Who hasn’t experienced the distraction caused when a young child cries or gets too noisy? From the priest, to the deacons, and all the way down to the people surrounding the father and/or mother with the child, the tension and frustration is almost palpable. The parents too are distracted, not just by their noisy child, but by the emotional disturbance they feel when inundated with all of the varying glances they receive, with all those eyes telling them: “Quiet that child down, or leave.” And if it is deemed a sufficient nuisance to the priest (at least in the Coptic Church), many, if not most, will give the parent the “silent treatment”—that moment in liturgy when the priest stops praying, joining the chorus of dissenters in silence, sending a clear message to the parent(s) in the absence of prayer: “Your baby is distracting me and the entire church. We won’t move on until you’ve done something about it.”
What is the church to do? From the clergy to the lay person attending the service, how has the church historically viewed noise in church, and the place of children? Today, what should be our stance?
EARLY CHRISTIAN TEXTS
I have tried searching through early historical writings as it relates to this subject, and my research has returned mostly empty.
I did, however, find two interesting texts: one describes the place of children in the early Church (c. AD 230); the other describes the atmosphere of silence and reverence that is expected.
Didascalia Apostolorum (Latin for “Teaching of the Apostles”)
There is a writing, considered to have been modeled on the early Didache (from maybe the first century), named the Didascalia Apostolorum (Latin for “Teaching of the Apostles”). Some scholars today believe that the author was a bishop from around AD 230. The writing focuses little to nothing on dogma, but instead talks about the rites and rubrics of the church. Here is what it says about children and their place in the service, as well as the role of deacons in maintaining order:
And let the children stand on one side, or let their fathers and mothers take them to them; and let them stand up. And let the young girls also sit apart; but if there be no room, let them stand up behind the women. And let the young women who are married and have children stand apart, and the aged women and widows sit apart. And let the deacon see that each of them on entering goes to his place, that no one may sit out of his place. And let the deacon also see that no one whispers, or falls asleep, or laughs, or makes signs. For so it should be, that with decency and decorum they watch in the Church, with ears attentive to the word of the Lord. (Chapter 12)
In the above-quoted text, we see that children were designated to stand in a certain section of the church, or that they stand with their father or mother. Does this mean that infants attended the service? If so, were noisy disturbances acceptable and left to continue without any recourse to quiet things down? I would say that the text implies the answer: deacons were in charge of keeping noise and distraction to a minimum: “Let the deacon … see that no one whispers… laughs…” in order to maintain “decency and decorum” with one main purpose—that all “ears [are] attentive to the word of the Lord.”
St. John Chrysostom, Homily 30 on Acts of the Apostles
Ensuring everyone can focus on the liturgy with due reverence was a significant concern for the church. St. John Chrysostom spoke about the need for silence during church services as follows:
Nothing so becomes a Church as silence and good order. Noise belongs to theaters, and baths, and public processions, and market-places: but where doctrines, and such doctrines, are the subject of teaching, there should be stillness, and quiet, and calm reflection, and a haven of much repose. These things I beseech and entreat.
From the above texts then, it appears to me that children were present during worship services, and yet at the same time the church expected silence to be maintained for the purpose of every congregant to remain attentive to worship and learning.
Were babies present?
I cannot tell from the above sources whether very young infants attended liturgical services, but I presume they were for a number of reasons.
- First, it seems unlikely to me that every single mother who had an infant child left their infants at home; the logistics of this as a widespread custom seems implausible to me.
- Second, when you think of the early “house” churches in the book of Acts, inevitably there may have been children present in the households of those who gathered.
- Third, infant baptism is an early Church tradition: after the child is baptized, and able to partake of the body and blood of the Lord, would they then be excluded from participation? St. Gregory the Theologian orated once: “Have you an infant child? Do not let sin get any opportunity, but let him be sanctified from his childhood; from his very tenderest age let him be consecrated by the Spirit” (Oration 40 on Holy Baptism).
HOW DO OTHER CHURCHES HANDLE CRYING INFANTS?
As with any controversial topic, there are a variety of opinions on how to handle crying infants and loud children.
Pope Francis was quoted in a sermon in 2014, as reported by the Catholic News Agency, telling the congregation that the church should let infants cry without being removed:
“Children cry, they are noisy, they don’t stop moving. But it really irritates me when I see a child crying in church and someone says they must go out. God’s voice is in a child’s tears: they must never be kicked out of church.”
But there are varied opinions from Catholic congregants. They have cry rooms in many churches, but as is the case probably everywhere, cry rooms are not considered a workable solution for parents, since, as expected, the cry rooms are too distracting for prayer.
For lots of back and forth on this from a Catholic blog post, see the comments people left here.
Russian Orthodox Church
I can’t say what all of the Russian Orthodox Church does or believes, but one Russian Orthodox Church site listed a number of etiquette rules expected of attendees, and here is what they had to say about children:
If your child is crying in church please take them outside until they stop. If you do not have children of your own and notice the parents of a crying child are not leaving church, please approach them lovingly and tell them nicely that they should take the child out of church until they have quieted down so that they don’t disrupt the service.
Again, I can’t tell you what all Protestant Churches do, but I can imagine that a typical approach would be similar to one I found from an evangelical church website in Dallas, where they provide instructions on church etiquette:
Be respectful of others if you have a crying child. A child who screams at the top of his lungs is no problem as long as the mother takes him out. But a continually fretful, whining child becomes a constant drip unto frustration and insanity. Don’t let your child be a distraction. We have a Family Room available for you in the lobby near the Media Center. The TV feed of the service is now operative. While your child’s voice is precious to you, he’s probably not to others wanting to hear the service.
WHAT SHOULD BE DONE?
I am here simply offering my opinion. As a reader (a.k.a. “deacon” if you are Coptic) in the Coptic Orthodox Church, with no children but with plenty of friends who have taken the plunge and had their own, I will suggest some ideas.
First, at all times we must remember our calling to be Christ-minded (1 Corinthians 2:16). The relevant virtues and commandments that must underlie our approach are:
- Putting the interests of others before our own: “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).
- God seeks order and peace (1 Corinthians 14:33)
- Worship services must be tailored for the purpose of edifying all who are present, as St. Paul said when he spoke on the issue of languages in church: “Let all things be done for edification” (1 Corinthians 14)
I don’t know if it’s the lawyer in me, or what, but I don’t like “all-or-nothing” approaches to fixing problems when it can be avoided. No crying babies, or always have crying babies without being removed. Why just one or the other? The late Pope Shenouda III once highlighted a remark the Lord made, and applied it to a certain matter, which I think is appropriate to apply here: “These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone” (Matthew 23:23). In other words, why can’t you somehow do both? Allow parents to be present, and yet when their babies become too noisy, expect the parents to courteously exit until the child has quieted down?
Why can’t we minimize noise while at the same time expressing the utmost love and care for the parent who is confronted with a noisy outburst from their child? Why can’t we accommodate both parents and congregants so that all may be edified? Why do we vilify parents who come to church to be close to God, just as everyone else? And why is it too much to expect that a noisy child be taken out to the narthex or some other place outside the main part of the church where the disturbance is most noticeable? In our parish, we have tried to reserve seats in the back of the church for parents with very young children, so they have quick access to exit to the narthex when needed.
I can only imagine being a parent, coming to church, where everyone is supposedly seeking to be Christ-like, and we hear about the virtue of love and that we must all love one another, and then to be looked at with disgust due to noisy outbursts beyond your control.
What I wish to see is less frustration and more love and cooperation. No one, whether a parent with a noisy child, or a congregant, deacon, or priest, wants to contribute to distracting people away from God during liturgical services. But we shouldn’t make parents feel unwanted, nor should parents make others feel the liturgy is wanting.
I don’t know if a priest silencing his prayers is the best approach. I understand the good intention, but I feel this approach adds to the collective disdain of those who make parents feel uncomfortable. It makes me very uncomfortable personally, standing among the chorus, or near the priest in the altar, when suddenly the priest discontinues his prayers, and I stand there feeling horrible for the parent who is now the center of attention rather than the God whom we are all gathered to worship. Why not instead leave the responsibility of keeping order and silence in the church to some specialized servant(s) to handle with a smile and love, as was the practice in the early Church? Why not have some servants offer to take the child outside for a bit? Why not come up with some loving means to help the parents by contributing to a solution rather than making it feel like we are simply pointing to the problem?
For sure, I want everyone to feel wanted, and I want everyone to be edified. First, we all need to begin with love, and then proceed with actions that develop out of love for all congregants, parents included.
WHAT DO YOU THINK CAN / SHOULD BE DONE?
SOURCES / FURTHER RESOURCES
Image taken from TampaBay.com of congregant Viviane Hana holding her daughter, Verena, during Sunday services at St. Verena Coptic Orthodox Church in New Port Richey. The baby was named for their new church.