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A Rite on the Edge: The language of baptism and christening in the Church of England, by Sarah Lawrence

by
07 February 2020

David Stancliffe reviews an even-handed study of a pastoral occasion

SINCE I came to live in Weardale in the diocese of Durham, my experience of celebrating initiation rites has changed radically. Formerly, I was most typically baptising and confirming with my episcopal colleagues at large-scale vigil rites in the cathedral, where the majority of the candidates would be older teenagers or adults from a number of parishes. They were taking the opportunity to experience something new and distinctive about the life of the Church as they celebrated their new-found faith.

Here, especially during a prolonged vacancy in this geographically strung-out benefice, my experience has been very different. For the most part, the requests for christenings come from the families who go to the weekly parent-and-toddler group, run by a group of dedicated laywomen. This isn’t very churchy, but it is the weekly event that shows the most signs of life and hope for the future, and it is church-sponsored.

Those who ask for their children to be christened are longing to do the best for them. They want to give thanks for a safe delivery, and to have an opportunity to celebrate the wonderful gift of new life. They want them to inherit their place as active members of these small communities, and much thought is given to the choice of responsible godparents among their friends. Belonging, celebrating their identities by choosing their names, giving thanks for their safe arrival, and praying for a blessing on their futures are all natural parts of the responsibility of starting a family. They are delighted that the church will welcome them to do it, and make it an occasion.

The distinction between “baptism” — the word preferred by the churchy — and “christening” — what these families are seeking — is the subject of this highly readable, well-researched, and important book, which should be in the hands of every parish priest, chaplain, and bishop. I cannot commend it too highly.

On one level, it is a scholarly and painstaking adaptation of a doctoral thesis that explores the difference between the two terms etymologically, theologically, and sociologically. But it is so much more: it is a wise and perceptive challenge to the Church’s current preoccupation with the mantra of mission. Do you start with the gospel’s challenge to follow Jesus, or by engaging with the deepest longings of those who are reaching for something better, but are not yet sure how to find it?

Sarah Lawrence, a priest who has served parishes in Lincolnshire, Shropshire, and Anglesey, and now works in ministerial formation for the diocese of Lincoln, begins her book with the etymology: “What’s in a word?” and follows this by charting “The history of the terms ‘baptism’ and ‘christening’ in the English language”. These chapters are followed by “Christening, baptism and the giving of a name”, “Marriage-like vows”, and “Godparents”, where the concerns of those who ask their church for a christening are sympathetically articulated before we come to the three chapters whose headings indicate the other sides of the argument: “Just an excuse for a party: Joy and celebration in baptism” is followed by “Yes, but is it really Christian baptism?” and most tellingly “Whose Church is it anyway?”.

I have listed the chapter titles in full, as they give a better description in a compact form of the shape and argument of the book than I could write in twice as many words. In addition, Lawrence’s writing is as riveting as her chapter headings, and, while I am usually pretty allergic to the jargon of the social sciences (and to theology!), I found that this book gripped me from start to finish. And it is even-handed, not campaigning. Lawrence writes: “Baptism without christening becomes stale and cold, a harsh creed which commands doctrinal correctness but forgets human love. Christening without baptism becomes shallow and detached from the source of its meaning and significance.”

I am so used to the self-absorbed churchiness of the Church of England which has been slowly turning it into an exclusive sect of the like-minded that I was genuinely surprised to read such a well-argued book, championing the Church’s vocation as the inclusive community that could again offer a life-affirming vision to the nation. Perhaps it is not too late to turn the tide.

The Rt Revd David Stancliffe is a former Bishop of Salisbury and chaired the Liturgical Commission.

A Rite on the Edge: The language of baptism and christening in the Church of England
Sarah Lawrence
SCM Press £25
(978-0-334-05850-2)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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