By Jenny Andison
When I was a young girl, my father often urged me to heed Churchill’s famous advice: “Jenny, never waste a good crisis!” Churchill’s mantra has been running around in my head during this “time of the virus” as I have wondered: what is God up to? What new opportunities and avenues for discipleship and evangelism are opening up? I am not alone in these musings.
Last week, a young cleric and I were talking on the phone, and after a longer than usual pause, he asked, “Bishop, can I tell you a secret?”
“Uh, yes, of course,” I answered, getting nervous and preparing to launch into why I would not be able keep any secrets that violated our diocesan sexual misconduct policy or the law, or that meant he was going to harm himself or others.
“I am loving this pandemic,” he gushed. “While of course I’m sad about all the pain and suffering it is causing to so many, it is also letting certain things die in the parish that need to die — not least, the spring rummage sale — and is helping me to push forward on things like small group ministry, which the parish has resisted, via Zoom.”
As the waves of relief washed over me, I commended him for this enthusiasm and ability to pivot in these challenging circumstances.
Yes, I thought, the virus is enabling some things to die quickly in parish life while simultaneously opening up other opportunities. One of the most important of these opportunities is the reclaiming of children’s faith formation by their parents at home. By and large, Anglican parents in North America for the past few generations have assumed that taking their children to Sunday School on a relatively regular basis, and then presenting them for confirmation, would produce disciples of Jesus Christ. Regardless of your views on the doctrine of prevenient grace, the wreckage of that assumption is all around us, with North American Anglicans finding ourselves in a catechetical crisis.
My own mother has served as the director of many a Sunday School, at a wide variety of churches, due to the peripatetic life of my family while I was growing up; and I hold in deep esteem her sacrificial ministry, along with the ministry of countless others who serve and have served as Sunday School teachers, sharing the good news of Jesus with children. But she would be the first to agree with me that the primary place of faith formation for children needs to be in the home, and that we have much to learn in this regard from our Jewish sisters and brothers. There is simply no substitute for the day-in and day-out reading of the stories of our salvation to our children, teaching them to pray and forgive, and helping them to see Jesus in other people. This is important, even if in real life these practices might appear more messy than idyllic: I remember that when our own three teenagers were young, the reality was that we often read Bible stories to them at dinner as a means of crowd control, to keep them at the table; prayers were often in the car while we were stuck in traffic before school drop-off; and helping them to see Jesus in other people meant that you really needed to stop hitting your sister!
Although the first Sunday School was started in England by Hannah Ball in 1769, a system of faith-based education for children is credited to Robert Raikes, who was concerned by what he saw as an increasing number of impoverished children in slums getting caught up in crime. Working with a local minister, he opened a Sunday School for the poor and orphaned in 1780, and the movement took off like wildfire, spreading rapidly around the world. While the Sunday School movement contributed positively as a means of educating indigent urban children, one unforeseen long-term consequence of the movement was that it eventually removed the passing down of the Christian faith from the hands of parents and relocated it somewhere outside of the home. This has largely had a devastating effect.
The time of the virus is giving us an opportunity to help parents reclaim their confidence to speak of the hope that is within them to their own children (1 Pet. 3:15). Admittedly, many parents of young children have found that the online learning and home-schooling that these past months have forced on them are utterly exhausting and demoralizing, but there has also been a renewed sense of how much influence parents have on their children. While parishes in the Diocese of Toronto have made valiant, creative efforts to engage children on Zoom and through live-streaming while our church buildings are closed, parishes now have an opportunity to devote time and energy to equipping and encouraging tired and discouraged parents to read the scriptures with their children, pray with them, answer their spiritual questions, and help them learn to love and serve their neighbors in need.
In 1939, in the pulpit of St. Mary’s Church in Oxford, C. S Lewis preached a sermon to students, many of whom had just been required to register for the draft. As the Second World War was beginning to take flight, Lewis reminded students that wartime was not an anomalous time in which to live: “Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If people had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.”
We must not set aside the formation of faith in our children until life gets back to “normal,” until we can simply resume the Sunday School model on its own. We must continue to work with the parents in our pews (both physical and virtual) to help them feel confident and hopeful in planting and growing faith in their children and teenagers at home. The virus has disrupted so much, so let’s not waste this good crisis, but use it to rebuild the Anglican home as a place where the truths of our faith are taught to our children at the breakfast table and the bedside (Deut. 11:19).
The Rt. Rev. Jenny Andison is suffragan bishop of the Diocese of Toronto.
For more on children’s formation and partnering with parents during the pandemic, listen to our podcast episode on this topic.