I HAVE always enjoyed baptising babies, and feel deeply moved whenever I do so. I am conscious of playing a very small part in an act of eternal significance worked by God.
There is something about the sight of a tiny baby having water poured over his or her head in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit which powerfully reminds me that one cannot somehow earn or deserve salvation, or work one’s ticket: one just has to accept it, with simple faith and love for Jesus.
It is, perhaps, unnecessary to point out that most parents who bring their babies to be baptised are not regular members of church congregations. Although that does happen, it is rare.
For the most part, they probably attended Sunday school, and may have been confirmed, before lapsing in their teens, or after leaving university. Sometimes, their only experience of Christianity may have come through school assemblies, and harvest or carol services.
OCCASIONALLY, I have encountered parishes and clergy who have given the impression of being slightly reluctant to baptise the babies of parents who have not hitherto been regular churchgoers. They are, perhaps, trying to protect the integrity of the sacrament — which is laudable — but they can sometimes inadvertently appear unwelcoming.
God, of course, does not need humans somehow to try to protect him; and I have often thought, when contacted by the parents of a newborn baby, that the Holy Spirit may have been working overtime to get them to approach me about baptism. The arrival of their new baby has sparked off deep currents of love which they barely knew were within them, and memories of Christianity have bubbled to the surface.
They want to do their best for their baby; and they have remembered that there is something called baptism.
I make a point of cheerfully welcoming parents who enquire about baptism, warmly congratulating them on the birth of their baby, and trying to put them at their ease if they are nervous. Their ideas and motives may be all jumbled up, but I give them what Bishop John Ryle of Liverpool once called “the generous assumption”.
When I meet them, I may at some point ask, with a smile: “So, you believe in God, then?” This usually elicits a slightly shocked “Yes”, or “Of course”, and that is enough for me. For the parents, answering that question out loud can be the next step on their pilgrimage of faith.
WHEN I was a curate, I used to hold fairly austere baptism preparation classes. Over the past 30 years, however, I have learned that — in the words of the old Scots proverb — “you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar”. Perhaps I have also learned to relax about it.
I pray for the baby and parents, in church and in my private prayers. I also try to visit the parents informally at home, and may telephone them once or twice before the service, all the time evincing enthusiasm for the forthcoming baptism.
I invite them to come to church on some Sundays before the baptism. This can be a strange experience for the parents if the Sunday eucharist is largely unfamiliar; so I try to greet them when they arrive at church, and reassure them that I don’t mind if their baby makes a bit of noise during the service (it is a sad church that never hears the sound of babies and children).
I usually find a member of the congregation to talk to the family and to keep an eye on them during the eucharist. This, though, needs to be done with sensitivity: too hearty a welcome may come across as interference, or an attempt at brainwashing, and put them off.
I usually say something during the service about coming to the altar rail for a blessing during the communion if one is not confirmed, and invite everyone to stay behind for coffee afterwards: my aim is to make the parents of the baby feel welcome and wanted in church.
A FEW weeks before the baptism, I invite the parents and godparents (and anyone else who wants to come along) to what I call a “rehearsal” (which does not sound threatening) in church, “so we all know what we’re doing on the big day”. Fortunately, we have a stained-glass window depicting the baptism of Jesus by St John the Baptist in the River Jordan, and I usually take any children over to look at this, which means that the grown-ups come, too, and are reminded of the story. Then, back at the font, I very simply say something linking baptism with the Easter story.
When I was first ordained, we mostly administered baptism during the sung eucharist on Sunday mornings. This works for some families, but not for others. After a lot of careful thought and prayer, we have started to offer baptism on Sunday afternoons, as well as during the eucharist — 12.15 p.m. has proved quite a popular time. It means that churchwardens and one or two members of the congregation can stay behind after the eucharist to lend a hand and greet the people attending the baptism.
We usually sing a hymn at the start, and another at the end. Photographs can be taken, and, if invited, I will pop along to the family party afterwards. Some parishes follow up baptisms by delivering cards on the first anniversary. Inviting baptism families to Mothering Sunday or Christingle services can also be successful.
HAVING quoted the Evangelical Bishop Ryle, perhaps I might also quote the Anglo-Catholic Bishop Edward King, of Lincoln, who used to advise his clergy to “rub lightly”. We might prefer parents bringing their babies to baptism to know a little more about Christianity, and to show greater commitment than they sometimes seem to.
But, without being silly about it, we probably need to be more relaxed. We are all at different stages on a pilgrimage. We need to convey to parents the message that baptising their baby is the most natural thing in the world, and that it is our pleasure and privilege to be of service to them. The rest is up to God.
We may see the family again after their baby’s baptism, or we may not. But, if they disappear from our lives, that does not mean that the baptism has no effect. It may bear fruit in ways that we cannot imagine, and in places we shall never see.
We need to offer our baptisms, like so many other things in the work of our churches, to God in prayer: “Lord, we did our best — now, over to you.”
The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Great and Little Bardfield, in Essex.