The Nursery Rhyme Mass – a childish approach to worship
Fr Simon Rundell, Parish Priest, Parishes of Bickleigh and Shaugh Prior, Plymouth, Diocese of Exeter.
Worship with children, especially sacramental worship with children needs to tread a fine line between accessibility for the participants and authenticity to the faith which is manifest in worship. Within the canon of Fresh Expressions, there have been many innovative gatherings which have struggled to find this balance, and the challenges of Messy Eucharist for example to move from gathering to sacrament have been well documented.
The Nursery Rhyme Mass (NRM) is an ongoing, collaborative initiative to enable authentic expression of the sacramental but in idioms which are appropriate to children from pre-school to school year 6 (Age 10/11). By reinterpreting the liturgical structure of Common Worship and by reworking age-appropriate rhymes set to traditional nursery rhyme tunes, a new liturgy is formed which is identifiably Anglican and yet owned by young people.
Brian Ogden published a series of Nativity Plays set to Nursery Rhymes and this provided the springboard for parish youth workers and priest to collaborate to create this liturgy. The key challenge was in the representation of each individual element of the liturgical structure with a suitable rhyme, and then to find appropriate rhymes. Many of the rhymes simply fell together with little effort and then were modified in practice, either to improve the rhyming scheme or to enhance the theological message.
So in an act of penitence, set to the tune of “Ba Ba Black Sheep”, after absolution there is a resounding song of thanks to “If you’re happy and you know it…” which culminates in a powerful “If you believe that God forgives you say “We do…”” “WE DO!” They all shout. Such liturgical elements can be frequently reused in Collective Worship, which (much to the approval of SIAMS Inspectors) emphasises the connection of school Collective Worship to the wider worshipping community with full gathering songs, penitential rites, intercessions and Trinitarian blessings borrowed directly from the NRM. Although a whole Eucharist Prayer was written (to the tune of Kum By Yah) it is always replaced by initially the excellent Roman Prayer 2 for Children and now the Common Worship Eucharistic Prayer for Children once it had been authorised.
Coming from a distinctly Anglican sacramental tradition, the NRM unashamedly seeks to express this Anglican charism within its texts, speaking of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist and evoking images and metaphors consistent with liberal Anglocatholicism. In an age when certain powerfully rich Evangelical strands can enforce their own spin on Anglicanism through their materials, this is a subtle, low-tech and under-resourced response. Churches uncomfortable with the praying of the Hail Mary during the intercessions may simply omit it, for this Creative Commons-released project encourages local adaptation and refinement which can feed back into the project and enrich it. No copyright is claimed on the materials and they are freely available on the website: www.nurseryrhymemass.org.uk
It can be employed with little or no additional resource. The songs are always sung acapella. As a priest quite comfortable with the use of multimedia, I usually used slides for the liturgy but as demonstrated when the school projector was out of action, the children quickly absorbed the words and demonstrated that they actually didn’t need the text. A screen is much more engaging than a printed sheet of rhymes and these should be avoided as much as possible.
The NRM is used weekly in a Church of England Primary School, and frequently as the liturgy of a Family Mass aimed at pre-schoolers. In school, in their own time, between 8 and 20 young people participate and communicate weekly. This is connected to a parish ethos which is more concerned with administering the sacraments of salvation than preventing access to them: a completely open table is practiced and all children, regardless of baptism, admission to communion or confirmation are invited to communicate. However, for safeguarding reasons, in school, communion is received in only one kind (the Host) unless a child has been formally admitted to Holy Communion. Other Churches in the UK, Australia and Canada have also adopted its use and contributions and refinements are received from far and wide.
The use of the NRM has greatly increased the decision of unbaptised children to seek Baptism of their own volition, for families to find deeper and lasting connection with the church following Baptism and for young people to further engage in Admission to Holy Communion and Confirmation (depending upon age). In my own Parish, children who receive First Communion are strongly encouraged to continue to participate in sacramental worship from that point onwards. It has been used successfully at All Age Masses with positive response from both adults and children communicants.
So, if we are to proclaim the Gospel afresh in each generation then we should be prepared to use tools which are both authentic to our spirituality and theological expression but which are couched in language, metaphor and style which reaches the participants. I pray that it will continue to grow and enable even more young people to meet with Christ in his most Holy and Blessed Sacrament.
Fr Simon Rundell
Fr. Simon’s books: https://amzn.to/2FNgPKX
Please feel free to take any image from the website: https://www.nurseryrhymemass.org.uk/
 Ogden B (2002) Nursery Rhyme Nativities, BRF. Oxford.
 Rundell S (2011) Sacramental Worship with Children Canterbury Press. Norwich.
 Common Worship Ordinal