Of baptism, press releases and consistency

The Church of England published a press release yesterday about baptism.

There was something of a mixed response on Twitter: broadly, it seems that some people are concerned that the press release contained too little theology, while others insist it must be as broad and general as this in order to be accessible rather than unwelcoming.

I think it is good to make things accessible and clear, and I welcome the attempt. The existing FAQ on baptism is not exactly free of “churchspeak”, though it is a good start at explanation and in some cases clearer and less wordy than the press release. Trying to take a sacrament, an outward sign or symbol of an inner grace, and put it into plain terms is no easy task, but someone’s got to do it. I expect this is usually a parish priest faced with baffled parents. Getting information out there that might reduce initial levels of bafflement is important. Good on the C of E for trying.

My concern over the press release was not at a lack of theology, but that it does not accurately describe what actually happens. The C of E is a broad church and one area where there is considerable diversity of practice is in baptism preparation. Some clergy think this preparation is very important, others see it as an unnecessary stumbling block or barrier to entry which we have no right to impose. Personally I lean toward the latter, though Canon B22 does allow for delay in order to instruct parents.

To me, the press release gives a general impression that if you want your child baptized all you have to do is ring up your local vicar and ask them to do it. In many cases this is true. In some cases, though, it isn’t that simple — and I worry that someone who has read the press release and then finds they are expected to attend a six-month course on the basic tenets of Christianity will be put off, not only by the prospect of the requirement they are presented with, but by the mixed messages they have received. I think that is the biggest issue with the press release.

Another criticism of the article was regarding the language used. Yes, there are areas of the country where people use “christening” instead of “baptism”, and yes, both terms are correct, but I think the “christening” demographic is less widespread than supposed. I think it is appropriate to use both terms rather than favouring “christening” in this case. I note also that the press release used the “-ise” spelling of “baptize”; an easy mistake to make, but “-ize” is closer to the Greek and is used in Common Worship and the Book of Common Prayer, so let’s have some consistency.

Some people also have issues with the word “vicar” where “parish priest” might be more appropriate. Again, I can see that “vicar” is going to be the most familiar word in some situations, but I don’t think that justifies using it even when it is not accurate, and it isn’t that hard to change the language to “vicar or another minister”. I don’t think this makes the language inaccessible — or at least not as much as the use of the word “replete”!

I said I would have a crack at producing something clearer. This might not be what I would write starting from scratch, but I think it isn’t bad as a second draft:

1) What is the difference between a baptism and a christening?

There is no difference, they are just different words for the same thing. Some people will use the word “baptism” and some the word “christening”. Babies are baptized during a christening service, just as couples are married during a wedding service.*

Christening is a traditional English word which means to become a member of the Christian church. Baptism means to be immersed in water. During a christening service a baby or child will be baptized with water and welcomed into the community of the local church.

2) What is baptism?

Baptism is a special ceremony to become a member of the Christian church. It involves turning away from all that is wrong, and turning towards Jesus Christ. It is also a celebration, a time to come together with family and friends, remembering and giving thanks that your child is loved by God, part of a wider community and has a place with God’s people.

3) What happens in the service?

Christening services have many symbols of new life. At your baby’s baptism water will be blessed and poured on the baby’s head. Water is a sign of new life, of being born again. The baby will be signed with the cross, representing Christian faith and reminding us that Jesus died for us; a special oil may be used for this. A candle may be given, a symbol of the light of Christ. Prayers will be offered for the baby and family. There may also be readings and hymns, which you may be able to choose.

4) Does a christening give my baby a name?

No. Your baby’s name is given when you register the birth. During the baptism, the baby’s name will be used often, and when the water is poured over the child’s head, the vicar or other minister will always use their name.

5) Who is allowed to have a christening service?

The Church of England welcomes all babies, children and families, whatever shape that family takes. You do not have to be married to have your child baptized. You do not have to be an active churchgoer — as parents, you do not even have to have been christened yourselves, though if you want to, you can be baptized in the same service as your child. The vicar or another minister will probably want to meet with you to get to know you and answer any questions you have about baptism, and some churches offer classes where you can learn more about Christian faith and life, but this is never meant to put you off! Everyone is welcome in their local church.

6) How much does a christening service cost?

The good news is that a christening service is free. There may be costs for a family party, for gifts, for christening robes or a small fee for a certificate — but the church service is free.

7) Where can I hold the christening?

You can have your baby baptized at your local parish church. If you want to have the christening at a different church, for example, where you grew up or where you were married, you will need to talk to the vicar at that church.

8) When can I have a christening?

You can have your baby or child christened at any age. There is no upper age limit, but after about the age of seven your child should be able to make the promises for themselves.

The service is usually held as part of a main Sunday service in the local church, but there are also opportunities to have a service at a different time, again usually on a Sunday. It’s best to talk to the vicar or minister at the church about this.

9) What about godparents?

The involvement of godparents can be one of the most joyful parts of the christening.

Godparents are not necessarily the people who will care for your child should anything happen to you. Rather they should be people who will be there for your child and help them think about the bigger questions in life — questions of love, hope and faith.

Every child should have no fewer than three godparents, at least two of the same sex as the child. Parents who are baptized may be godparents for their own children, providing they have at least one other godparent. Godparents must be baptized themselves and old enough to make some serious promises on behalf of the child.

10) How do I arrange a christening?

Simply contact the vicar or minister of the church where you want to hold the christening, and ask for advice.

You can find your local Church of England parish using our website, “A Church Near You“.

*Or wed during a service of marriage? I’m not sure this really holds, either the terms are interchangeable or they aren’t, but “wedding” and “marriage” are not a bad example of similar interchangeability, except that “marriage” refers to the ongoing partnership as well as to the act of marrying.

What would you say differently? Why?

3 thoughts on “Of baptism, press releases and consistency

  1. The one thing I would add would be ór immersed’ when describing what might happen. If one reads the Prayer Book immersion is the standard form unless the godparents affirm that the child is too sickly. At some point ‘sickly’ became the norm. THere’s an interesting thread in Eccles on the Ship of Fools at the moment called ‘Drowning the old Adam’ about a full immersion infant baptism. It should be noted that thurible on ship-of-fools /= @thurible on twitter!

  2. Spot on. It’s false advertising. Sure, this is the way that probably the majority of clergy operate, but where a church has any kind of baptism policy in agreement with the canons, this document both undermines that policy, and sets up parents for disappointment and rejection.

    It also doesn’t mention that godparents should “usually” be confirmed. The parish priest can dispense with the requirement, but is fully within their rights to insist-it is clearly defined as the ideal in the canons. Parents often choose their godparents before they talk to their priest anyway,if they read this first they would think they had made choices that fit the bill and then discover they have to think again.

  3. Is it unfair to ask why there is no mention of Jesus in this at all too? I hope it was unintentional! I also think some passing mention of the vows and declarations of faith might have been helpful.

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