Child-led Communion and real participation

In this article from Childrens’ Work magazine, editor Jamie Cutteridge reflects on Greenbelt’s child-led Communion service.

This year, Greenbelt’s traditional Sunday morning Communion service was taken over by children. To be more specific, it was led by children; a load of 9-year-olds didn’t invade the stage and demand control of the microphone. It wasn’t that kind of takeover…

Only child voices spoke during the service, with one exception, 

the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, who was interviewed by the children about a passage from Matthew in lieu of a sermon. The children led the service, introduced the songs, played kazoos during worship and taking communion, they explained about the offering. Their questions to the Archbishop ranged from the genuinely interested (“why are you the archbishop?”) to reflections on the reading (“who would Jesus be angry at today?”) to the farcical (“who would win a fight between you and the Pope?”). Welby’s response to these questions was brilliant, claiming to be Archbishop because he’s got a big hat, suggesting that Jesus would get angry at church leaders and speaking as lovingly about the Pope as I’ve ever heard anyone speak about another human being.

Everyone left that morning with a smile on their face. The theme of: “One day we will live in peace and a little child will lead us” was beautiful. The voices and involvement of the children felt powerful and prophetic, they did a marvellous job and were matched by an Archbishop not willing to take himself too seriously. The sun was out. Job done.

But… and look I hate to be that guy. But there is a but… It was great (I can’t caveat this enough) but it was just a little too safe. Pretty much everything the children said was written by an adult (questions aside, and some of those felt a little bit… tweaked shall we say?). They were adults’ words in children’s mouths. And the shape of the service was familiar to those who had ever been to a Communion service: songs, readings, a talk and Communion. Children might have led the service from the front, but it didn’t feel like they had truly made decisions or genuinely shaped the service to something they wanted. Putting our words in kids’ mouths doesn’t raise their level of participation, it just raises the pitch of the delivery. It was a little bit tokenistic.

This got me thinking: what does participation truly look like? What does it mean to let kids lead? Because if we’re going to genuinely give children responsibility, it has to be more than just reading our scripts. If we’re going to learn from kids, it can’t just be by listening to their answers to our questions; we have to hold our entire structures more loosely. Yes, it’s risky. Yes, our neat ideas might get messy, our plans might get wrecked, but isn’t that much more prophetic? Out of the mouths of children and babes did not come scripts already written by adults.

If we’re not willing to hand these over, let’s at least be honest about it. Let’s admit that the idea of being led by children is genuinely terrifying, rather than placating ourselves with something halfway in between. But let’s aim for more than that. Let’s aim to genuinely let the children we work with participate. It might be chaotic. It will definitely be hard work. But if the Archbishop of Canterbury was willing to be led in his answers by children’s questions, shouldn’t we be just as willing to hand over our best-laid plans?

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