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
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
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.