Theology, COVID-19 and children
Alex Taylor from the Children and Youth Ministry Support team reflects on the content of a popular podcast episode talking about church during the COVID-19 crisis.
On Maundy Thursday, the GodPod team, a podcast from the St Paul’s Theological Centre, recorded a special episode with the Bishop of London, Sarah Mullally, to discuss theological and ethical questions that have been raised by the coronavirus and its impact.
The wide-ranging conversation between Bishop Sarah, Bishop of Kensington Graham Tomlin and Jane Williams, assistant dean of St Mellitus College, took in several areas of thought such as “Why did God let this happen?” and “Is online church, church?” But what do these topics have to say to children and families? How do children engage with these questions? We gave it some thought and explored some of the major themes in the light of working with children.
Why did God let this happen?
With life so disrupted and children in a very different place to where they would normally be, children might be wondering what is happening. Add into that the loss of contact with friends and wider family members, the cancellation of parties, trips and celebrations and the very real danger of loss of life, this time is very confusing for everyone. It leads children to the question: if God loves us, why did he let this virus happen? And it’s a question that’s very difficult to answer.
In the podcast, Jane Williams reminded us that Jesus didn’t explain suffering and God ‘allowing’ it to happen. Rather he took part in it. He becomes a victim and is ‘done to’. Although it’s tricky to answer the question of why God might have allowed this to happen, we can help children (and ourselves) find comfort in the fact that Jesus knows what it means to suffer. Both mentally and physically he suffered on the cross.
It’s OK for us as children’s ministers, or as parents or carers, to say that we don’t know. Indeed, to say that we don’t know is much better for children to hear than to dismiss a question or come up with an explanation on the spur of the moment which may not be true. If you can, try to think about this question together. It might be helpful to explore passages of lament in the Bible.
Lament is a major theme in the Bible, but it can be one we steer clear of with children, as it might bring up feelings and situations we’d rather not face. And, as these passages are not narrative in genre, we can struggle with helping children access it. However, passages in Psalms, Job, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and many of the prophets express the range of emotions that children are feeling at this moment. Exploring these can help children articulate these feelings; often children have then impression that they can’t complain, lament or even shout at God. This is surely a good time to help children be honest with themselves and God.
Loss of control
Many parents and carers will have experienced a loss of control like never before. They might have been furloughed or lost their jobs. They can only go outside once a day and are faced with home-schooling their children. Children have little control over their lives in ‘normal’ times, so these days might not be so different, but they will sense the difficulties their parents or carers are facing and may be scared by the fact that those upon whom they depend seem so uncertain and afraid. As children’s and families’ workers, clergy and the wider church congregation, we should seek to support parents and carers in these times and provide help for those who are struggling. While it can be tempting to try and shield children from the anxiety, they can pick up on the unease and distress, sometimes internalising it and taking the blame for it upon themselves. We should be there to help parents and carers talk with their children about what is going on.
Despite times being dark, there is hope. As the great theologian, Tom Hanks (OK, he’s not that much of a theologian) said on 5Live’s Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review: “This too shall pass.” Nothing lasts for ever and there will be an end to this crisis. “Faith helps us to put this in the broader context,” said Bishop Graham. The Bible is full of hope. There are dark times, but God cares for us through those – see Psalm 23 or the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19 to mention just two examples. And while we don’t know how long this will last, one day this will be different. In her broadcast on 5th April, the Queen said, “We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again.”
Children might wonder why they can’t do the things they usually do or want to do – go to the playground, visit their grandparents or shop for new toys. And we as adults can feel the same – would it be so terrible if we went to a friend’s house? We need to consider others over what we would like to be doing. Our actions have an impact and we might have to modify our lifestyle for the good others. Bishop Sarah talked about how self-reflection can help develop a theological and ethical framework. If something makes me happy, is that enough justification for me doing it? This kind of thinking can broaden children’s horizons beyond their own reality and help them to consider how others are experiencing the lockdown.
How do we respond?
Such self-reflection can lead on to how do we respond. The virus disproportionately is affecting those least able to cope. Our most pro-active response can be that we should follow the government’s advice and stay at home. But we can also encourage children and families to look beyond that – how can they help those around them? What can they do to support those who are struggling in different ways? This could include contacting lonely neighbours on the phone or by letter, shopping for the elderly or vulnerable or clapping for carers. How do we treat others in this difficult time?
Is this church or not?
As many churches move their services from physical spaces to online spaces, the podcast raised the question of whether this is ‘church’. As both Jane and Bishop Sarah raised, there is a call for us to come together and break bread, to be a community of gathered worshippers. However, Bishop Graham asked if we could be exploring another dimension of church. For children, the chance to gather together is key for both faith as well as social development, but what could we take from this season as we return to meeting together? Adding this online element to the ministries that we undertake could enable us to reach so many more people in our communities – the housebound, the disengaged, those struggling with childcare.
For curated, practical resources and access to online gatherings for those working with children and youth during the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the children and youth ministry support page.
Alex Taylor is part of the children's and youth team at the Diocese of London. He is an experienced children's and youth worker and writer.
Read more from Alex Taylor