The thought of Sunday School for me evokes memories of white-skinned flannel figures wearing robes and cloths over their heads hung on a board perched haphazardly on a wooden stand. We children would gather around and look at the figures moving around the board stiffly as the teacher gave us a lesson based on some Bible verse or story. Zacchaeus would haunch over in a tree, Jesus would hold his hands to the sky, Paul would always look wise with his grey long beard. Did I mention they were all white? I also vaguely recall making crafts though I could not detail what was made nor what it represented even once. A lasting impression Sunday School left on me: an impression that it was boring and I’d rather have been sleeping.
There was a BBC documentary not long ago looking at the history of feminism (a subject that would have undoubtedly been derided within the walls of my former Sunday School, given their theology on the subject), visiting societal happenings involving women within Britain over the course of the years, touching on slavery, suffrage, representation and outright women’s rights. The presenter visited a working town set up in the Midlands in the 1800s or so where the workers spent long days in one mill or another, starting employment at an early age. The presenter began to tell of a woman whose name escapes me now who set up a society to ensure that children were granted an education during the great Victorian era of charity. From the presenter’s point of view, while it was not a strike for women’s rights intentionally, the organiser and the other women involved in this community activism made gains for the rest of us as they began to step out of the shadow of their husbands, to become figureheads in communities and social classes. They were empowered themselves as they began to perform charity for the poor around them.
The presenter, obviously not coming from a church background herself or just not that interested for the purposes of this documentary, didn’t dwell long on the ins and outs of these charitable organisations, however, she did make mention that these schools were the beginnings of Sunday School. The thought had never once occurred to me what the history of dull flannel graphs might be, but as a person greatly interested in the social justice side of my Christian faith and that of the church as a whole I found this provoking, particularly given my misgivings about Sunday School.
Sunday Schools were put into place as a means to educate an illiterate public of poor working class children and adults. It did have at its heart the aim of creating a more ‘moral society’ as people would learn from the scriptures themselves and cultivating ‘Christian behaviour’ was to be part of the classes, so there was a strong agenda of conversion which I’m personally not all that keen on given the way it’s been abused in the past and presently (homeless people should never have to sit through a sermon in order to eat). However, a new endeavour as set up by Jesus-followers to ensure that every individual is granted the access to knowledge equally is powerful in my estimation. It evokes in my mind the Genesis story where God puts Adam and Eve in a garden with a multitude of trees to eat from, perhaps here representing paths of life-giving choices they could make. They were also offered the opportunity to throw it all away and take a (mis)adventure into the unknown. They were given equal access to each choice, and Sunday School as originally established also gave children and adults who were never granted an education the opportunity to have more choice in life. It’s beautiful, it’s hopeful, and it’s risky. Unlike modern Sunday School, by the way.
Let’s ditch Sunday School as we know it. Not to recreate some whimsical, formulaic achievement from our past, but to achieve something greater.
May the church remember its spirit of adventure in investing itself fully and hopefully in the lives of others. May the church embrace creativity rather than stifling and boxed-in religious practices. May the church find new and exciting ways again to release the world we are part of from oppression, whether through giving us all equal access to knowledge and truth or doing something else equally empowering, both for the deliverers of such charity and recipients alike.