The brains behind Godly Play
Excuse the mild name-dropping I’m about to indulge in but I met Jerome Berryman last week.
To the uninitiated, he’s the man who developed the method of spiritual formation for children called Godly Play. He’s also one of the leading theologians in the children’s ministry world, and a priest to boot!
We interviewed him for the Childrenswork and he was without a doubt one of the most interesting people I’ve ever spoken with. He’s also very warm, friendly and gracious with people asking him the same questions; I guess he always gets asked, ‘Why is it so slow?’ and ‘Why do I have to look at the floor?’
He was most interesting when discussing the very heart of Godly Play and, as we talked, it became apparent to me that many of my basic assumptions were a kind of flawed and oversimplified. For example, if you asked 90% us to say what Godly Play is, we would say it was a storytelling method that allows children to explore sacred stories. But that’s not how Berryman sees it at all. For him it’s primarily about inhabiting a language not telling stories.
For Berryman, the whole basis of Godly Play is that children have an inherent awareness of God and the transcendent and Godly Play provides children with a language to express it, and begin to understand it. Everything else should be seen as a means to that end and not as the main feature.
This is quite a big jump in our understanding. I think a lot of us have moved in our thinking around children’s ministry from seeing our role as primarily about teaching about God and how to live as Christians, towards an understanding about helping children to encounter God and giving them the tools to do this throughout their lives. Berryman seemed to be talking about another step where we as children’s leaders are a step further removed. What we should be doing is providing children with the words and actions to express what is going on.
I find this a difficult step to take. The idea of trusting the child’s innate sense of God to be enough appeals to me, but I find the idea of stepping away so completely alien. By his own admission, Berryman was saying that there is no way of knowing what is going on and you are just going to have accept that and trust God and the child to be OK.
It got me thinking again: how far away dare I stand? Can I trust God and the child to play together in the space I vacate? Is my need to know if it’s working more to do with my own insecurity than my valuing of the children? Could a child grow up as a Christian without being explicitly taught how to do it? My list of questions is endless, but I was honoured to get some time with him and as I think this blog has proven, it’s going to take a long time to unpack some of the questions interviewing him left me with!
Sam Donoghue is Head of Children’s and Youth Support for the Diocese of London. He enjoys drinking coffee and baking bread.