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Prudence Dailey’s Commentary: “Suffer the Little Children?”

Prudence Dailey’s Commentary

‘Suffer the Little Children’?

The other day, I encountered the surprising (and, I am sure, unsubstantiated) assertion that the reason why there are few children in church, is because when they are there, people complain about the noise they make.

Immediately I was transported back over 30 years, to my early twenties. As yet unable to drive, and with no buses first thing on a Sunday morning, I had no choice but to attend the only church I could get to on foot—and it was awful. In particular, the main service—a somewhat haphazard weekly Communion service conducted according to a modern rite—was punctuated by the continual caterwauling of out-of-control toddlers. It was simply impossible to concentrate, or to pray: by the end of the proceedings, I was a nervous wreck.

After the service, I decided to have a quiet word with the Vicar. Having got used to this state of affairs, he might (I reasoned) not realise how off-putting it could be, or how it interfered with prayer; and he might consider having a quiet word with the little offenders’ parents.

Perhaps you have guessed what came next. ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me’, he responded, making it clear that I had no business complaining about the constant interruptions. He was, I am afraid, impervious to my pleas that it was not their presence, but their behaviour, that was the problem. I am ashamed to admit that, on some weeks, I simply failed to turn up, and I was relieved when I eventually moved away from the area: the price of ‘welcoming’ ill-disciplined children was making the adults feel unwelcome.

I suppose this was the result of ‘laissez-faire’ parenting, and I had rather assumed that this had gone out of fashion, what with the rise of ‘Supernanny’ and her ‘naughty step’. (For those unfamiliar with Supernanny, she is a child development expert who, for the benefit of television viewers, spends a week or so with desperate families and teaches them techniques to control their unruly offspring.) Unfortunately, however, this appears not to be the case: quite recently, I was at an induction service for a new Vicar at a nearby Parish. Throughout the service, the new incumbent’s own four-year-old child ran around the church noisily, pausing occasionally to tug at her father’s robes, while her mother looked on impassively.

Of course, it does not have to be like this. Everyone understands that young children will make a certain amount of noise, in inverse proportion to their age; but as they get older, responsible parents will help them to understand the expected norms of behaviour. Although I do not have children myself, I have two goddaughters, one now a teenager and one a university student: I am happy to say that both they and their siblings are still committed Christians and regular churchgoers. Taken to church throughout their childhood, older members of the congregation were always thrilled to see them. Their parents encouraged them to respect the stillness and formality of the service, and the occasional inevitable toddler meltdown resulted in a swift removal from the building so as not to disturb others. Last Sunday, I visited a place of worship other than the one I usually attend: when the Sunday School children re-joined the service part-way through, their presence was audible without being intrusive.

In the end, it comes down to consideration for others. Putting the needs of others before one’s own desires is a fundamental principle of the Christian faith: if children are not taught that from an early age, what exactly are they learning in Church?

Miss Dailey is a member of General Synod from Oxford Diocese.