I think it is fair, although perhaps it is unfair, to say that we inhabit in a culture which seems intent on capturing the spirit of the young.
Young is deemed to be exciting and future orientated. ‘The young are the future,’ is an oft-repeated phrase. The church also seems, at times, to be obsessed with the capturing the young. Attracting the young is, of course, important, but on what basis and on what terms? A supplementary question might be ‘at whose expense?’
Putting the young on a pedestal, seeking to attract, or even capture them, as THE priority, may very possibly be unfair, belittling, and damaging to young and old alike.
In church, just like in culture, we need, I think, to be careful when we say ‘the young are the future,’ for surely all, potentially, have a future in the church? And, doesn’t the church as a concrete entity in the here and now exist so that all can worship, irrespective of age? Put another way shouldn’t the church, if she truly aspires to be a Holy Communion, seek to be genuinely All Age?
When we speak in church of the young we often seem to do so on the basis of a set of fairly flaky assumptions. We think that the young want to be placed into a clearly demarcated group, one that is treated differently from everyone else. We also tend to assume that they don’t want to join in activities with other, more elderly, congregants. We, perhaps, tend to think that the young are anti tradition and that, somehow, the church’s grammar and practices cannot be of any real relevance to their lives.
Research (see Rooted in the Church Summary Report November 2016) discredits this view: ‘The importance placed by young people on inclusion within the whole church family is reflected in their preferred style of worship (the report claims that what they appreciate most is ”blended worship”); while they value age-specific leadership and activities, they do not always want to be artificially separated from the main church.’
I strongly, firmly, categorically, believe that the young, alongside those of riper years, or even in ‘holy communion’ with those of riper years, are perfectly capable of absorbing and being nurtured through the church’s liturgical and sacramental traditions. The young are far more catholic in their tastes than we sometimes dare admit.
To suggest otherwise, to seek to impose new forms of relevance on the young, is to seek to capture, rather than liberate, their spirits. It is also to patronize the elderly and the church should never do this, for the elderly, just like the young, are a gift to the church. The elderly, just like the young, are the church’s humanity.
A church without the elderly isn’t in any meaningful sense a real, living and dynamic church. In order to flourish the church needs to value both the ‘widows and orphans,’ (James 1, 27) in her midst.
The Church needs to capture, or recapture, its appreciation of, and for, the elderly. So far this year I have taken the funeral of three elderly members of our congregation. All three made a significant, although quiet, contribution to the life and vitality of the church. All three contributed financially and spirituality. All three gave from their wallets and gave from their hearts. All three cared deeply about the local church and her future. All three had over the course of many years learnt to talk about their faith without embarrassment and without the fear of ridicule. All three prayed each and every day for the church even when they could no longer come to church. Their ongoing and final gift to the church was prayer, and for that the church should be grateful. All three modeled something special and beautiful: fidelity to the Church, come-what may, through the joys and tribulations of life.
Many years ago St. Benedict provided an insight into what it means to be a genuinely ‘All Age’ community. It is clear that Benedict had reverence for both the young and those of riper years alike. Chapters 3 and 63 of the Rule make this clear:
‘We have insisted that all the community should be summoned for such consultation because it often happens that the Lord makes the best course clear to one of the younger members,’ (Chapter 3)
‘Juniors in the community should show due respect for their seniors , and the seniors should love and care for their juniors. When they address each other, it should not simply by name, but seniors call their juniors brother or sister, and juniors address their seniors as nonnus – father, or nonna – mother.’
In Benedict’s monastery there was no artificial separation: the juniors and the seniors shared in, and contributed fully to, the life of the community. Benedict saw both the young and the old as integral and vital to the life of the community. Benedict aimed to build communities where all could flourish and none need fear, where everyone was treated equally and with due respect and where age was simply an epistemological fact.
So should we.