Recently the Anglican church where I am vicar held our annual service at which we admit children to holy communion. Usually we have about 20-30 kids, mostly about eight years old, who go through a carefully prepared course with their parents, culminating in this important rite of passage.
This year it had added significance for me because, by chance, the books at the side of my bed of late have been about Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, and the psychoanalysis of childhood.
Now I am a rather late enthusiast for what I would have dismissed previously as psychobabble. I still find Freud too dogmatic and sex-obsessed, but what I am now discovering is how fundamentally moral much of the more pragmatic British object-relations psychoanalysis turned out to be.
Melanie Klein describes the process of growing up as a child’s increasing consciousness that he or she is not the centre of the universe. Those children who are secure in their mother’s love are better able to develop the confidence not to be envious of the good fortune of others.
The true grown-up is the person who is able to face genuine otherness with gratitude and thanksgiving. The grown-up does not need to analyse every situation with a sharp eye for how it benefits him or her.
Winnicott put it thus: “A sign of health in the mind is the ability of one individual to enter imaginatively and accurately into the thoughts and feelings and hopes and fears of another.”
This very basic narrative — and apologies to the experts — has been helping me think through what we do with our younger children in “Mother” church. The guiding theology we employ with our under-sevens is basically “Jesus loves you.” We try to model this love as a church by making sure that each child is made to feel welcome, included, and valued. Mother church does not have to be perfect, just — as Winnicott famously put it — “good enough”.
Yet, come the service of admission to communion, something changes. From here on, the message we give out is not simply focused on the children and how loved they are, but increasingly includes a call to wake up to the needs of others. As they get older, this call gets more challenging. It is called growing up.
One of the things that the Children’s Society’s Good Childhood Inquiry highlights is that children can often have a difficult time if their parents have not properly grown up.
Growing up does not always come with age. I can think of many people who are little more than moral babies, well into their 30s and 40s. Real growing up is a moral business, concerned with overcoming infantile self-obsession. It is a lesson that too many parents just have not learnt.
(c) Giles Fraser is vicar of Putney, a former philosophy lecturer and a well-know Christian commentator in the media. He is a founder of InclusiveChurch.Net
This article is adapted, with acknowledgements, from one that appeared in the Church Times.