Are Children Welcome at Worship?
On Easter Sunday 1997 I was asked, for the second week in a row, to remove my children from worship. Although not as silent as little adults, the children were not behaving badly. The request came from a parishioner who had, at the baptisms of those same children many months before, promised to do all in her power to support them in their life in Christ. How little we mean the promises we make to our God!
The following week, I began a search for an Anglican church community in Calgary, Alberta; where more than lip service was given to the value of children's ministry. Discouraged by the results, I expanded the search to include Lutheran, then Roman Catholic and other congregations. Subsequently, I was able to address my church's Corporation (that is, Priest and Wardens), on the subject of our ministry with children. My notes for that event are further down this page.

"Are children welcome at Worship" presents the results of my search. Churches are listed from most child-friendly Worship to least child-friendly Worship; I didn't consider any other characteristics. I couldn't visit every church I contacted, so many of the results had to be inferred from the answers and attitudes of the ministers, receptionists and volunteers who answered the phone. In other cases, I talked to church members or visited the church for worship.

If you know more about any of the churches on this list or have a different impression of them, or if you have an assessment of another church in Calgary that you would like added to this list, I'll be happy to receive your e-mail at pamela@logrus.com. I'll also gratefully accept advice.

        The Worship & Spirituality Site of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada also provides an ELCIC pastoral handout on "God's Children". The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America also offers some ideas about Children in Worship and Children Worship and Learning. And this Lutheran church of undisclosed affiliation proclaims a well-thought-out family-friendly stance (check out other pages at this site, too)
        Toddlers in Church, of course, present a special challenge. I liked what Archbishop Lazar had to say  about their squirming. With older children, by far the most common practice is partial exclusion. This can be seen as "welcome" only in contrast to total exclusion, but many churches that practice partial exclusion, are honestly striving to welcome children. (It's trivial, but I do wonder why some churches advise letting children stand on the pew and others like St. Alban's Episcopal Church Annandale absolutely forbid it.)
        "Children's church" is another choice among churches that are not prepared to integrate children completely. Its effectiveness depends greatly on the sincerity of its planners -- it should never be a euphemism for childcare. Similarly  religious instruction like "The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd"-- scheduled outside of worship time -- may have value if it is based on respect for the children and sound pedagogy. 
        Families Under Construction: Columns by Carolyn Waterbury-Tieman presents wide-ranging opinions on Children's place. 
          "Catholic Family Perspectives" also encourages families to worship together. Most Roman Catholics I talked to during my survey claimed that children are never excluded from Roman Catholic worship. However, conversations with church staff revealed that Sunday School is increasingly being offered as a lure to attract young working parents. James O'Regan speaks out strongly against that sad trend.
          Or, talk directly to other Christian parents at Parentsplace (which also offers many boards for specific faiths and denominations, as well as ecumenical and pluralist boards.) 

          Many of my experiences were confirmed by stumbling across another mother's webpage, recounting very similar experiences of her own -- and the links at the bottom of her page are well worth following.

          The Episcopal Church in the USA has taken a stand for the spiritual rights of children! Saint Edward's Episcopal, in San Jose has a good guide to children in worship, but they're so be-framed and be-java'd I can't link it directly. 

          If you can't find a community where you and your children can feel welcome, you and your children can be the Church together. Church is a community that obeys God, especially God's commandment to love one another; a community of Christians who hold children in the midst of them. (see Matthew 9v.32, Mark 10v.25 and others). For traditions, crafts, celebrations and observances that centre your home around Christ, see " Everyday Holiness". Another option we are just beginning to explore, is to worship together as a house church while maintaining your denominational traditions. Other families who are seeking the same kind of welcome may well join you to create a new community.

    One mother laughed when I told her about the parishioner who stalked down the aisle to berate me during the consecration: "That's what would happen to me if I tried going to church, though I'd like to go."
      "I tried going to church", said one mother while our children played together on the slide, "but they expect you to stay in the lobby the whole time and I thought, 'what's the point?' " I told her about Foothills Lutheran. Playgrounds are where the good news is being spread, because the people who hunger to hear it don't feel welcome in church.
    One priest told me "I've led the prayers of the people with someone hiding under my chasuble. It doesn't bother me."
      "Sometimes someone will say 'you know we have a nursery, don't you?'" said one father. "You know what they mean, and you just don't go back." In one church I visited, those were the first words said to me.
    "I always feel that, if there is a crying room, you're expected to use it", said one mother. The congregation at Foothills Lutheran Church are clearly aware of that feeling; they never mention their crying room without adding "but we hope parents will try to cope in the pew, first".
      One priest interrupted his sermon to admonish a mother who was muffling her baby's cries as she hurried out: "Don't you be doing that! It's dangerous; you could smother the wee thing. Now, it's not bothering anyone, so you just sit back down." 
        Our Lord said, "by their fruits you shall know them." The proof of whether children are welcome in worship is whether they are observed to be present in worship.

        Visits were assessed on observed practice. Telephone contacts were told "I am looking for a worship service where children are welcome" and "How do you accommodate toddlers?", and assessments inferred from the replies.

        Index based on welcome and facilities (yes=2, limited welcome=1, no=0, "expelled"=-1, "Banned"=-2; alternative facilities=2, available=1, not optional=0)" 

        "no" means that the usual practice is for children not to attend this part of the worship. "Expelled" means that children may be asked to leave. "Banned" means there is a stated policy to exclude children.

        Expulsion may range from a polite "won't you please take her to the nursury" whispered by a parishioner, to "You'll have to remove that child" proclaimed from the pulpit.

        "available" means parents may chose to use the facility or not; "not optional" means they are expected or required to use it.

        Ratings may be unjustly high: Church staff (especially clergy) tend to overstate the welcome afforded to children. Exclusion by the laity may not be apparent from a single visit.

        Ratings may be unjustly low: "Family Service" is taken to imply exclusion from other services. Banning from the Lord's Table may be a Synod policy that individual churches cannot affect. Curriculum quality is not counted.


    What do we mean by...
    By Worship, I mean the principal weekly worship of the Christian community, which by Tradition is the Service of Holy Communion and takes place on Sunday. The Service of Holy Communion comprises all five elements of Gathering the community, Ministry of the Word, Prayer, Celebration of the Eucharist, and the Dismissal; all of which are essential elements of the service. This worship is the defining act of the community, such that the congregation is often referred to as the "Eucharistic Community". It is the right and duty of every baptized person to take his or her part in the Divine Service: this is the clear guidance of scripture, of the primitive church, and of the Rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Alternative Services. 
    Worship is NOT Sunday School, Junior Church, or any other structure where persons are physically or spiritually segregated from the Eucharistic Community. While some kind of Sunday School is valuable, it is distinct from Worship and is not part of the question being asked. 
    Worship is NOT participation in one or two elements of the service and exclusion from the rest.
    By Welcome, I mean visibly present, involved as  participants in the work of the laity, and accomodated by such adaptations to the physical and intellectual structures of the worship and worship-space as are necessitated by their physical, intellectual, and emotional nature. 
    Welcome does not include grudging or conditional tolerance, "separate but equal" services where the children participate and the adults do not, or special-guest appearances on "Intergenerational Sundays". These activities have great value if children are not regularly welcome at Worship; but their mere existence implies that the church dose not meet the standard of having children visibly present, involved and accomodated at the whole of the principal weekly worship. 
    What is the issue behind Children in Worship?
      We are addressing an issue of vital importance. Before we talk about new Sunday-school curricula or crying rooms, let us be clear what the issue is.
      This is not an issue of whether Saint N- will survive into the 21st century. Without children, it will not; but that is irrelevant if the light of the Spirit here has already been quenched.

      This is not an issue of whether X- was right or wrong in ordering me out of Church with Rachel, or of how much I was hurt. X-'s overt attack was an aberration, far more hurtful to herself than to me. At that instant I was wrapped in God's grace; I am not in need of personal healing.

      This is not an issue of Anne's and Rachel's spiritual well-being, or of H-'s and J-'s, or of A-'s and C-'s, or D-'s, G-'s and R-'s. These children have devout Christian parents who will ensure their children are fed, even if it is not at Saint N-'s table. On the day of judgement, God will not care whether these children experienced Christ among Lutherans, among Pentecostals or among Anglicans.

      This is not at its core an issue of Children's Ministry, ineffective though ours is. When a programme becomes ineffective, we simply re-examine our goals and come up with a new way to meet them.

      There is the issue! What are our goals and how do we examine them? 

      Our goal must be to do God's Will, as discerned through prayer and study of Holy Scripture. Any other goal, any other standard, severs us from the Vine. Did you hear the Gospel last Sunday? Did you write the words upon your Spirit that you might speak them with your mouth and dwell on them in your heart? "Whoever does not remain in me is thrown out like a branch and dries up. John 15v6" What I am bringing before Corporation and Vestry is an urgent spiritual concern arising from our joint baptismal calling and supported unequivocably by Scripture. If you accept God's Will as our goal and Scripture as our standard, you will hear its urgency. If you do not, you will stand with the priests of Ancient Israel, whom God calls to account for their scattered flock. Jer 23v1

      This is an issue of Salvation. Not of the children I named, who are safe in God's care. But what of 1-year-old M- and 3-year-old G-, whom I met in a playground? Their mother told me "I wish I could take them to church, but someone would probably march down the aisle and throw us out." Or A- and R-, whose mother said "I tried going to church, but they expected me to stay in the lobby the whole time, and I thought, 'what's the point?'" We cannot excuse ourselves by saying, "well, we have a Sunday School and a nursury for the children." These mothers want to take their children to church, not to a nursury. As more than one mother has said, "I work five days a week; when I'm not working I want him with me." And toddlers and babies want to be with their parents, too: nursuries do not work for under-two's. "Jesus saw the crowds, and his heart was filled with pity for them, because they were harassed and distressed, like sheep without a shepherd. So he said to his disciples, 'The harvest is large, but there are few workers to gather it in. Pray to the Lord of the harvest that he will send out workers to gather in the harvest.' Matthew 9v36-38" To see "harassed and distressed", stand outside a daycare at 5:00 pm.

      This is an issue of Salvation for D- and her three children. Perhaps we don't have to change our ways for the sake of G-'s and A-'s mothers; we can tell ourselves, they aren't Anglicans and if they really wanted to go to church they'd find one somewhere. But D- was one of our "A-list" members. When she stopped attending after her eldest was born I thought judgementally, "why is it too hard to get the children to church when you manage to get them to trivialities like swimming lessons and playschool?" What I learned during Anne's toddler years is that it's not the getting here that's too hard, it's being here in the face of expressed disapproval. Many mothers just give up on church. D- told me she would be back when her children were older. They are, but she's not.

      This is an issue of Salvation for every adult in the congregation. Jesus said "If anyone causes one of these little ones to fall away, it were better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. Matthew 18v6" Children learn what they live. If they live the experience of being set apart from the Body Sunday after Sunday, they will learn to set themselves apart. Look around you! We, by our Sunday-School practices, have caused the greater part of two generations to fall away from their Lord. It hurts for a devout believer to look at her grown children and know that the sum of their commitment is the occasional Christmas service. She can shield herself by saying, "oh, well, it's not important; at least they're good people." But it is important. To say otherwise denies our baptismal covenant. God is giving us another chance in these other children. Let's stop repeating our obvious mistakes.

      Reply to the argument, that Anglican worship is characterised by good order and discipline, and that children must therefor be still and silent:

        Being Anglican is a distinct way of being Christian. It is defined by our Book of Common Prayer, which is the witness to our Tradition. If we need more guidance than Scripture, let us look first to that witness. The clear teaching of our Prayer Book is that the Church is the whole company of Christ's Catholic people militant here on earth. That's the whole company: all ages, all colours, all abilities, all social classes, and people who sing out of tune. 

        The Prayer Book provides two additional concrete instructions, on how to accomodate children. On page 530 it instructs Parents and Sponsors of a baptised child to "teach him to pray, and bring him to take his part in public worship." On page 544, it instructs the Pastor of every Parish to instruct and examine the children of his Parish after the Second Lesson at Morning or Evening Prayer.

      Reply to the argument, that the grieving, the hard-of-hearing, and those with migraine headaches need Church to be silent:
        You can find God, quiet, and solace on a mountain peak or in your prayer closet; or prayerful music on CD or in live performance at the Philharmonic; but you can't be 'at' Church unless the Church is allowed to gather. If a person 'needs' church for healing or empowerment, they 'need' the children and other disempowered members to be there being the Church. A club where some are welcome and some excluded is not the Church
      Reply to the argument, that it is only badly-behaved children who are unwelcome:
        Vestry has considered publishing a standard for behaviour upon which welcome would be contingent. Another word for 'contingent' is 'conditional, and a conditional welcome has the same value as conditional love: none whatsoever. Behaviour standards, however reasonable, will be perceived by Christ's "harrassed and distressed" flock as a foundation for judgementalism, and we will be barring our doors to those over-sensitive parents as effectively as if the warden stood across the opening to turn them away. Parents are incredibly sensitive to unintended criticism. One parent told me "Sometimes someone will say, "you know we have a nursery don't you? You know what they mean, and you just don't come back." Another told me, "I always think that if there is a crying room, you're expected to be in it." Another was mortified and left because a priest said "feel free to walk around if it will help (comfort your crying baby)". Another said "they say children are welcome, but they always add 'of course, if he get's really bad, you'll want to take him out.' Then you know you're going to have to live up to their standard of what is 'really bad'". In my search, I came across two churches, both Lutheran, who were particularly kind to paranoid parents. Foothill's Lutheran staff never mention their excellent crying room without adding "but we hope parents will try to cope in the pew first." And the staff at Emmanuel Lutheran added, "Of course, if he gets really upset,...it'll still be up to you."
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