Thursday, January 11, 2007


My daughter Grace was a toddler when The Sunday Paper began life. She’s now a seminary graduate and in line for ordination in the Diocese of Connecticut when her class of ordinands catches up with her (she did things in the wrong order, attending seminary first and then entering the ordination process). This year she is working as a youth minister in a suburban parish. She asked if I would let her write this season’s Editorial Page, and of course I was delighted. The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. For a parent (or teacher, or other form of mentor) this is a wonderful affirmation, and also a reminder of how much responsibility we bear: we do have an impact; we do, in actual fact, engage in “formation” of those we rear and those we teach.


by Grace Pritchard Burson

As parent volunteers tossed salad and cut up bread in the church kitchen, the rector and I went over last-minute details of the evening’s Youth Program Dinner.

“I’ve got five or ten minutes of announcements and thanks to give before we serve,” I said. “Then I’ll hand it to you to say grace.”

“We should sing the Doxology,” he replied. “Except these kids probably don’t know the Doxology. We learned it growing up. They didn’t.”

“You know,” I said, “I frequently think that until at least fourth or fifth grade, church school should involve nothing but learning hymns. OK, stories too, and artwork in response to both. But no discussion, at least none that isn’t initiated by the kids. No moral lessons. No abstract teaching. Just learning the songs and stories that are the building blocks of our faith.”

The rector was intrigued by the idea, though he knew (and I readily admitted) that it was essentially nothing more than the philosophy of Christian education my mother has been promoting since I was born, and which is encapsulated in the Beulah Land curriculum. We discussed it energetically—though briefly, since people were beginning to arrive. I was intrigued to notice that what I was advocating bore a remarkable similarity to the philosophy of secular education outlined in 1947 by the great Anglican writer Dorothy L. Sayers (better known as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels), in her essay “The Lost Tools of Learning.” [The essay is out of print, and I have used a copy available online at]

Sayers proposes a return to the Trivium—the curriculum of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric that was the method of the medieval Schools. She identifies three stages of development that she names, with her usual élan, the “Poll-Parrot”, the “Pert” and the “Poetic”.

The Poll-Parrot stage is the one in which learning by heart is easy and, on the whole, pleasurable; whereas reasoning is difficult and, on the whole, little relished. At this age, one readily memorizes the shapes and appearances of things; one likes to recite the number-plates of cars; one rejoices in the chanting of rhymes and the rumble and thunder of unintelligible polysyllables; one enjoys the mere accumulation of things. The Pert age, which follows upon this (and, naturally, overlaps it to some extent), is characterized by contradicting, answering back, liking to “catch people out” (especially one’s elders); and by the propounding of conundrums. Its nuisance-value is extremely high. ... The Poetic age is popularly known as the “difficult” age. It is self-centered; it yearns to express itself; it rather specializes in being misunderstood; it is restless and tries to achieve independence; and, with good luck and good guidance, it should show the beginnings of creativeness; a reaching out towards a synthesis of what it already knows, and a deliberate eagerness to know and do some one thing in preference to all others. Now it seems to me that the layout of the Trivium adapts itself with a singular appropriateness to these three ages: Grammar to the Poll-Parrot, Dialectic to the Pert, and Rhetoric to the Poetic age.

Sayers goes on to lay out her ideas about how the business of education should proceed—first accumulating facts, dates, multiplication tables, and so on, to provide material for the mind to work on; then learning to debate, to apply logic and reason, and to spot flaws in arguments; and finally going on to interpretation and creative work.

So when I said to the rector that the earlier years of Christian education (certainly in Episcopal churches, and arguably in all churches) should consist of nothing but stocking the children’s minds with the concrete building blocks of the Christian (and, in Episcopal churches, Anglican) traditions—what I was saying was, in essence, that we should use Sayers’ method in Sunday school. For the first eight or ten years of their lives, children memorize easily, and are happy to parrot back what they have memorized ad infinitum—as any parent subjected to endless repetitions of the latest Disney song or cookie commercial is well aware. We should take advantage of this facility, and simply give them the lore—songs, stories, and images—without demanding that they analyze it or answer questions about it. It is enough that the stories of the Bible, and translations of texts by Hilary of Poitiers, Adam of St. Victor, Martin Luther, Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and John Keble, are competing for disk space in their heads with the effluvia of consumer culture. It wouldn’t matter whether they understood the hymns or not; they would know them, and they could come to understanding as they got older. (It would, of course, be a huge help in learning the hymns to have at least one teacher who was a confident a cappella singer, so that the tunes could be well learned alongside the words before the children become cripplingly shy about singing in public.)

Of course, many fine curricula—among them Godly Play and, of course, Beulah Land—already do this, in essence; though I think the potential for hymn learning is greater than currently realized. What is particularly interesting to me—since I’m the youth minister, and responsible for sixth grade and up—is how Sayers’ method would map onto our approach to the older grades.

If the “Grammar” stage of our Christian education system was firmly in place—if children emerged from fourth or fifth grade with a thorough knowledge of the whole sweep of Bible story and with their memories stocked with the classic hymns of our tradition—the possibilities for youth ministry would be astonishing.

I sat in on a Rite-13 class on All Saints’ Sunday that involved an energetic discussion of what does and does not constitute a saint. Photocopies of “I Sing A Song of the Saints of God” and “For All the Saints” were passed around and commented on. But we ran out of time before we even got through “For All the Saints”; in the slim time we have for church school, the discussion could have been even more fruitful if all the kids had simply known those hymns already and been able to call upon them out of a common stock of lore, learned as small children and retained as they grew older. And when we did get into church, the singing of the hymn would have been that much more meaningful.

I know a DRE whose church implemented Godly Play a few years ago, and also does Journey to Adulthood. The first crop of Godly Play graduates recently passed into the J2A Rite-13 group, and my colleague says the difference is striking. They are calmer, more open to wonder and questioning, and they really know their stuff.

With the basics well in hand as the children emerge from the elementary grades, the youth minister would be able to draw on the tools of Dialectic and Rhetoric to encourage the young people to make the tradition their own.

Sayers’ “Pert” stage, corresponding roughly to middle school, would be a natural time to inquire, debate and pull apart the whole structure of Christian theology, encouraging questioning about God, humanity, free will, sin, salvation, ethics, and theodicy. And with a vast common store of raw theological data to draw on, in the form of stories, images and hymns, the teacher would feel less nervous about the choppier waters into which these discussions frequently steer. Instead of relying solely on his or her own experience and imagination to respond to—for example—a young person who is arguing stoutly that the Cross is disgusting and horrible and something no God worthy of worship would perpetrate on his Son, the teacher could point the inquirer to any number of texts to wrestle with, from the Sacrifice of Isaac to the Vexilla Regis and the Passion Chorale. No laborious reading of texts in class would be required; the stories and hymns would be well-known to all.

Then, as the young people progressed into high school and the “Poetic” stage, and began striving for originality and differentiation from their parents, the emphasis would shift to Rhetoric—approaching the tradition creatively rather than dialectically, and making it one’s own through interpretation. Some of the teenage energy frequently directed into wearing black, starting rock bands, and writing poetry, could be aimed instead at coming to one’s own theological insights and expressing them in verse, music, drama, or whatever other form came to hand. Sayers’ idea of bringing back the “thesis”—the independent presentation of work that provides the capstone to the Trivium—might manifest itself in an individual presentation before Confirmation (at a fairly late age--16 or 17).

In fact, the Journey to Adulthood curriculum, as it currently stands, is fairly well suited to this approach; it encourages questioning and debate at every stage, it acknowledges the teenager’s search for a sense of self and for separation from the family, and it lays an emphasis in the last (“YAC”) segment on coming up with one’s own statement of purpose and vocation. What it cannot provide, and strives valiantly to make up for, is the assumption that the young people come into the program with any kind of basic literacy in the stories and songs of our faith. And that assumption is legitimate—in most churches, it would be audacious to assume that sixth-graders have a working knowledge of the Bible and hymnal, and so one goal of the Rite-13 years is to provide basic Biblical and Prayer Book literacy. But by sixth and seventh grade, young people don’t want to be learning Bible stories; they want to be figuring out the adult world they are gradually awakening to.

Thus, shifting our early Sunday School instruction to a model which focused exclusively on the transmission of stories, songs and other lore, would take burdens off both the Sunday School teachers and the youth leaders. In the primary classrooms, it would remove the burden of “lesson plans” and didactic instruction; the teacher would only be responsible for knowing and passing on the content and for being willing to follow the children’s occasional inquiries wherever they might go, with no expectation that anyone will emerge with “answers” or moral lessons. The children would happily soak up the stories, characters, songs and images, take them into their artwork and imaginative play, and be enriched.

The youth leaders, in turn, would be freed of the burden of trying to impart the content at a late date and in a haphazard manner, at an age when young people want activities, discussion, and fellowship, not Bible lessons. Building on that firm foundation, they would be able to have a much richer, more nuanced and theologically informed conversation with the young people as they grappled with their faith, the world, and their place in it.

Again, the equipment to do all of this already exists, or at least is implicit, in the curricula I have mentioned, which are widely used--Godly Play, Beulah Land and Journey to Adulthood. It is merely a matter of adjusting one’s focus, away from the didactic educational model of both Sunday school and youth programs, and toward the idea that we are imparting the tradition to those whose heritage it is. With that insight, and with the unorthodox but developmentally sound ideas of a great Anglican thinker, everything else falls into place.

I spent much of my childhood sitting in Sunday school, and then in church, memorizing hymns. More than fifteen years later, those hymns are the center of my spirituality. Granted, I was an odd and cerebral child, and I’m Gretchen’s daughter. But if few of my fellow Episcopalians of my generation and younger share my experience, I think that is chiefly because it was not offered to them. I wanted the lore, and I sought it out. But our children should not have to seek it out. It is their heritage, and we should make sure they make it their own.

© 2006 by Grace Pritchard Burson. All rights reserved.

NOTES: This article refers to several curriculums which may not be familiar to all of you. Of course you could just google them, but for the record:

Godly Play developed out of Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the work of Sofia Cavalletti, an Italian educator who applied Montessori techniques to religious education. Her approach is described in The Religious Potential of the Child (2nd edition, Liturgy Training Publications, 1992) and emphasizes parables, liturgy and sacraments. She pioneered the use of manipulables (wooden, clay, or laminated-paper figures) in presenting sacred stories to children, and emphasized “helping them discover God for themselves.” Godly Play is the work of Jerome Berryman, an American who began as a Presbyterian layperson doing clinical psychological work with young children and later studied with Cavalletti. On returning to the US, he was ordained as an Episcopal priest and began adapting Cavalletti’s methods to a fuller Biblical canon. Along the way, he partnered with Sonja Stewart, a Christian Reformed religious educator who (independently, I believe) had had some of the same insights as Cavalletti, and they published Young Children and Worship (Westminster John Knox) in 1989. It is a curriculum, with story scripts, an order of worship, and patterns to make the story figures, and it allowed church educators, for the first time, to adapt Montessori techniques in the parish without attending a formal training institute. Later, Stewart and Berryman went their separate ways. Berryman brought out his own complete set of curricular materials under the name Godly Play. Young Children and Worship now has a sequel, Following Jesus, by Stewart alone. Her materials are used in many reformed churches under names such as “Children Worship and Wonder,” or “The Worship Center.” All these methodologies now operate training institutes, etc. Godly Play seems to be the one best known in Episcopal churches. See Catechesis of the Good Shepherd and Godly Play. Beulah Land grew out of The Sunday Paper, cross-fertilized by Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, Young Children and Worship, and Godly Play. It uses a feltboard rather than three-dimensional manipulables.

Journey to Adulthood (“Rite 13,” “J2A” and “YAC” [“Young Adults in the Church”]) is a comprehensive model of youth ministry originally developed in an Episcopal parish setting. Grace’s article gives a general sense of its developmental and theological underpinnings.

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At 2:32 PM, Blogger Margaret said...

Hee hee - the last comment I made on Mommy's post was "You tell 'em, sister!" and now I can say it for real.

I am irrationally amused.

At 7:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there! I am in children's ministry in Seattle. Great to see you have a blog here. I just found it randomly through Google. I've read Offering the Gospel to Children and loved it, by the way!

At 1:05 PM, Blogger Fiona said...

Hi! I'm a Christian educator, teacher of Godly Play, and the compiler and author of "My Heart Sings Out", a hymnal designed to include children more fully in worship - and be a learning source for children. It's published by Church Publishing. I think you would find much in the Teacher's Guide to support your ideas on Christian Education through song.


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