Thursday, 22 September 2011

When Family is not Family but is Still Family

A Typical English Family
It might be a British thing, or it might just be a Christian thing. It might even just be a British Christian thing, and possibly even a Christian British thing, but a thing it is and I intend fully to speak about it now. 

Liturgies, Services, Acts of Worship, Praise Sessions - or whatever label you may wish to apply, have different stylings and those stylings tell the trained observer a great deal about what to expect. 

They are also a euphemism.

A High Mass will be one of sacrament, music, vestments and choreographed ceremonial. Mattins is a non-sacramental service of hymns, readings and prayers, as distinct from Morning Prayer that is more rooted in reading and prayer (with the odd spoken song [canticle] interspersed). Evensong is likely to be in language older than your grandmother, a little singing and hymn-based mirth. Compline is not a slimming product but one of the Hours (that array of liturgies that those in the religious life did or still do throughout the day and night), typically observed in the late evening - a short and gentle act of worship rooted in Psalmody and Responsory. Get the idea? If you know the name, you know what to expect. 

Then you get the Family Service. We who provide such things want them to be regarded as accessible, family friendly (read 'not boring to kids') that is perhaps a little shorter than the normal offering. We would want you be know that the music might be a little less 'specialist' (which is to say short, punchy and not according to the four-part harmony structure so loved by church choirs). With any luck, that is the message received bu the passer-by, the seeker, the enquirer. It is a liturgical styling not without its issues, however.

If the Family Service is for the young, the un-initiated perhaps, then the Sung Eucharist must surely deserve the title 'The Grown Up Child-free Specialist Not for Beginners Service for those Who Pay Their Subs and Are on The Electoral Roll Service'. No, of course not. To my mind, every act of worship in the church's life deserves the title 'Family Service'. We are, after all, family in Christ. This is partly the reason why in many churches (though not where I have worked or worshipped, gladly), on the other Sundays when there isn't a Family Service, children are little higher that vermin - a noise curse to be chased out of the building. No dear, you belong at the Family Service. This is partly the reason why in many churches (though not where I have worked or worshipped, gladly) the "main service" is a specialist affair where strangers fear to tread, or if they do they are gathered up, hidden in a darkened room and converted to within an inch of their lives (before they get a chance to escape). 'Family Services' have become Eucharist-Lite, theologically and  qualitatively, or they have become Praise Service Dumbed Down, musically and spiritually. They are shorter in duration, because only true proper Christians can cope with a full-length service, surely. 

The thing is, children are pure theologians. As early-speaking toddlers they are wrestling with the deepest truths of life and existence. As young school-age kids they are working out what life is in the context of death. They grasp the facts and the meaning of Good Friday all the while us adults euphemise and fret. They, like us all, want to be enlivened, not patronized and condescended to. Half of me wants to ban Family Services as a curse to all liturgy. The other half wants to ban all other liturgy and work on getting Family Services right for all people. 


  1. Very interesting. In our Catholic parish, new parishioners often ask, 'Do you have a Family Mass?' The stock answer is always, 'Yes, we do; every Mass is a Family Mass' And, in fact if you come to any of the three Masses on a Sunday you will find plenty of children at all the Masses whether 'said' or 'sung' Masses.

  2. Evensong - mirth - mmmmm! (A fuse may have blown somewhere in my brain!)

    Family Services - yes! In my experience they are the creation of adults, usually of grandparent-ish age, who think they are still cool and hip (sic) enough to know what 'the yoof' want and are convinced that you can't possibly make children sit through a full grown-up service because it's just toooo boring isn't it (or even innit)?

    (These are probably kinfolk to those who truly believe that you can't expect people with children to get themselves up, dressed and organised on a Sunday in time to get to a 9.30 or 10am service.)


  3. Our Family services are lay led as with 6 villages a Priest can only preside in 3 any one Sunday morning. We have Matins led by a LLM (Reader) twice a month with a sermon, but our Church Wardens and others who lead Family worship are not expected to preach. So they use Roots materials combined with a simple liturgical form which is more like ante-communion:

    Then there are the Family Communions. Obviously with ASA's hovering around 20 and very variable ages the idea of Sunday School is out. We have Children's corners and I always involve children in an activity surmising the sermon and in liturgical roles.

    Then we have our Family Worship Communions. Here the worship is more focused on younger children as they ring the bell to call folks to worship, lay the table, sing the Peruvian Gloria, act out and learn about the Gospel reading, share their prayers and gather around the Altar in silence for the prayer of consecration. We use Forster's Simple Setting based on well known hymn tunes. It is a teaching service for adults as well!

  4. We have a number of Family Services in different churches in the Benefice. Some are lay led, others are led by Clergy. I go to them occasionally as I believe that we need the variety of worship available in the Benefice to get the most from it.

    Some real imagination goes into some of the services, which involve activities for both parents and children (and occasional interlopers like myself). I enjoy this as its good to see how innovative people can be and how many are prepared to join it.

    With a sprinkling of older people it virtually makes them an all age service.

  5. Not a comment on this post - you know my views anyway - but, since there is nowhere else to comment on your video bar, I'll just sneak this in under the wire.
    I absolutely love the Billy Joel one. Never heard of it or him before but it really got to me. Many thanks.

  6. Thanks Ray - yes a beautiful song. Billy Joel is worth a listen; very soulful New York ballady stuff, some good, some wonderful, some dross!



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