The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Children and the Catechism
by the Rev. Wilfrid Richmond
Parents' National Educational Union Seventh Annual Conference
Tuesday, October 27th, at 10.30 a.m.
I remember once hearing a great architect say that there were two subjects on which an amateur always thought that he knew as much as an expert—architecture and theology. And I remember thinking at the time, and I have often thought since, that a third subject might be added to the list—education. Well, there is a sense in which we are all experts in all three subjects. If we don't know how to build good houses, we experience the disadvantage of living in bad ones; if we are not competent to make creeds, we have got somehow to believe in a creed and to live by it; and, as to children, whether we do it well or ill, we can't help educating them, because we educate them by what we are. In speaking to you, therefore, on a subject which combines two of these three things in which everyone is an expert, I beg you to remember, even if I seem to forget it, that I know that you, as well as I, are experts in religious teaching, and, if I should succeed in saying anything that is not quite familiar on a very familiar subject, I am far from wishing to lay down the law; I am not putting forward ideas for your immediate acceptance, or even for immediate discussion. I am rather commending to the test of your experience what I believe to have stood the test of my own.
I am asked to speak to you on children and the Catechism, and the way I wish to approach the subject is to ask whether the Catechism with which we are most of us familiar under that name, the Catechism of the Church which I have the honour to serve, is a help towards teaching children on religious subjects by catechizing—that is, by question and answer. Because, on the face of it, this particular document, the Catechism—and much the same would be true of other similar documents—is not very obviously fitted to serve as a help in catechising. There are several reasons why it is not. I will take one of them first.
Catechising we commonly take to mean teaching by question and answer, eliciting the truth by the play of mind on mind, that natural dialectic in which the child is often a very competent performer. But this document, the Catechism, is a summary of doctrine, a compact statement of the things which a man ought to know and believe. There were many such before and at the time of the Reformation. Such a document has got to be learnt, not to be elicited. If you teach it, you are putting in, not taking out.
This is a real contrast. The difficulty is not very hard to meet, but it is worth-while to deal with it not only in general terms but also in some detail. The general answer to the difficulty I take to be this. The object of the catechetical teaching, of teaching by question and answer, is to put in by the method of getting out. Starting from some fact or truth which the child knows and can readily recognise, you lead him on to—what? Well, to the truth which you have it in your mind to lead him on to. You know, when you begin, what you want to lead him to see. If you don't, you are not very likely to succeed in leading him anywhere. However sound and true his instincts are, at best it will be the blind leading those that see, and the blind had better lead the blind than that, as perhaps we have most of us discovered when we tried to take a lesson unprepared. There is no greater mistake than to suppose that we can teach young children on religious subjects unprepared. And this is especially true of teaching by question and answer. Children's wits are nimble. They are keen-sighted. They have a taste for by-ways. You must have gone the road before: you must know every turn and twist of it, all the sign-posts, all the stiles which tempt you to climb over them, and all the paths which tempt you to stray down them. Otherwise you will lose your way and you will arrive—nowhere.
It is sound, then, to have a document—a summary to give us the main points, the map of the country. You may stop to look at the view, you may stop to pick flowers, you may stop to pick fruit, but you want to keep to the road. That, it seems to me, is the general answer to the question as to the use for teaching religious truth by question and answer of a document, a summary.
But I will ask you to allow me to answer the question somewhat more in detail. Is this particular document a good guide to catechising, to teaching by question and answer? What guidance does it give?
(1) First of all, it teaches us the elementary principle that you must begin from some fact which the child knows—something obvious; if it is also something not obviously connected with the subject in hand so much the better. You have got a name. How did you get it? Ah, you were baptized. There is something to start from. What is baptism? What happened when you were baptized? Why was it done? What does it mean?
(2) But it does not follow because you must begin, so to say, from where the child is, that you will do well to let him go where he wants to. If you were to ask the general question, "What is the Catechism about?" you would very likely get the answer that it is about what we ought to do for God; in a word, that it is about duty. Well, ask the question if you like and get the answer; get it in order to correct it, as the Catechism suggests you should correct it. It is about God, and it is about us. It is about what God does for us, and it is about what we do for God. But which comes first? What God does for us. Grace first, then duty.
Now, here is a great guide in teaching religion—God first. First bring the child face to face with the love of God in Christ. He knows it. He will tell you. Question and answer will bring it out that the love of God has come and laid hold of his life long ago. Religion is a response, that is the principle in your mind. And to him you say, "The love of God has come, and through the love of those who loved you and did for you what you couldn't do for yourself, you have grown up all along as the child of God. You could not speak for yourself or move yourself, you weren't yourself yet, but God's love provided that as your bodily life grows out of ours and is separated from it by degrees, so your religious life should grow out of ours. God's love was beforehand with you. We love Him because He first loved us. You are the child of God. God has been working in you and with you ever since you can remember and before, to renew and make to grow in you your own proper nature—the proper nature of all men made in the image of God, the nature which has got spoilt by sin but not buried or destroyed, so that you might grow up in His likeness, to love the good that He loves, and hate the evil that He abhors, and love to do His will, because you know He loves you."
So much for the first point.
(3) Well, what is the next point marked by the Catechism on the road along which you are to lead the child? We turn to our part in our dealings with God—duty, what we have promised to do. God has made you His child, has given you His Spirit to help you to be good. What is the first thing you must do if you are to work along with Him? And the answer is renunciation. You must be able to say "No." Life is a battle—that is common experience, but it is also Christianity. There is a picture in the Sistine Chapel, at Rome, in which the general subject seems to be the deliverance of sin. In the foreground rather strangely, though it can be accounted for, is an Old Testament scene—the ceremonial purification of a leper by the offering of the blood of the victim. But in the background behind and above this Old Testament parable of the Christian deliverance are the three scenes of the Temptation with which the work of Christ began. As though the painter would say, "He purifies us from sin through the power of His own victory over sin," He who was in all point tempted like as we are, yet without sin. He had to say "No." And the structure of the Gospels teaches the same lesson as our Lord's example—first comes the preaching of repentance, the ministry of the Baptist—that is the beginning, everything starts from that. Here is the second great fact. God's love has been beforehand with you to make you good. You are God's child—that is the first. But there is evil in the world. You will have to fight. There is evil in the world, and because you are a part of the world, it is in you. You will have to be the man who can say "No." You will feel inclined to be lazy; you will feel inclined to eat too much; you will feel inclined to be envious and ungenerous, to be passionate, to bear a grudge. You must say "No." You will have to fight. You must know your enemy by sight. But above all if you are to do your part, this is the first thing, you must be able to say "No." That is the promise to renounce sin.
(4) And then with the second promise, the promise to believe, we seem to be swinging back again from duty to grace,—not quite—the word is faith, faith by which we respond to grace and bring it into operation—faith in the sense of trust. God did not make man to live without God, but with Him. You with God, that is the true "you"—you giving yourself to God, trusting yourself to Him, like the paralytic let down through the roof, the whole soul and will of the man going out to God, to draw down into his own being the love with which He was face to face. That is the picture of faith. This is the first great positive principle of religion which you must make for, that the life of a man, of the "I" is to give himself up to God, and to hold to God as he has learnt to know Him. "God is there, and God is to be trusted. He has shewn that He is. I believe in God. I trust myself to Him." That is the life of prayer, the life of life itself. "I want to be what God wants me to be, what I see and know God is." And, as you follow out in the Creed the facts and truths in which God is known and trusted, you end on those in which the child is reminded that his religion is not merely "God and the soul, the soul and God," but that, as his home has long ago taught him in another way, his soul is bound up with the souls of others in a living spiritual family, a fellowship of those who know God's love and live in it, with whom he stands shoulder in shoulder, all pledged to trust His grace and to do His will. That is the promise of faith expanded and expressed in the Creed.
(5) And then the next landmark is the promise of obedience, expanded in the Commandments and in the remembrance of your duty towards God and towards your neighbour—the law. And here the point is to note that obedience to the law is so taught that obedience to that law always means obedience to something behind it, the aim at an ideal, the endeavour to secure the dominance of a motive, the life pervaded by a spirit, the spirit of Him to whom you have trusted yourself; "Thou shalt not," the strict unlovely "No," leading, pointing the way to the great ideal: "Thou shalt love thy Lord thy God with all thy heart, and thy neighbour as thyself." That is the point to which the Catechism teaches you to guide the child here; obedience does not mean merely keeping rules, "Thou shalt and thou shalt not," it means learning and understanding the spirit of God's laws. The old commandment which fitted the lives of people long ago meant something. Look in each case what it means—whole-heartedness, spirituality, sincerity, regularity, in the service of the love of God; or again, it means not avoiding acts, but being moved by motives, and we are following all the time the lead given us by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, where he showed how the new law enjoined the right motive, when the old law forbade the wrong act.
And then once more, when all the three promises have been considered, back to grace, in the Lord's prayer and its explanation, and in the section on the Sacraments, added at a latter time—prayer, the perpetual surrender to the Father's love, the simple asking, with all the children of His family of grace, for what we know He wants to give, prayer which keeps alive the communion of love between the soul and God; which initiate and sustain the sacraments are His chosen means.
I have covered very, very familiar ground. The point I wished to bring out is that the Catechism, as it stands, points out in a right and natural succession the great landmarks in the road along which we wish to lead our children when we talk to them and they to us of the things of God. The question was—how does the Catechism, a summary of doctrine, help us in catechising, in teaching by question and answer? It gives the plan, the leading ideas to be followed out in catechising, in teaching by question and answer.
If I have not wearied you, I should like to touch further on a group of questions as to the usefulness of the Catechism for this purpose, which may be answered together.
Why have a formula full of 16th and 17th century ideas? Why have a formula couched in 16th and 17th century language? Why not teach the religion from the Bible? Well, I should say first, I do not say the formula is perfect, you can correct or supplement it, and where you wish to correct or supplement a one-sided or inadequate statement, a statement where one aspect of the truth is put to the front and hides the other aspect, the fact that you have the provocation to such a free treatment of the formula you use has its advantages. It brings the point on which you wish to dwell into relief. May I indicate two instances.
First, the promise of faith. It is a promise steadfastly to believe certain articles. We want it to mean the promise of a life-long spiritual self-surrender. It does mean that, but hardly says it. You have a very obvious occasion for explaining the distinction between the two senses of faith and the connection between them, e.g., you take the story of St. John's life, from the time when he heard the Baptist say, "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world," to the time when he became one of the great teachers of the world. At first there was in him just "trust," the blind instinct of self-surrender. At the end there was the same trust, but now indissolubly linked with the things which he had seen and heard, which to deny would have been, to him, to deny Christ Himself. So you show how faith as trust grows into something which includes and is inseparable from a belief in facts and truths.
Or, take the explanation of an early clause of the Lord's Prayer, "Hallowed by Thy Name." It is explained in this sense, that we desire God's grace that we may worship Him as we ought to do. The primary meaning is that we do worship Him. The difference between the explanation and the natural and primary meaning of the words may be illustrated by the contrast between the Versicle and Response, "O Lord, open thou our lips; And our mouths shall shew forth Thy praise"—that is the sense of the explanation; we desire God's grace that we may praise Him—and the almost immediately succeeding response," The Lord's name be praised"—then God is praised. Well, the Lord's Prayer teaches us that prayer begin in praise, in the acknowledgement of God's goodness; that is the truth we do not want to lose. And we may simply use what we may frankly call an imperfection in the formula to help us to teach it. But again, why these antique and difficult words? Well, again, I do not say I would not recast the language if I could. But in that wonderful age, there was a faculty of utterance in prayer and a wealth and splendour of diction in speaking of God and the things of God, which we have often lost [with] the concise force of the Latin. But the words speak; they are living words, and as words which need to be explained, they are of enormous teaching value. When we come to recast our national curriculum, and may the day be soon, we must be careful not to lose sight of one element in the study of language which is of enormous value. To study words is to study man. To study words is to study life. Words are compact epitomes of generations and ages of human experience. May I just indicate by an instance or two what I mean? Lust—of old, the mere desire needing to be qualified as sinful—there is teaching in that: they do even what they list—follow it out into "all we like sheep have gone astray," waywardness, and read the verses in Ezekiel about God seeking out his sheep in all the places whither they have wandered in the cloudy and dark day: or tell the story of the 23rd Psalm as George Adam Smith has taught it to us [see Four Psalms], and go on to the parable of the Good Shepherd in St. John. Or again, Pomp—the great procession, and the pride of the conqueror—it is a picture, if you use it, of what our schoolboys know as swagger, and a picture like that derived straight from the unfamiliar word has no small moral value. Or again, Vanity, emptiness, the emptiness of wealth—take the metaphor, the living example, of the miser with the wealth from which he gets no good, and use him as a parable of others whose wealth is no less empty of good to themselves and to others, and tell the children the words of Watts' Succour—running up to help—there is a picture of helpfulness—and there is no end to such pictures.
And as to using the Bible, who teaches the Catechism without it does not know the Catechism. The Catechism is one way of teaching the Bible. The "words" over and over again are sign-posts to passages in the Bible. The very first word that needs to be explained, "member," the living part of a living body, may stand as one instance for all. Go to the 13th chapter of St. John, the branches that live only in the vine, "without me ye can do nothing," the branches that must bear fruit and fulfil their office in the body by which they live—and work that out, and then to the passages in the epistles of St. Paul about the Body and the members, and work them out.
On that thought I should like to end. My own experience of many years of continuous teaching of all classes and all ages is that, to use the Catechism as the basis and guide for catechetical teaching, with constant reference to concurrent Biblical teaching, is to have an incalculable aid in training that independent life of the mind and spirit at which all teaching aims, and religious teaching above all. That is the especial aim of catechical teaching, of teaching by question and answer—to develop the individual religious mind of the individual member of the religious community. This Catechism itself was originally part of the Confirmation service. Catechising in church, where it is used, aims at that. But catechising at home can enable us to attain to it. There, above all, you can develop the faculty so difficult to develop in the English boy, perhaps less difficult in the English girl—the faculty of asking questions. We have got our ideal, our example before us—"They were astonished," you remember, "at His understanding and answers." We praise children if they attend. He not only listened. He asked questions.
In this, as in so many other religions of education, the school depends upon the home, because the home is the real school.
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, August 2008
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