A reflection inspired by the following passages….
‘All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’ Julian of Norwich
‘The best we can accomplish for posterity is to transmit unimpaired and with some increment of meaning the environment that makes it possible to maintain the habits of decent and refined life. Our individual habits are links in forming the endless chain of humanity…we can retain and transmit our own heritage only by constant remaking of our own environment’ (Dewey, 1922, p. 13)
‘People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’’ (Luke 18, 15-18)
‘Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.’ (John 12, 24-25)
The Third Order: Doing things in threes
I am a member of the Third Order of the Society of St Francis, or TSSF, which means that I try to follow Jesus Christ, after the example of St Francis and of St Clare, who was Francis’ close friend and guide. At the heart of Francis’ life there was a tension which reflects a tension many of us experience, that of the balance between inner work or contemplation and prayer and outer work or activism. This lived out tension was one of the things that attracted me to the life and example of Francis and to the Third Order. And I draw on the example of St Francis as I try to live out a commitment to social justice in my home, in my work and in my church.
An underlying theme behind the work that I do, and behind my home life and my spiritual life has always been well-being and in particular the well-being of children and young people and those who care for them. In work, home and church I try to create an environment in which people, old and young, can be well – and can experience the Divine, the source and giver of Wellness.
In the Third Order, we do things in threes. We have three aims, three pathways to achieve those aims and three key notes. Our three aims are firstly, to share the love of God in Christ as we understand that; secondly, to spread a spirit of love and harmony– or to work for social justice – and the breaking down of barriers between people; and finally to live simply. The three pathways through which we try to achieve those aims are work, study and prayer. Our three keynotes are love and joy and humility, and without these three characteristics or graces, we believe we cannot achieve our aims.
We are not all required to pursue all the aims equally or to practice all of the pathways to the same extent. Each person finds their own balance in their own particular circumstances and across our community overall we hope that we will also achieve balance.
Social justice in education: our cultural view of children
My own particular interest and focus in thinking about social justice is in the area of adult/child relationships and how children are viewed in our society. I have worked with children and young people throughout my life and I have been a parent for 27 years. And I think that, culturally, adults in Britain have a problematic relationship with children. Both in the way that we educate children and in how we parent children our attitudes often seem to me to be characterised by injustice and by a lack of love, joy and, indeed, humility. In Britain we tend to either idolize and worship our children or demonise them. On the one hand we can worry too much about our own children, paying them excessive amounts of attention and letting them dominate our lives and thought and hopes. On the other hand, encouraged by the media, we can see them as problems, as ‘feral’ or simply as ‘terrible twos’ or ‘terrible teens’ respectively. We focus on what children lack, on what they cannot do or cannot do properly.
I think that this view of children and young people as a ‘problem’ and somehow ‘lacking’ rather than as fellow travellers and full and unique human beings can lead to unhappiness for all of us and to a lack of mutual respect.
One of the quotes above is from the philosopher of education, John Dewey, an American professor writing in the 1920s. Dewey is an interestingly radical philosopher. His views of education are still regarded as dangerous and subversive by politicians of the right and the left and he is alternately demonized and idolized by politicians and by educators, almost none of whom know anything about what he actually said.
But what he said WAS radical and I think it was profoundly influenced by a deep commitment to social justice. Two of his ideas are particularly important to me and underlie how I see children and how I have tried to parent and to work with children. One is that we never educate directly, only indirectly – we create the environment in which learning takes place. The second is that true learning is mutual – I learn from YOU as you learn from ME and we are both changed by it. And what is particularly radical about Dewey is that he applied those principles equally to children and to adults – he didn’t think that children are, so to speak, a separate species to be educated and treated in a way that is radically different to how adults should be educated or treated. So he didn’t start, as I think our education system largely starts, from a sense of what children LACK or CAN’T do, but from a sense of what they already know and can do. He thought children could think for themselves and had views and experiences worth paying attention to.
When I first worked with 4 year olds at the start of my career, as a very young teacher, I hadn’t read John Dewey. But I did have an instinctive sense that children were worth taking seriously. I very much treated my class of 4 year olds the way I would have treated a class of adult learners – though we perhaps had more fun sometimes – and the children, for the most part, behaved accordingly. Yes, sometimes, everything went pear shaped but mostly they responded to being given responsibility, trusted, listened to, treated with respect by behaving responsibly, being trustworthy, listening to me and being respectful. In other words, usually they behaved with and showed an immense maturity that all too often they are seen as incapable of showing.
I tried to create a safe, respectful, stimulating environment and took what I now realise was a relatively humble view of my own ability to directly TEACH them anything and a correspondingly high view of their ability to learn and for me to learn from them. I studied the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe with my 4 year olds when they were all watching it on TV, ignoring the horrified comments of my colleagues that ‘they wouldn’t understand it’. The comments I overheard in my play area/White Witch’s Palace showed me they understood it perfectly. And I quote, ‘If YOU don’t do as you’re told I’LL turn you into stone!’
That was one simple way I tried to put into practice what I would now see as a commitment to social justice. Later in my advisory work with schools I deliberately used democratic teaching methods with younger teachers, such as P4C, or community of enquiry. This is a dialogue based teaching method which involves respectful listening and requires the teacher to listen as much as the children. And I used oral stories and storytelling – another democratic teaching method. When we tell an oral story the meaning or interpretation of the story is not imposed on a listener, whatever their age. Rather the listener creates meaning for his or herself and interprets what they hear in the light of their own lived experiences. It is why all of our great faith teachers told stories and left us to work out what they mean – to us.
Social justice in the home: learning from our children
When I had children of my own I consciously tried to take these principles of equality and mutuality into my parenting. As a young parent I read a book by the contemplative Christian writer Henri Nouwen, who said that children were the most important guests we would ever have. And that phrase stayed with me. I was a far from perfect parent as my children would be the first to say. But I did always at least try to make the space to listen to my children, to treat them, fundamentally as equals, and to be willing to learn from them and to be changed by them. I always apologised when I got it wrong and aimed to create a hospitable, loving environment in which they could learn, in which they could be well. That willingness to be changed by my children is even more important to me now that I am aging. I find myself very deliberately asking my young adult children to challenge my thinking, particularly in the fast moving and changing arena of gender and sexuality. The temptation as we age is to cling to the past and to narrow in our thinking and it is listening to the prophetic voice of the young that can help us resist that temptation.
Children in church?
I attend an Anglican church. And it seems to me that the Church of England, by and large, tries to educate its children about the Christian faith the way that our state education system educates our young about history and chemistry. The traditional Sunday school model separates children from adults, older children from younger children and, I think, defines children by what they LACK, seeing them as potential Christians – not by what they already ARE, which is children of God with a knowledge and experience of God to share with us. There is a tendency, even in churches, to see children as a problem.
When the children go out the back and leave the main service, as they sometimes do in my own church, I feel that we are diminished as a community and I feel it as an injustice. And while the injustice is being done to both groups, since both groups suffer by it, children are not in a position to challenge or change the system and adults, at least some adults, are.
But what I propose as an alternative is NOT going to win me any friends! If the children stay IN the service, and even play a full part in that service, the children won’t necessarily thank me for it. They won’t thank me because they will have to learn to respect the adults’ needs for occasional order and quiet, to listen to stuff that may seem quite boring at times and NOT run around yelling, as they can now, or playing with the toys out the back. And that will require effort on their part. And some of the adults won’t thank me because the children will bring noise and disruption into our nice quiet ordered worship and they may perform their leadership roles, if they are given them, imperfectly. And accepting that will take effort on OUR part. The easy option is to carry on as we are.
But is the easy option, when it comes to the life of faith, the one to take? I question whether it is. I question it partly from a pragmatic view point. It is the case that a large number of children who go through that traditional ‘children out the back’ model of Sunday school give up on church when they reach their teens. And I am not surprised. While they were ‘out the back’ they were not being given responsibilities, listened to, engaged with as equals, as fully ‘children of God’ – so they were not really fully part of those churches and never learned to ‘be’ church for themselves. And if you are not a full part of a community why would you continue attending once you have the freedom to choose for yourself?
But mostly I question the wisdom of the easy path from a social justice view – we need children to be fully part of our communities of faith so that we can listen to them, learn from them, be changed by them and so that they can learn to listen to, learn from and be changed by us. And that may – it almost certainly will – be messy, disruptive and uncomfortable. As is perhaps appropriate in the life of faith. But we need our children to become, as Dewey says, links in the endless chain of humanity. Just like us. So that all of us may be well and all may be well and all manner of things may be well – for all of us. Our children may be small links, short links, but they are important links all the same.
Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
Dewey, J., 1922. Human nature and conduct. 2012 ed. Online Publisher: Digireads.com Publishing.
This post is based on a talk given on April 7th 2018 at the ‘Responsible Stewardship for our Times’ Event organised by Rumi’s Circle