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Baptism for all

31 August 2012

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 attenders.

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.

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