Several months ago I posted some thoughts inspired by a little research on the history of English (primarily, though not intentionally) church architecture. I was interested in looking at the way children were or were not welcomed in worship by our predecessors. I think this is important because I have a feeling that many of the issues the church is facing today come, at least in part, from a sort of social or institutional amnesia. We’ve forgotten what it means to play, learn, converse, and therefore, worship, in a multi-generational setting.
This lack is exemplified in nothing so much as the drive to program for children and the difficulty in finding adults willing and able (whether because of schedules or lack of formation on their part) to volunteer to lead such programs.
In my first post, Worshipping as the whole body of Christ, I made the following statement: “All of this makes me wonder what our past might be able to tell us about our future of incorporating all ages in our worship.”
While several months have passed, I am no less interested in reflecting on this question, and trying to come up with some “traditioned innovations” that might help us–at my parish, St. Joseph of Arimathea–or elsewhere, to face the question of properly passing our faith on to our children (and our adults, might I add!).
In keeping with this interest, I recently picked up (or rather, downloaded, then picked up my Kindle) the book When Children Become People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity. There’s a lot of interesting information in this book, and I heartily commend it to you.
Of particular interest to the question of how, in the early Church (or let’s just say the church of the first four centuries) children participated and were nurtured in the faith, is the description of the role children played in worship.
First, Bakke indicates that children were indeed present during the service, and took part in it. They were lectors (readers of scripture), they sang the responses–with particular emphasis on the Kyrie, which in at least some settings, they sang first, followed by the adults–joined in hymns and were cantors. While many of the functions of lector, in particular, were reserved for boys, the fact of such participation is, I think, the important lesson to take. And such participation began at an early age. Justinian passed a law setting eight years old as the minimum age of a lector, for example.1
Bakke sums up children’s participation in the worship of the early church by writing the following:
From the mid-third century, and perhaps from the New Testament period onward, children received the sacraments: in a wide geographical area, they were baptized and took part in the Eucharist. This implies that they were regarded as subjects with needs of their own and with the capacity to receive the same spiritual gifts as adults. The fact that they received baptism and communion also shows that they were perceived as full members of the community. Children’s active participation went further, however. The sources tell us that they played an active part in hymn-singing, that they were cantors, and that they had a special responsibility in praying the Kyrie eleison. They also read scriptural texts in the liturgy. In other words, they were visibly present and made their own contribution to worship. 2
In looking at this list, the questions arise: in what ways could children be involved in our worship today? How can such liturgical involvement translate to a better grasp of scripture and the Christian traditions?
- “It is in any case indisputable that boys served as lectors from a very early age. This is confirmed by a decree promulgated by Justinian in 546, which laid down the minimum age of eight for those who were to assume the office of lector.153 The need to establish a minimum age may be related to the desire of ambitious parents-or (perhaps more likely) poor parents-to ensure a future career in the clergy for their sons.”
O. M. Bakke. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 3827-3829). Kindle Edition. [↩]
- O. M. Bakke. When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity (Kindle Locations 3898-3899). Kindle Edition. [↩]