Start with ’Getting Ready’, Chris said, ‘and then I think you’ll be able to make more sense of some of your ideas and discover what you’re looking for in the forest.’ I puzzled over this. What did he mean? I thought back to our meeting the October before, down at Friends House in London, when I found myself offering to write an edition of Journeys in the Spirit, a resource for children’s meetings, on the topic of Equipping for Ministry (EfM) for children. I had two more months of the adult version to go. Only on the train heading home did I start to think this could be quite tricky. What could ministry mean for children, aged between five and twelve? I tried not to notice a rising sense that I really had no idea. But then, maybe, nobody else had either?
Over the next couple of months, I started looking around my own Local Meeting, wondering how this project might come to life. By coincidence, I was also becoming interested in fairy tales, particularly some of the original 52 stories, collected by the Brothers Grimm. Would they be able to show me anything about our children, when in meeting? And what, if anything, might they say about us adults?
In our local meeting, usually, there can be four to six children, who come to children’s meeting once a month on the third Sunday. Before Christmas, the children had created a lovely display for the wall inside the main entrance, a colourful greeting of ‘Joy and Peace’ to all who entered our meeting house. They had divided up the letters between them and created this marvellous tableau in their own homes with a little help from their parents or carers, of course. But when I remembered to take my camera, early in the New Year, the greeting had been taken down and the letters placed in a filing cabinet drawer on the third floor.
And outside the main meeting room, I found myself moving the two or three coat stands, which kept being placed in front of the children’s notice board. And I’d heard that the two members of the children’s committee, two mums, felt unsupported by our meeting. It is hard to get people to take children’s meeting. And yet, if children’s meeting was happening as well as meeting for worship, wasn’t that just the way it was?
I know the feeling. When my own children were little, I was convenor or co-convenor of children’s committee for about five and a half years. As soon as they outgrew the biscuits – what they remember most about Quaker meetings now – they stopped wanting to come. And it always felt to me, rightly or wrongly, that the adults in meeting tolerated the younger ones, never as a meeting, accepting or embracing them. Get to know them? Where are the opportunities in our meeting now for us to connect? When do we come together?
I caught the eye of a mum, going into the Quiet room one third Sunday morning with her children. She seemed on her own.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that we needed to make more time and spaces for the children to explore and discover their gifts. And that this is also a way for the adults to join with them, even if simply upholding the children’s meeting for worship, on a similar path. In ministry with the children, the adults might themselves come to grow spiritually, planting deeper Quaker roots. So many of us come to Quakers from other places and it takes time to share our stories together.
I thought what can I do to help bring more opportunities about? By writing an edition of Journeys in the Spirit, came back the instant reply? And what does this have to do the forest? I spoke to Anna, children’s committee convenor, just after New Year. ‘I’d like to take the children this month and March as well, if that’s possible and, maybe, February too but can we leave that for now? Would that be ok?’ She said that would be fine. It gave me a couple of weeks to prepare. What could I do with them for half-an-hour? Where to start? Where would I find out about the children’s ministry? It occurred to me that I could ask them.
I start the January meeting for worship for children with 30 seconds of stillness. I invite them to imagine we are sitting in a cottage by the edge of a forest. We are sitting round the same table that serves the Thursday mid-week meeting for worship. We do a go round of ‘My name is… and my favourite animal is a …’. Next, I invite them to go play in the forest and press play. Greig’s Morning suite from Peer Gynt fills the room. They hesitate, unsure of whether to stay or go, till the owl, one of the mum’s who’s with me, swoops on them and chases us out. We run and catch and return for a storytelling, ‘Thumbling’, about growing up in the forest. Each time, I read or tell this story, something else pops up for me that I hadn’t seen before. It could be about relationships between partners or children or both; about growing points and strains, not unlike we have in our meetings for worship. I ask them, ‘What was the favourite bit of the story for you?’ And Isaac said, ‘The best bit for me was when it ended.’ Humbling…umm, maybe spread the stories out more..? I ask them to gather their thoughts together quietly in readiness for going back to the main meeting for worship. I give them a hand-out on centring down to take home to read with their families at the end. Some of them have read it before we leave the room.
Afterwards, I email the children’s committee, wondering if it isn’t time for us to look again at when and for how long the children are part of the main meeting?
Oh, thank you, John Lampen, for writing ‘The Worship Kit’. Ella, a young friend at meeting, told me how good she still found it. ‘It’s just as good for adults’, she told me. Yes, worship is, just is. So, kids and adults unite in worship? So, we need to practise worship? Children’s meeting in my eyes became meeting for worship for children; a big difference and such a small step. When February’s children’s meeting comes round, I have put a copy of the red book, Quaker Faith and Practice, on the table, next to my tatty copy of Advices and Queries. I welcome the children back to the cottage again.
We start with one minute’s stillness. I read aloud the section from The Worship Kit on centring down with the red books on the table. We gather together for a round of ‘My name is…and I like to…listen to music.’ This gives rise to much chatter, hands raising to get my attention, like at school. I said, ‘No, not school…’ and Ben told us how his mum gets them to hold something, if they want to speak. And he picks up the copy of Advices and Queries, so we agree to use this.
I remind the meeting that silent ministry is just as important as spoken in a Quaker meeting for worship; and, very important, it is ok to ‘pass’ during a round, if you want. Once agreed, the children have no difficulty in maintaining our discipline.
‘What happens in meeting for worship?’ I ask them, looking at the postcard of the Peter Peri sculpture. This shows a group of friends sitting in a circle during a meeting for worship. Words pop up, like toast. Next, I read Phillip Gross’s poem, ‘Quakers of Pompeii’, about the same sculpture. It is a difficult poem, especially on first reading. ‘Just listen for a word or phrase that speaks to you,’ I encourage them. ‘Would anyone like to read it when we go downstairs?’ I ask. Lisa, a mum with me, picks up the book and reads aloud again, emphasising certain words. Then, Ben picks it up and starts reading, again out loud.
I want us to move onto doing something practical with our hands and plasticine. Can we make our own model of a meeting for worship out of clay? Well, yes, we can. I hope it might be like an Appleseed activity, working quietly, supporting one another. Ben wants to tell us what he’s made but I ask him not to. ‘Later,’ I tell him. ‘There’ll be time later. Better to leave some mystery.’ I remember the words of a friend.
There aren’t any right answers or perfect shapes. Just what comes. One of the children struggles with this and can’t get started. Pick your favourite colour and see what comes. And she does.
It also occurs to me how much simpler it is to prepare for two , three meetings than for a single one. Next month, I hope we will explore further what ministry means. One Sunday before Christmas, I had asked for help one time in the notices after meeting in working out what equipping for ministry for children meant. I hadn’t expected any response and I wasn’t disappointed…till after last Sunday’s meeting for worship when one friend asked me if I’d like some of her hand-outs on Mindfulness. Anna had also said earlier how helpful she found John Lampen’s book, particularly, the pages on centring down. ‘If only I’d come across it ten years ago!’, she told me. The same was true for me too. I’ve only discovered my own way of centring down during EfM. There must be so many like us. What if we put on a meeting for learning on centring down for adults and children? We can practise and spend more meaningful time together?
So, was Chris right? Have I started to see what equipping for ministry for children means? Yes, the children are learning things that will influence them when they are adults. The adults may spend time unlearning. What a lot we have to learn from each other! I’m sure one edition of Journeys in the Spirit cannot cover the whole sweep of this topic but it’s a beginning.
By asking the children questions about ministry, I feel my own understanding of Quakerism deepening. I ask myself the same questions…and there aren’t any right answers. It’s not like school. We can discuss, ask a question,look at it from different sides… both children and adults welcome more of this, I feel.
In the notices after meeting for worship, Ben read aloud Phillip Gross’s poem to meeting…ending with ‘Love the fidgets, love the aches.’ And Rosa stood up to read Advices and Queries 19, ‘Rejoice in the presence of children and young people in your meeting and recognise the gifts they bring…’
Later, I looked at the form on the notice board, showing the number of adults and children at meeting for worship. Eighteen adults and five children. But the doorkeeper had written a dash, indicating no one had read from A&Q. I pointed this out to him. ‘Oh, if someone read one out during the first 15 minutes, I missed it. I wasn’t there.’ ‘But someone did read one out…and it was after meeting…in the notices… He looked blankly till he remembered. ‘Rosa.’ ‘Oh, sorry, yes, I forgot!’ I’ll write it on straight away and he went and wrote 19 in the A&Q column.
Walking home a few days later, I realised that this is the only time in nearly 25 years of attending meetings for worship that I have ever heard a child read from A&Qs. So, it leads me on to ask where do we hear our children’s voices in our meeting? And how do we listen to each other? If they only come for the biscuits, how soon will it be before they too stop coming?
John Lampen, The Worship Kit
Editors, R Bailey and S Krayer, A Speaking Silence, an anthology of Quaker Poetry
Quaker Faith and Practice
Advices and Queries
Peter Peri sculpture – postcard from Woodbrooke