The cruelty of a lack of discipline

A lady in Leicester writes to me, pondering the behaviour of children in church. (May I apologize for not replying? Your letter got mixed up with other correspondence, and was prematurely binned.) She notes the current tendency of children to climb (and to be allowed to climb, without admonition) up the walls in services. Living in Leicester, she has visited Jain and Hindu houses of worship. Not only does she find there a sense of awe, and of the numinous, which she does not find in many churches nowadays, but the children are quiet, obedient and worshipful. Do our shortcomings, she wonders, come from the introduction of the ASB?

What picture of God?

The answer, I believe, is ‘Yes and No’. To blame our generation’s liturgists for irreverent youngsters is akin to blaming them for, say, the rise in crime. It’s not their fault: it’s everyone’s. What may be wrong with the ASB or Common Worship lie not simply within themselves: deeper things are at work, of which they are but symptoms. AW Tozer wrote, long ago, ‘When the Church finds herself in difficulties, such difficulties may be traced to her having an inadequate picture of God.’

One fundamental inadequacy our picture of God has concerns his love. ‘How can’, it is asked, ‘a God of love allow pain or illness in the world?’ A question well worth asking, whose answer is further obscured in our time by our inadequate understanding of what ‘Love’ is anyway. Your man in the street does not consider it unloving to apply the parental Board of Education to a child’s Seat of Learning. This is because (seemingly, unlike our rulers) he can distinguish well-intentioned discipline from sadistic punishment. Our man comprehends (as the Bible tells him, though he is now sufficiently distant from his Christian heritage not to realize its source) that a proper discipline is bound up with love. Leaving aside the effects of the world, the flesh and the Devil, ‘the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son’ (Proverbs 3.11, Hebrews 12.6), and we should expect his discipline to impinge on our life.

A cursory glance at society shows a collapse in discipline. I watch the three-year olds coming in to our pre-school: a mixture of committed Christians, uncommitted Christians and general public shepherd their little charges. Who’s in charge? Why, the lambs. Not only do parents know they are not allowed to smack their children; they possess no sense of authority over their offspring. Fifty years ago, they would have been aware, consciously or unconsciously, that God gave them a place of rulership over their children. The rule of God was sensed behind the powers that be – the monarch, the politician, the policeman, the teacher – and was respected accordingly. As God’s authority has been dispensed with, every other authority has withered.

Nice people

The Enlightenment belief that human beings are Essentially Nice has led to parents and authority figures beating themselves up with self-accusation and guilt when tiredness, temper or frustration colour their dealings with their charges. Essential Human Niceness dictates to us that we be super-parents, effortlessly gliding through life with the serene smile of the mother in the Fairy Liquid adverts.

The child disproves Enlightenment theory by ruthlessly exploiting ground given from a very early age. Driven to eventual punishment by their child’s excesses, the parent then abjectly apologizes to the child, when they were actually giving them what they needed. ‘You’re asking for a good smack’ can be literally true. The child is looking for the security of a map of what is right and wrong, for it instinctively knows it needs the rule and commandments of God. A parent’s chief role is to model God to their children; hence the fact that many of our children nowadays, if they have any formed picture of God, see him as weak, apologetic and easily manipulated.

God has been not so much marginalized as re-invented in our own image. We have swallowed the old liberal untruth that the God of the Old Testament is a God of wrath, while by New Testament times he has (seemingly) had a good night’s sleep and awoken in a better mood. The idea is so easily refuted by the contents of both parts of Scripture as to be not worth the refuting, but we have swallowed it, because it fits in with our evolutionary belief that everything, in every possible way, is getting better.

‘You are our fathers, we are your children’ sang the relieved Burundians to the troops who delivered them from their civil war. In Africa, fatherhood is still a powerful common image: a picture of one on whose strength and protection little ones may rely. In our culture, fatherhood has disappeared. Just as fathers are being replaced in our land by feckless, amoral, passing producers of children, so God, seemingly, has retired from being a Father. The Holy God of the Bible has now become a rather ineffective, self-apologetic, uncle figure, trying to be one of our chums. To be worthy of our time and attention, therefore, it behoves him to compete with Sunday shopping, Sunday sport, or a nice Sunday lie-in.

God as entertainer

If he wants us to condescend to give up some of our valuable weekend space for him, he had better make it worth our while. In short, he must entertain. Especially must he entertain when it comes to Family Service: doesn’t he know he’s now in competition with Game Boy and the X-Box? Desperate clergy put style before substance, mirth before material, to try and get the little ones to bring their parents back next month. I do not find St Paul urging his readers to, please, be a more appreciative audience. ‘Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave’ (1 Corinthians 9.26).

The immigrant communities my correspondent visits show little sign of integrating into mainstream British life. From what little I know of Leicester, polite warmth between individuals of all races does not stop immigrant communities en masse from keeping themselves to themselves. I do not blame them. Why give up values and beliefs which have held your forbears together, to join a system whose core truths are being systematically rejected by its members, and where the infant tail wags the parental dog?

The day may come when we find ourselves in the same ‘ethnic minority’ situation. Constructively dismissed from a church which slavishly follows establishment policy, maybe we will end up worshipping in a borrowed school hall. It will not be myself I will feel sorry for if that ever happens. The draughty necessity of a lifeboat is a lot less attractive place in which to shelter from the waves than the spacious comforts of an ocean liner, but which is more likely to hit the iceberg?

Hugh Baker tries to maintain order in south Staffordshire.