us. There is a tendency, even in churches, to see children as a problem.

When the children go out the back and leave the main service, as they sometimes do in my own church, I feel that we are diminished as a community and I feel it as an injustice. And while the injustice is being done to both groups, since both groups suffer by it, children are not in a position to challenge or change the system and adults, at least some adults, are.

But what I propose as an alternative is NOT going to win me any friends! If the children stay IN the service, and even play a full part in that service, the children won’t necessarily thank me for it. They won’t thank me because they will have to learn to respect the adults’ needs for occasional order and quiet, to listen to stuff that may seem quite boring at times and NOT run around yelling, as they can now, or playing with the toys out the back. And that will require effort on their part. And some of the adults won’t thank me because the children will bring noise and disruption into our nice quiet ordered worship and they may perform their leadership roles, if they are given them, imperfectly. And accepting that will take effort on OUR part. The easy option is to carry on as we are.

But is the easy option, when it comes to the life of faith, the one to take? I question whether it is. I question it partly from a pragmatic view point. It is the case that a large number of children who go through that traditional ‘children out the back’ model of Sunday school give up on church when they reach their teens. And I am not surprised. While they were ‘out the back’ they were not being given responsibilities, listened to, engaged with as equals, as fully ‘children of God’ – so they were not really fully part of those churches and never learned to ‘be’ church for themselves. And if you are not a full part of a community why would you continue attending once you have the freedom to choose for yourself?

But mostly I question the wisdom of the easy path from a social justice view – we need children to be fully part of our communities of faith so that we can listen to them, learn from them, be changed by them and so that they can learn to listen to, learn from and be changed by us. And that may – it almost certainly will – be messy, disruptive and uncomfortable. As is perhaps appropriate in the life of faith. But we need our children to become, as Dewey says, links in the endless chain of humanity. Just like us. So that all of us may be well and all may be well and all manner of things may be well – for all of us. Our children may be small links, short links, but they are important links all the same.

Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. Oxford : Oxford University Press.

Dewey, J., 1922. Human nature and conduct. 2012 ed. Online Publisher: Publishing.

This post is based on a talk given on April 7th 2018 at the ‘Responsible Stewardship for our Times’ Event organised by Rumi’s Circle