Being a Godly Play priest

8 minute read

The Shepherd and the (High) Priest
He walks on the hillside darkly
Calling a name, given to him.
Afraid, lest he lose or, yet,
Find himself, away, awake,
Back, in the crowd, laughing,
Joyful. Not stepping in the way
Of the shepherd-priest who,
Wandered not, strayed not, suffered all,
For the sheep whose names he gave.

I’m not much of a poet. Indeed, I hardly ever even attempt to write poetry. And the above poem isn’t really much of an example.

I share that poem not because it is of any literary value whatsoever, but because it was written at one of the most important moments in my life as a priest.

(If you read it, you will discover two things about me at the time I wrote it. First, I had been reading Gerard Manley Hopkins and, second, I wasn’t very happy in my priesthood. Fortunately, the second no longer applies, though the first certainly does.)

I was on a Godly Play training course at Llantarnam Abbey in South Wales. It was amazing: genuinely the best training I have ever had. I would recommend it to anyone involved in any form of ministry, though of course especially children’s ministry. In those three days, I learnt so much about God, about myself, and about being a priest. At a particular moment of spiritual connection, after the parable of the Good Shepherd, I wrote the above poem. My priesthood has never been the same since.

Finally (with my new blog software!) I wanted to write down a little bit about what I think Godly Play has to say about priesthood.

My encounters with Godly Play

I first discovered Godly Play at Westcott House, training for ordination. At the beginning of the Lent term we had a choice of a selection of three-day courses, known as ‘intensives’. (I understand these have now gone the way of all flesh.) I discounted all those that I thought sounded awful and picked fairly randomly from the handful that remained. I ended up on the Godly Play intensive, which was being led by the wonderful Rebecca Nye.

I will confess that I arrived with a certain scepticism. I found it too open, too concerned with trivial details in parables, rather than going for their heart. (I remember getting very frustrated at spending time coming up with names for the birds in the parable of the Mustard Seed.) But by the end of it, and having told a story myself, I was a total convert. Godly Play is amazing.

I then put it aside for several years. Godly Play is fairly resource-intensive, and in my curacy there wasn’t even a room in the church that was for the use of children: they had to cross two roads to the local school to go to Sunday Club. I tried a couple of things, but it never really went very far.

Eventually, I came to Aintree, and its Godly Play room. This was exciting and I was delighted that the parish was willing to pay for me to do the full training. Before and after the training, I have used Godly Play both with children and adults as much as I can. It has been very well received. I haven’t succeeded in getting a regular group going, but I have used it a lot and I think the church is stronger for it.

Godly Play and the mass

I don’t want to talk about how to use Godly Play materials in worship. I suppose it can be done, though I am not convinced about it. For me, the genius of Godly Play is the compactness, the way that everyone is involved closely in the story and becomes a participant in it. In a large congregation, I think the ‘wondering’ and the response will get crowded. Moreover, Godly Play done well takes a lot of time (at a minimum 45 minutes, and very plausibly twice that).

No, I want to write about how I use Godly Play principles when celebrating the mass.

No right answers

The first, core thing is that there isn’t one right answer to the questions posed. Each individual comes to Godly Play needing different things. They find different things in it. Different parts are important, and they often will not be the things that the person leading the session thinks they want to talk about. Godly Play invites an open response, not a prescribed one. (For example, you do not provide suggested craft activities for children to use. You provide materials and let them do what they need to do.)

When celebrating the mass, I try to keep in mind that what I think is the key to the day, to the particular celebration, to the readings, may well not be the same for everyone. I don’t get to set the ‘theme’ of the mass: that’s up to God. My role is to help people come to a connection with God, to go on their own spiritual discoveries. They may well do it while sitting still in a pew – and they may well not! But I don’t get to define how people respond to the mass.

And there’s a liberation there too: I don’t have to. It isn’t about me and all the things I can do with my charisma and my skills: it’s about God.

When I preach, I try not to tell people what they should be thinking or believing. It isn’t my place! I am trying to lead the congregation in wondering and in the spiritual journey that each of them needs.

Embracing familiarity: abandoning novelty

Many who are involved in leading worship are in a constant battle to find new ways of preaching or celebrating, or new hymns or songs or actions.

I think this is a great mistake. We do not have to offer a constant diet of novelty. We do not have to find a thousand and one new ways of conveying the truths of the Christian faith. Godly Play is intentionally repetitive. It follows an annual cycle of stories (in common with the old lectionaries!) and many of them are deeply repetitive. ‘The desert is a dangerous place…’ ‘Parables are valuable, even more valuable than gold…’ The familiarity allows the hearer to explore them in a new way, rather than waiting for ‘what happens next’. In the same way, some research a few years ago suggested that knowing the end of a story can actually enhance your enjoyment of it.

We were told about one Godly Player’s experience of starting a Godly Play group, where she told the same story six weeks in a row, then had annoyed children when she finally decided to tell a different story.

Familiarity is helpful in the spiritual life. That diet of constant novelty is unsustainable. It is far better to have someone ‘tell me the old, old story’. Or, as I remember Fr Martin Browne OSB telling the first Sodality of Mary retreat: ‘don’t say new things: say important things’.

Godly Play teaches us to be repetitive, to embrace familiarity, and through it to discover new aspects to the deep, complex tapestry that is the Christian faith.

Moreover, there is a deep simplicity to it. We don’t need to invent new stories, or new ways of telling them. We follow the book, memorise the script, learn the actions. It’s the children’s work equivalent of ‘say the black, do the red’ in the celebration of the mass. The responsibility is not the storyteller’s or the priest’s: the story and the liturgy are not ours to create or control.

Getting involved in the celebration

‘But what if the children don’t sit quietly?’

That is the first question that everyone asks me about Godly Play. It is almost hilariously predictable.

First, who says they have to sit quietly? Some Godly Play sessions are quite noisy, though they never lose their meditative nature. For example, telling a parable can often involve lots of laughter. When you open the desert bag, or bring out the Temple, the children all leap forwards to see what’s going on. That’s great! We don’t want to stop them.

(As an aside, what does it say about our attitude to children in church that we are so concerned about making sure they sit quietly?)

However, there is actually a guide in the Godly Play books for encouraging and facilitating appropriate behaviour. It does not start, however, with a how-to for dealing with misbehaviour. It starts with a challenge to the storyteller: ‘Check your own involvement.’ If we, as storytellers and priests, are not wholeheartedly absorbed in the story or the mass, what chance has the child or the congregation?

One of the challenges to learning to tell a Godly Play story is eye contact. The vast majority of the time, the storyteller does not make eye contact with the children. The moments when you do make eye contact are powerful, important ones. In the same way, the priest does not need to spend the whole of the mass relating to the congregation. The priest is not putting on a show for the congregation to consume. If the priest is not spiritually involved with what he or she is doing, what chance has the congregation got? When I celebrate the mass, whether I am celebrating ad orientem (facing away from the congregation) or versus populum (towards them), my eyes and my actions are focused on what I am celebrating. When I say ‘Behold the Lamb of God,’ that’s what I myself do.

What I have learnt from Godly Play above all is the importance of being spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually invested in what I am doing. My behaviour, my spirituality, and my prayerfulness all help to influence and shape the behaviour, spirituality and prayerfulness of the congregation.

Priests and Godly Play

I think about all this every time I celebrate the mass. So to Rebecca, Diana, and Cass, my trainers, to Jerome Berryman and to all Godly Play people: thank you for the enormous influence you have had on me in my life as a priest.

Priests and seminarians, you should do Godly Play training. Even if you have no children in your church. Even if you have no money for the resources.

Do the training. It is wonderful.