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Hallo again to all.

Soft space at St Mark's, Locust StreetWe've often had occasion to reflect on the roles and places of children in parish worship. Our travels through the Anglican world have revealed a real diversity in the things churches do for and with their youngest members—especially the under-fours who are not yet old enough for an age-appropriate catechetical programme like Godly Play or a more traditional Sunday school.

At one extreme, there are a handful of churches where one can detect an active hatred of children. In an atmosphere also often redolent with misogyny, one gets the sense that the clergy in such churches would like to find proof that Jesus never said 'Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.' One will not chance to hear here the lips of children making sweet hosannas ring.

Some much saner congregations arrange so that the youngest children are not present during the liturgy. They provide nursery care in a safe and comfortable room apart from the nave, sometimes in an undercroft or even in a separate building. This option is attractive to many parishes and to many parents. It allows music, the words of the service, the sermon and announcements to be heard without possible interruption by crying or fussing. It also gives harried parents the chance for a period of undistracted prayer and song.

At still another extreme, there are congregations in which one can see elements of what Trollope was right to call Baby Worship. There can be such a demographic tilt in the direction of young families with infants and toddlers that worshippers without their own children may feel out of place. Weeping and wailing take place in an antiphonal response format, the newborns on one side of the church taking up their laments when the other side stops. Parents themselves may lose a sense of what could be more tolerable for their young ones' attention spans, and for the generally reverent conduct of the service.

In recent years, we have noticed an attractive alternative to all of these congregational approaches: the 'soft space'. Usually created by the removal of one or two pews at the front or back of the nave, a soft space is just that—a carpeted area set aside within the church for the use of the smallest children and their parents. We've seen them in remarkably simple configurations that do no harm to the interior aesthetic of a church. They tend to be places where a small number of books or icons are kept, and where there is a basket full of soft, non-plastic toys or stuffed animals.

The soft space differs from a nursery in that it allows parents and children to continue to participate in the liturgy without leaving the church. It gives infants and toddlers an opportunity to learn to be present and comfortable during worship. It gives parents a degree of flexibility in the exercise of their own judgment about when it is right to stay in a pew or leave it in order to attend to the needs of a little one. The soft space also gives a nursing mother a measure of privacy she cannot have in a pew, and often does not have in a nursery, either—it is a much more attractive option than the narthex or the parking lot. Still more, the presence of the soft space in the nave itself means that a fussy child—once comforted or calmed or fed—can return with her or his parents to their pew without much commotion of coming and going. It can be a lovely living-out of one of our favourite verses in all of the Psalter:

Yea, the sparrow hath found her an house, and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young * even thy altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. (Ps 84:3, Coverdale)

We'd love to see the soft space—and the attitudes of parental responsibility, family togetherness, congregational integrity across ages, auditory reasonableness and holy gentleness that go along with it—flourish wide and far in Anglican Christianity. When is your church installing its own?

See you next week.

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All of us at Anglicans Online

4 May 2014

†There remains the Big Question of whether catechesis for the young should take place during and instead of worship. Some parishes solve this by having children's religious education during the Missa catechumenorum, and welcoming children into the nave at the beginning of the Missa fidelium.

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