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Baptism: difficult or easy?

11 October 2013

TRYING to find a suitable christening present for my great-niece made me reflect on the distance between christening and baptism. The gap has been evident for years, possibly centuries.

My father, who was born in 1914, had a silver christening mug, which has come down to me. Napkin rings and spoons have also long been popular. None of these traditional gifts has anything obvious to do with the Christian faith. Today's array of gifts is much the same, only perhaps a bit tackier.

For generations, the Church accommodated all this without too much trouble, recognising that Christian baptism in a mature society such as ours is both an initiation into the Christian faith, and a social rite of passage for new babies and their parents, which acknowledges the Christian context in which we still live.

Christenings are christenings, after all. The water, the priest, the presents, and the party are all part of the same package. It is the contemporary Church that has unraveled all this. The current baptism service, unlike that in the Book of Common Prayer, takes the much rarer event of adult baptism as the norm, and leaves it to the priest to cut back or adapt as best he or she can for the typical Sunday-afternoon event.

The reasoning behind the change made sense to many at the time that Common Worship was being devised. New liturgical scholarship had recovered some of the once-and-for-all intensity associated with baptism in the Early Church. It was an opting out of normal society rather than an opting in.

Evangelicals and Catholics in the C of E agreed that baptism should be brought back into the centre of church life. But there was always something over-idealistic about this. We are not first-century Christians, facing possible persecution, but heirs to centuries of faith, which continue to have an impact on the whole of society.

Those who continued to expect to bring their babies to church to be christened did not change their expectations just because churches changed theirs. Many were baffled by being "included" in a main Sunday service; some congregations got fed up with endless baptisms of the otherwise unchurched.

All this leaves us unsure of how best to fulfil our mission; by making baptism difficult (discipleship classes, promises to come to church regularly, etc.) or easy (all comers welcome - good to get them through the door). Whatever the right answer, our baptism policy is in a bit of a mess.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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