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Invited to join the party

09 January 2015

Peter McGeary finds pastoral good sense in a baptism course

Getting ready for Baptism: A practical course preparing children for baptism (course book)
Richard Burge, Penny Fuller, and Mary Hawes
Barnabas for Children £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10 (Use code CT251 )

My Baptism Journey (activity book)
Richard Burge, Penny Fuller, and Mary Hawes
Barnabas for Children £3.99
Church Times Bookshop £3.60 (Use code CT251 )

WHAT's the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You have, at least, a chance of negotiating with a terrorist.

A tasteless and cruelly accurate joke (from a Roman Catholic liturgist I know). There is a kind of liturgical fundamentalism that can afflict Christians of all shades and opinions. It falls over itself to do what's "in the book", and never more so when it comes to rites of Christian initiation.

This is particularly ironic in the context of the Church of England, given the apparent latitude that now obtains in Common Worship. The baptism rite has not worn well, being seen by some right from the start as far too wordy and didactic, and too easily predicated on things that cannot be taken for granted any more. I well remember baptising a baby with a packed church of the unchurched (extended families can be very large in the East End), and being required to ask the parents and godparents if they subscribed to various strands of Pauline thought that I do not understand. All very correct, but not very pastoral.

That makes these books all the more welcome. They are an ecumenical enterprise, and assume that the candidate is either a baby or a young child; consequently, much of the material is to do with parents and godparents as well as candidates. The activity book is intended for children, and provides a clear and attractive introduction to the rite and its meaning. There is plenty of space for the candidates to write down questions or thoughts, which might be shared with others later.

The course book has many strengths. It does not assume that the person leading any preparation is a minister, or formally qualified. It makes no assumptions about a particular "policy" of baptism. And it does not spoon-feed the reader with "how to do it". Instead, the authors recognise that baptism can take place at any stage of life, and that it involves a variety of people, not just an individual and his or her immediate family.

The main body of the book uses the image of baptism as a party: stage one is about being invited to the party; stage two is about enjoying it; stage three carries on the celebrations. This allows the authors to lay out a series of "courses" for the candidates and others, which, taken together, give a rounded picture of what baptism is about. There are practical suggestions about how long a session might take and what resources might be needed, but these are always to be qualified by context: one can give to people only what they are disposed to receive. There is no one "right" method.

Pastoral good sense comes at the reader again and again from these books. Congratulations again to the BRF for producing material in an attractive and durable layout.

The Revd Peter McGeary is the Vicar of St Mary's, Cable Street, in east London, and a Priest Vicar of Westminster Abbey.


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