Bringing up baby

What kind of religious education—if any—do kids need?

“This is the church, this is the steeple …”

“This is the church, this is the steeple …”

Once upon a time, I was an Episcopalian. I went to church every Sunday (well, pretty much), sang along enthusiastically with the hymns, loved the acrid-sweet fog of incense.

I also went to Sunday school, got homesick and danced to Billy Idol at a church-run summer camp at Lake Tahoe every year, and later joined youth group. I remember snipping felt and gold braid into elaborate costumes for a King David-related puppet show, hanging around at coffee hour for the cookies and feeling comforted by the recitation of the liturgy, every week the same, right down to the hissing “S” sounds of “trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer.

I was, in short, a pretty devout kid. But along the way, that changed. I decided I couldn’t really believe in the Resurrection, at least not literally, and if I didn’t believe in that, maybe I didn’t actually believe in the Bible, or, come to think of it, God. That led me to think that I probably shouldn’t get confirmed.

So I didn’t, and my church attendance dwindled over the years, until now I don’t even do that Christmas Eve and Easter thing. I’ve always loved the midnight mass service, though, come to think of it, what I most loved was singing along to Christmas carols, where in the legions of voices nobody can hear it if I didn’t quite hit the high note on “heavenly peace” in “Silent Night.”

Heavenly peace or no, for the most part, I’ve pretty much been at peace with having drifted away from organized religion.

Now, though, my daughter is 3, and we go to the farmers’ market and gym on Sunday mornings, not to services. I like both of those things, and I don’t feel that I can in good conscience provide my daughter with the same kind of religious upbringing I had. It would be hypocritical of me; I’m not a believer myself, and I can’t quite fake it for her.

But at the same time, I strongly value the upbringing I did have in church. It was a social network, a spiritual experience and a complete literary education. I have a Ph.D. in English, and let me tell you, reading Victorian British literature is no picnic if you don’t know your Bible references, not to mention that familiarity with Episcopalianism made it easier to understand what antidisestablishmentarianism was.

I’m sorry my daughter will miss all that, at least in the every-week, ordinary way that I experienced it; my mother is a member of the church, and she’ll take my daughter on occasion, with my blessing. I want my daughter to be exposed to religion and both familiar with and tolerant of different belief structures—but I don’t think I can go back to church for myself.

It’s not a political thing. I mean, let’s face it: Episcopalians are about as liberal as a religion gets. They ordain gay bishops! (And then they have schisms over it, but then maybe it’s just a schism-happy sort of church, insofar as it started with a schism over the king’s divorce.)

It’s a matter of deep-seated agnosticism I can’t believe my way out of. I’m still not really sure what the answer is. My husband was raised without a church upbringing, and he seems to have turned out fine (and also managed to get a Ph.D. in English, though he studies those godless modernists). His family discussed and tried out different churches and religions at different times, and maybe that’s something we’ll do when my daughter is older.

For now, though, we keep going to the farmers’ market and the gym, and every once in a while, when we pass Trinity Cathedral, I almost wish I could belong.