The great question on christenings today,
In my many years of persuading people who have enquired about “christenings” to have services of Thanksgiving and Blessing for their babies, I’ve run into a very few searching questions by those enquirers, but a lot more from churchgoers. Mostly these come from people who’ve simply never seen it done before, and I’m writing about them mainly because of conversations I have had with new vicars who were trying to think the whole issue through.
Are you really a Baptist, despite being a Priest in the Church of England?
No: a Baptist believes infants aren’t capable of being baptized. I don’t believe that: I simply think it is better to wait until the candidates can express a desire for baptism themselves. Technically: I believe infant baptisms are valid, whereas Baptists don’t.
‘Better to wait’ for whom?
Better for the candidates, because that way they get the chance to say for themselves that they want to follow Jesus, and so their baptism becomes a sign of a personal decision rather than simply a piece of their history. Better for the parents, because they are involved in bringing their children up “to follow Jesus within the family of the local church” (as the service says). And better for the local church, because baptism is restored to its place of welcoming new disciples into the fellowship.
Isn’t it still right to baptize the children of committed parents?
Yes, it may be if they want this; but actually there are many committed parents who nevertheless realise that our children are only on trust to us for a little while, and while we may lead them to water, we cannot make them drink.
Aren’t you denying children the rights of church membership?
No: Jesus welcomed little children without baptizing them (Mark 10:13-16) and shared table fellowship and discussions with all sorts of people whose baptisms the Bible doesn’t record: for instance Zacchaeus, Bartimaus, Nicodemus and so on (for that matter, the baptisms of the disciples aren’t explicitly recorded in the Bible either). The welcome a church extends to children has little to do with sacraments and everything to do with atmosphere and attitude.
Isn’t baptism the start of Christian commitment?
Yes, but the key point is that commitment is not the start of people’s journey into faith. People who enquire about “christenings” are not usually wanting to express commitment: surveys have shown that mostly they are wanting to “do the right thing”, to mark their child’s birth, to commission special people, and to say “thank you” to God in some way. All of these things are better done in a service of Thanksgiving, which doesn’t get these elements mixed up with promises.
Isn’t delaying baptisms a pastoral disaster?
No, on the contrary, services of Thanksgiving and Blessing can be wonderful events of welcome: interesting, exciting, challenging and deeply fulfilling. Of course they can fall flat, as baptisms also can. I remember many clergy who have said to me “What you do would never work here” – but the plain fact is that I have worked in a variety of different settings, and Thanksgivings have worked extremely well in all of them.
Is it legal to delay baptisms?
Yes. I can’t give a long answer in a newspaper column, but read Colin Buchanan’s booklet.
How is it ‘Anglican’ to go against the Prayer Book’s desire that children should all be baptized?
First, the Church of England was originally supposed to be a church to which all Christians in the land can belong, and to that end it has always said that what cannot be proved from scripture is not to be required of members. It is a plain fact that the Bible does not state whether infants should be baptized or not, and therefore it follows that people like me have a place within our church as loyal Anglicans, and deserve respect. Second, the Canons and the rubrics of the services have always said that there were conditions on bap- tisms: qualifications of godparents and the like. Baptism was never an unconditional free-for-all. Third, the Prayer Book was written for a churchgoing culture; but times have changed, and the church is called upon to proclaim the faith afresh in each generation.
At what age should children be baptised, if not as infants?
I don’t think there is a single right answer to that. People express their commitment to follow Jesus at different ages and as a result of different triggers and challenges in their lives. If children ask for baptism then I say “yes”, and I try to build on it as a way of helping them to draw closer to Jesus.