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This beginning

25 October 2013

THE christening of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's son, Prince George, was taking place in the Chapel Royal at St James's Palace on Wednesday as the Church Times was going to press. Royal baptisms have in the recent past been held in Buckingham Palace. Comment on this break with royal custom has focused on the personal significance of this particular chapel for the Duke and Duchess. Be that as it may, a relatively insignificant custom may have been broken, but a tradition of vast significance for the infant and for his family has been maintained. And this occasion is that much more like any experienced by any ordinary Christian family for being held in a chapel that is regularly used for public services rather than in a domestic music room. The infant Prince has been "brought to church" by his parents in order to be "received into the Church" by the administration of a great sacrament that the Prayer Book describes as "that thing which by nature he cannot have" - baptism, which, in conferring grace by means of an outward and visible sign, is itself a gift of grace from God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ. "Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this Child is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ's Church, let us give thanks unto almighty God for these benefits, and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning."

It is, perhaps, also reflective of a change of attitude in the Church of England that the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was officiating, has seen it as an opportunity to invite other families the length and breadth of the land to bring their children and/or, indeed, themselves to church for baptism. For centuries, the instinct of people who felt that in some way they were Church of England, even though they may not have expressed that instinct in regular church attendance, was to bring their infants to church to be baptised. That instinct has been whittled away not only by secularism but by the influence within the Church of would-be baptismal reformers whose pastoral innovations have not brought all the happy consequences that were, no doubt, intended. As a result, there are places where parishioners rarely bring their children to the font, and many people who no longer understand what that involves, even in the most basic terms of what takes place, let alone the commitment. 

Hence, no doubt, the very simple talk that the Archbishop has given in an online video this week, and the timely message that it sends out. It is possible, of course, to pick theological holes in the exact words that the Archbishop used. Whether, for example, baptism is "bringing God into the middle of it all" is a happy phrase could, for example, be debated. But that would be to miss the point. What really needs to be given thought is whether, when parents approach the clergy about the baptism of their child - and it is likely that the royal christening will prompt such approaches - they will receive an unhesitating welcome, and obstacles will not be put in their way; for a Church that is seen as not welcoming babies, as Christ welcomed little children into his arms, will be judged by those who experience this rebuff as not a welcoming Church at all.

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