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Baptism in the main Sunday service: reflections on good and bad practice

31 August 2012


From the Revd Dr Rosalyn Murphy

Sir, - As a priest serving in an urban priority area, I read with interest the letter on baptism in the main Sunday service (17 August).

I wonder if the writer fully understands the complex environment in which parish priests work today - particularly when celebrating baptism for a family who have never attended church and have little idea of what the Christian faith entails. At times, this beautiful service of initiation into the Christian faith is approached as parents might plan a birthday party.

I have found that most are not interested in attending our baptism-preparation evening. Instead, numerous excuses are provided: "I forgot the time." "I forgot the day." "Do I really need to attend? It's the baby being baptised." "We can't find a sitter." "That's the baby's feeding time." And, of course my all-time personal favourite: "The weather is simply 'too hot' for coming out."

We offer a wonderful baptism programme at our church. It begins with a personal letter from me to the family making the enquiry, and is followed by a home visit from our baptism co-ordinator. Informational evenings on baptism preparation are held every month, and our programme includes an invitation to parents and their baby to visit our weekly "Mums and Tots" morning, as well as our "Kidz Church" and "RockStars" after-school programmes.

We also encourage them to attend our all-age family Sunday service, so that they can experience the worship setting in which their child will be baptised, and, we hope, share this with their guests who will attend the service on the day.

We obtain a photo of the child being baptised for a special order of service designed and published for the service, and the child's photo appears on our visual sites in the church throughout the service.

In planning the service, when parents are asked to provide a scripture that they would enjoy having read, their invariable shock is quite evident. Out of nearly 100 baptisms, only one couple has ever provided a special reading. The reality is that many of the young people who request services of baptism, naming, and thanksgiving simply do not attend church, and appear to have no long-term plans to do so.

In many instances, this timeless service offering initiation into the most practised religion in the world is approached as an excuse to dress up and later attend a party. Often, guests arrive intoxicated, use mobile phones throughout, leave their seats to smoke outside the church entrance, use profanity, and even engage in altercations afterwards on the church grounds. And yet we continue to serve our parish.

Our research has shown that we manage to lead one out of four families to Christ - but only among those who attend every aspect of the programme. I sympathise and pray for those clergy who simply do not have the resources (human and financial) that would avail them to offer a similar programme. I also wonder if this is the "norm", or does my parish represent the "exception"?

The question that constantly prods my thinking is: is it worth it? My response: unequivocally, YES.

St Thomas' Vicarage, Devonshire Road, Blackpool, Lancashire FY3 8AE


From the Diocesan Chancellor of Salisbury

Sir, - Most incumbents now prefer to include baptism in a public service so that the person baptised may be welcomed into the church community. In my own church (St John's, Tisbury), when the baptism is part of the weekly parish communion (with organ and robed choir), a locally produced booklet is used, setting out the entirety of the service, to make sure that newcomers know precisely what is happening.

The baptism is central to the whole service. In fact, baptisms often take place at the monthly informal family service (not robed, with music from a 12-piece band). When this happens, the entire service, including the talk, is structured round the baptism. In neither case is there any sense of the baptism's being tacked on to the end, and it never should be.

I am sorry that your correspondent (17 August) has had unfortunate experiences. When I have been to baptisms at other churches, I have always found them to be an integral part of the service, as is good practice. Perhaps training is needed in some places.

c/o Church House, Crane Street, Salisbury SP1 2QB


From the Revd Andrea Williams

Sir, - I read the letter regarding baptism in the main service with a heavy heart. The service the writer attended had obviously made a really negative impact on him and his wife.

Baptisms are a wonderful opportunity to welcome a baby, the parents, and indeed the whole family, together with the godparents, into the fellowship of the church. I imagine most priests would indeed adjust the set readings and the sermon - although on Mothering Sunday I had no need to, as the reading was about the finding of the baby Moses. What a gift!

My churchwardens also take an active part, as the baby is baptised during the main service. They present the baptismal candle and also a child's Bible, encouraging the parents to put it into the bookcase with all the other books to be read and to become dog-eared.

I do not tack a baptism on to the end of the service unless the family have asked specifically. Sometimes this does happen because some of the godparents and guests have a long journey and cannot get to the main service in time.

Our baptism services are full of joy, where not only the baby is the focus of attention, but Jesus Christ, too, our Saviour who is the source of our joy.

(St Nicholas's, Rotherfield Greys)
203 Greys Road, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire RG9 1SP


From the Revd Mark Wallace

Sir, - I was very saddened to read of your correspondent's experience at a recent baptism in a main Sunday service. It does not reflect my own experience; many clergy work very hard to make baptism families feel included and valued in our Sunday services.

I have always tried to place a baptism or thanksgiving at the beginning of the service rather than at the end, so that families don't have to wait too long, and their children don't get too restless. Although we don't normally depart from our sermon series, we try to preach in a way that is relevant to visitors and that specifically mentions both the child being baptised and his or her family.

Of course, this all comes in a context where we have tried to get to know the family over time, with visits and times in church. It is not rocket science to do this well, and it makes the most of a very significant pastoral opportunity.

Vicar of All Saints', Lightwater, 28 Broadway Road, Lightwater, Surrey GU18 5SJ


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