The great ques­tion on chris­ten­ings to­day,

The Church of England - - Front Page - By John Hart­ley Bap­tismal In­tegrity John Hart­ley is vicar of Ec­cleshill, Brad­ford, in the Dio­cese of West York­shire and the Dales

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.

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