THERE has been a flurry of letters about baptism for the
children of non-church families, prompted by a complaint (Letters, 17 August)
about a service where the rite featured "as an add-on just before
the end" and "showed a marked lack of interest on the part of the
church". However much care is taken over the framing of the
liturgy, and however much advice is given to incumbents, there will
always be services that are clumsy. It might be a good priest
having a bad day, or something more serious.
A proprietorial view of baptism does prevail, however, in
certain quarters. Well-meant attempts to prepare families for the
service can be mixed with efforts to keep the rite pure from people
who appear to have little conception of its meaning. Alternatives
are offered (with or without honey), sometimes successfully, but at
the risk of suggesting that the child or its family is somehow not
good enough. At its Sunday eucharist, the Greenbelt congregation
sang an adapted version of a Mike Scott song: "Bring 'em all in".
The core message that a parish church must give out is that there
are no outsiders.
This does not always translate into a chummy inclusion into the
parish communion, however. Although this is now the norm, the fact
that such services work best when the social background of the
baptismal party matches that of the congregation should worry those
who plan them. Problems occur when this is not the case. Ideally,
one wouldn't start from here, and some familiarity with churchgoing
would have been nurtured beforehand. But even the best programme of
preparation does not extend to the whole of the baptismal party.
Thus an all-together service can be long for anyone coping with an
infant or toddler, the music is unfamiliar, the bread-and-wine
business is baffling, and the dress code is unfathomable. Some of
our correspondents this week describe the efforts they go to to
counteract these impressions, but the danger then is that, repeated
too often, such services can become wearisome for regular
On occasions, it can be wisest to develop what our critic above
might term "an add-on just after the end": a separate service,
perhaps with some members of the congregation staying on, which can
be geared more precisely to the family's interests and condition.
It is worth remembering that the baptismal party is just as valid a
manifestation of the Church as a regular congregation.
Baptism is a sacrament, and therefore not restricted by either a
particular church's policy or the grasp that the parents or the
candidate have of what is going on. It is another of those
instances in the life of a church when the purposes of God are
hidden from sight. The candle that is presented at most baptisms is
an apt symbol for the spark that is struck whenever a newcomer
encounters Christ. It might take a while, and further tending, for
the flame to show.