Sarah Johnson Home Front
‘Do I look all right, Nanny?” inquires the heroine of one of my favourite Nancy Mitford novels, peering anxiously into her dressingtable mirror. “Quite all right, and who’s going to be looking at you anyway?” the family retainer replies. “Nanny!” wails the girl, “it is my wedding day!”
“Nobody’s going to be looking at you” used to be, my mother assures me, standard advice for any young woman showing the slightest signs of concern about her appearance in pre-war Britain. No worries about self-esteem in those days – instead, an tremendous enthusiasm for stopping young folk from getting ideas above their station.
The “nobody’s going to be looking at you” advice seems to have lasted well through the 20th century, but then was completely overturned by the self-esteem industry. which instead says: “Everyone is going to be looking at you... because you’re wonderful!” I have some admiration for the self-esteem industry; younger people seem so much more self-assured in public than I was... at least, more than I think I was. But nature seems to have a recipe for crushing self-esteem.
First, it makes parents of us. Then we take small children into church. Suddenly the joy of “Everyone is looking at me... and I am wonderful” turns into a misery of scarletfaced embarrassment.
Well, that’s the impression I have from the Listening 2004 consultation with families, which uncovered an abiding awkwardness about an old problem so simple and silly that a lot of people feel absurd even thinking of it as a problem: feeling less than “at home” when in church.
One family referred to how “difficult and stressful” it was to take their autistic child to Mass. Another couple said they felt like “failures” at Mass because they had been unable to have children. People in general felt they didn’t have “time or energy” to be more use in their parishes.
When I compered a Listening 2004 consultation day last autumn, the issue of awkwardness in church barely arose. Our number one concern was the teaching of orthodox Catholic doctrine. We felt that our children tended to hear the arguments against their Church before they had a chance to hear the arguments in favour. We were also all concerned to see more parishwide networking caring for the elderly, the poor, for single parent families and so on and so forth. None of us seemed too fussed about feeling awkward in church.
So why the difference? It’s simple: these were all parish activists, people who had been going to church for yonks. The Listening 2004 questionnaires, by contrast, were left in the back of churches for the shy, awkward and occasional visitors to pick up... The contrast between the two groups of families speaks volumes about why an exercise like Listening 2004 was well worth doing.
The awkwardness of the rare church-goer was an issue I was keen to address in a book, entitled Daring to be Different, published last year by Darton, Longman and Todd. I talked to a number of Christian families of all denominations about their faith – including the practical issue of feeling comfortable in church when you have a couple of recalcitrant toddlers on your hands.
These families passed on three messages for shy families to bear in mind. The first is that it’s all a matter of practice. The more you go to church, the more at ease you and your children feel. The second message was that it does not matter if church feels “different” from other kinds of gatherings; it is meant to be different. It is neither a social occasion, a business meeting, a legal or legislative gathering... or an entertainment. It is church. End of story.
And the third message was, baldly, “Nobody’s going to be looking at you.” Church is not a time for self-consciousness. Anyone who is glaring at your child trampolining on the chairs should not be looking that way at all. They should be concentrating on the Eucharist. So give them a hard glare back, and hold the trampoliner up so that she can see the priest and forget about it.