Wiggles and Giggles at St James Church

“Our family attends the wiggles and giggles service at 9:00 o’clock on Sundays,” the young woman told me. “The liturgy is from the Book of Common Prayer, but we change it a little to make it child friendly.” I decided to skip the Sunday Swap Meet at Le Cirque de Cyclisme that had brought me to Leesburg (Virginia) and see how this classic Protestant church–St James Episcopal–is adapting worship to include young worshipers.

They have to be doing something right. I joined some 200 congregants, fifty or sixty of them pre-teens. In churches I ordinarily attend, I am surrounded by people like me in the late years of life, but on this occasion I saw only a handful my age. Most adults were parents of the children who seemed to be everywhere in the century-old house of worship. We celebrated the liturgy of word and sacrament according to Rite II of the Book of Common Prayer.

The liturgy for the day was photocopied on 11 by 17 paper, folded into six panels. The basic text of the service and concisely written instructions were printed in the folder. Scripture readings for the day and an extended list of intercessions were included on an insert. The words of the Gloria, song between the lessons, and Sanctus were printed, but references to the musical settings in the hymnal were given.

I was aware of one abridgment of the prayer book rite: two scripture lessons (epistle and gospel) were read instead of three. Hymns were familiar to me (though I am not an Episcopalian): “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” “Thy Word” (Amy Grant), “All People That on Earth Do Dwell,” and “The God of Abraham Praise.”

Two of the instructions referred to children. After the first reading: “All stand, and during the singing of the following hymn, all children are invited to process to the Fellowship Hall for Children’s Chapel. They will rejoin their parents in time for Holy Communion.” At the Communion, the leaflet instructs worshipers: “We invite everyone to come forward and participate at the time of Communion. Please know that all baptized persons of any age or denomination are welcomed and encouraged to receive the Sacrament.” The “procession” referred to above was a lively rush by children from all over the church to a side door at the front of the nave. They moved too quickly for an exact count, but at least fifty came during the swarm, and a few children remained in the pews with their families.

Music leadership was provided by organ, digital piano, guitar, and a group of six singers standing on the main level with mikes and music stands. During the fraction, the singers, referred to as the Corner Chorale, led the congregation in singing a responsive anthem. The sermon, which took nine minutes to deliver, was a warm and thoughtful presentation of compassion—God’s compassion for us and, in return, our compassion for one another. The liturgy of the word took twenty-seven minutes and the entire service was completed in just under an hour.

I noticed that the children acted exactly as they do in other churches. Some brought books or coloring materials and immediately turned to them, clearly giving no attention to the liturgy. Others, sometimes with easy coaching by their parents, sang and read the congregation’s lines in the liturgy. Most of the children, as far as I could see, went to the communion rail with older members of their families.

A comment by the mother mentioned above is important. “The service isn’t changed much but we do choose music that is a little more child-friendly than what is used in the 11:00 o’clock liturgy.” That is what I experienced: a solid service in the mainstream of the classic tradition, adapted with younger worshipers in mind. Printed materials in the church and information on its website indicate that the congregation maintains a comprehensive program for children and for adults in their child rearing years. The combination seems to be working at St. James. My hope is that this example can be encouraging to other progressive churches as they minister to families and children.

Note: I would be greatly interested in reports on other congregations which  provide child-friendly worship that is, at the same time, satisfying to adults and consistent with classic modes. (Images are downloaded from the St. James website.)

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6 Responses to Wiggles and Giggles at St James Church

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Keith,

    My son would say that the 9 minute sermon would be a blessing — even better if it was shorter. The music, though is pretty standard, hymns we might use at CWCC (and we use Thy Word as the response to the Scripture). I like the fact that Episcopalians make sure to bring the children back in for the Eucharist. Less time for the lesson, but a better lesson at the table.

  2. Keith:
    What a blessing to find a church that treats the youngest among us as persons with their own needs and ways of experiencing the holy. While many of us would immediately assume that 9 a.m. would not work for families – too early to get the kiddos ready – 200?? with about 50 kids?? A wonderful work of the Spirit.

  3. Erik Ulberg says:

    What is the classic tradition? Does classic refer to rituals that developed during a certain time period or to ones that have been practiced since the beginning of the Christian Church? What parts of an average service that occurs today do you think are timeless?

    Why read stories from the Bible that come from a different time and context, when there are equally inspiring current stories? Why not just describe modern events that embody the same virtues?

    Why do you think the greatest artists of certain eras wrote religious music, but not today, or in the past century? Are there songs with a Christian message from the past 50 years that non-Christians listen to? (I’m thinking of this in contrast to some of the great classical composers)

    • Erik, by the classic tradition, I am referring to the pattern that emerged in the early generations of the church and has continued, with variations and revisions, in Catholic and Protestant churches since then. It consists of scripture, sermon, prayers, preparation of the table with gifts, and celebration of the ceremonies with bread and wine remembering Jesus (all done with music and movement). Some time soon, I plan to begin a series of columns discussing this tradition and recommending how it can be done effectively in our time.

      • Erik (reply number 2): I just discovered the second and third paragraphs of your comment. They are especially interesting to me, and I will put my answers to those at the top of my list of columns for the future. Let me suggest a church for you to visit some Sunday: St Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. I have not been to that church, but it is often cited as an unusually interesting place in light of the very questions you raise.

  4. [...] my June columns). Although acknowledging that Bible stories may be inspiring and value-laden, the questioner implicitly faults the Bible because it comes from a different time and context. For some readers, [...]

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