AS A curate, I agonised about the integrity of the promises that people were making in baptism services, or about the integrity of saying the words of the Christian funeral service over the body of someone I did not know, and who had not evidently been an active member of the Church.
Though, taken as a whole, Occasional Offices remained the most fruitful path through which people grew in faith, I think of a variety of “baptism policies” — home visits, the use of teaching DVDs, compulsory church attendance — but none had a huge success rate in terms of attracting new church-committed Christian disciples.
How do we make sense of this? I found four tools helpful.
THE first was the realisation that there is no perfect way to conduct Christian baptism. The New Testament does not provide a neat blueprint for how to do it. The Church has administered baptism in a variety of ways: at the point of a sword, at one end of the spectrum, and after conscious, free adult choice, at the other end.
We should remember that our recommended pattern of trying to conduct them during the main act of worship on Sundays is the Church’s current strategy. It is not infallible or universal or timeless — or perhaps always wise and kind.
How hospitable is it to require irregular churchgoers to sit through a lengthy liturgy, much of which may not be easily comprehensible? I can still see the baptism parties leaving at the Peace because they naturally assumed that warm greetings and handshakes and hugs marked the end of the service, not half-time. . .
SECOND, it matters that we take seriously what people are bringing to the event. When I was research-ing working-class attitudes to the Church in the late 19th and 20th centuries, one of the phrases that leapt out from the interviews was: “You go when you need to.”
The C of E in working-class areas of England was normally “socially superior”. Certainly, the vicar was. And in many places it was on the side of the Establishment and the bosses. So it was an institution to be treated with some caution, and not too much respect — especially if one believed in the second popular saying: “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” So, a family would come to church seeking what they wanted, and not be immediately malleable to the Church’s wishes.
My experience suggests that much of this is still the case. I think of the surprise of one father when it dawned on him that we expected to stay in touch after the christening: “I never thought that having N christened meant having something to do with the Church.” This was not said unkindly.
More positively, people are coming to these Occasional Offices with quite strong operative theologies. They may be inarticulate according to the standards of degree-educated clergy, but this is often significant “ordinary” theology. They tell us that christening is about becoming a member of the Church; that in christening God is promising to bless and protect their child. Who am I to despise this?
MY THIRD tool is that I learned not to be over-ambitious. In my imagination, during these baptism visits and christening services, people would be so moved by the Spirit (and my own ministry!) that they would come to put their faith in Christ.
Slowly, it dawned on me that, if I acted like a Spanish timeshare salesman, I would be treated as such. Much smarter was to discern where a person was, and meet them there.
The baptism service in the Book of Common Prayer is focused on the child, not the beliefs of the parents. This should still be the focus of Kingdom parish ministry, which has a wide perspective alongside the joy and duty of gathering new disciples.
AS WELL as humility and modesty, a fourth tool is needed if we are to undertake classic pastoral ministry effectively: faith.
Faith that this is indeed God’s world, and that God is active in it. Whether we label this the missio Dei or “prevenient grace”, it does not matter, as long as we remember that grace goes before us and that it is in grace that we trust for ourselves. And there is faith that God hears the prayers of the Church, and of the family, and honours the promises made on God’s behalf in the service.
The phrase “sacrament of the present moment” is not original, and has its origins elsewhere. But it seems very apt to describe what is happening in these Occasional Offices. They are sacramental moments when, in the often chaotic mess of life, God becomes actively and visibly present through welcome, relationship, compassion, action, some words, and the formal sacrament.
They are touches of grace, often life-shaping, normally important, but not always full of longevity. Especially in a busy parish, there are many more Occasional Offices than can be followed up. And, as we noted earlier, for some people the service is enough. That is what they wanted the Church for: that moment in time, when, often, no one else would do.
Rightly, we struggle with this. Compared with the long-term, life-changing relationship with Christ, these fleeting encounters are “second best”. But they are still good and important. Perhaps we would do them better if we understood them more realistically.
This takes us to the heart of one of the deepest challenges of vicaring. What, for us, is a routine event is, for the family, almost always vitally important. The relationship we build needs to be warm and authentic, but it is a relationship to us in role. I never felt more “in role” than in an Occasional Office. Any sense that we are doing people a favour by allowing them access to these rites, or talking down to them, or doing them indifferently, is missional suicide.
This is an edited extract from Vicar: Celebrating the renewal of parish ministry by Alan Bartlett (SPCK, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.69)).