In this week’s blog I want to reflect on the findings of Sarah Lawrence, whose book A Rite on the Edge: The Language of Baptism and Christening in the Church of England (SCM, London 2019) I reviewed last week in my series, ‘Books for ~Today’. According to her research, most non-churchgoers are oblivious to the theological significance of baptism: rather for them ‘christening’ is primarily an opportunity to make marriage-like vows of love and commitment toward the children. She suggests that churches should consider offering ‘naming ceremonies’. She makes the point that
the Common Worship service of ‘Thanksgiving for a child’ does many of the things that families want from a christening and would expect of a naming ceremony. If it were called a naming ceremony, rather than a Thanksgiving, then this would be readily understood and slot into a place in the ritual system, of modern Britain that is already well understood and valued.
Her suggestion made me wonder whether churches that do not practise infant baptism might also consider re-branding their services for young children and turn them into ‘naming ceremonies’. I think that this could be a helpful exercise in mission.
Certainly, Baptist ‘dedication’ services could do with a ‘rebranding’. Even regular worshippers are confused with the term: they often think the baby is being dedicated, whereas it is the parents who are dedicating themselves to the task of Christian parenthood. To make it clear what we were doing, I used to describe the rite as a ‘service of thanksgiving, promise-making, and blessing’. But what a mouthful that was! Although I prided myself on the creative form of words I had written for the service, the reality was that it had become an extraordinarily complicated event. At the same time that we were thanking God for the child and asking God’s blessing upon the child, not only were the parents making promises to bring up their child in God’s way, but the congregation was also making promises to support the parents and the child. Although these ‘dedication’ services (to use the unhelpful short-hand) were frequent, nonetheless on every occasion I had to explain at length to the church – and in particular to the non-church friends and family who had turned up – what the service was all about. Things then got even more complicated once non-church people (perhaps connected with our toddlers’ group) wanted their child ‘done’.
The Thanksgiving Service found in the Church of England’s Common Worship has the great advantage of being much simpler. Devised for ‘parents who do not wish their children to be baptised immediately’ and for parents ‘who recognise that something has happened for which they wish to give thanks to God’, the pastoral introduction to the service states:
The birth or adoption of a child is a cause for celebration. Many people are overcome by a sense of awe at the creation of new life and want to express their thanks to God. This service provides an opportunity for parents and families to give thanks for the birth or adoption of a child and to pray for family life. It may be a private celebration at home or in hospital, or it may be a public celebration in church.
The service has a six-fold structure:
- The Gathering which includes the introductory words: ‘We are here today, family and friends, to give thanks for this child and to support her parents in their responsibilities with our prayers and love. God became one of us in Jesus and understands all that surrounds the arrival and upbringing of children. It is God’s purpose that children should know love within the stability of their home, grow in faith, and come at last to the eternal city where his love reigns supreme’.
- Reading(s) and ‘Sermon’.
- The Thanksgiving and Blessing: ‘May he/she learn to love all that is true, grow in wisdom and strength, and, in due time, come through faith and baptism to the fullness of your grace, through Jesus Christ our Lord’. Significantly between the thanksgiving and the blessing the minister asks: ‘What name have you given this child?’ to which a parent or supporting friend says: ‘His/her name is …’
- The Giving of a Gospel to the parents with the words: ‘Receive this book. It is the good news of God’s love. Take it as your guide’, followed by promises by parents and then by family member to ‘pray for and encourage’ the child as he or she ‘ grows in the knowledge and love of God’.
- Prayers including the Lord’s Prayer.
- The Ending which is a blessing. For example: “The love of the Lord Jesus draw you to himself, the power of the Lord Jesus strengthen you in his service, the joy of the Lord Jesus fill your hearts; and the blessing of God almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always.
I have been present at such a service and found it most moving. Probably, for copyright reasons, Baptists and others would need to write their own form of words – but it could easily be an adaption of Common Worship.
But to return to Sarah Lawrence: she suggests that for the sake of non-church people we call the service a ‘Naming Ceremony’. With mission in mind, I think this rebranding could be a splendid idea. One thing for sure: it would certainly appeal to many Africans, who are very familiar with the concept of a naming ceremony.
The cynic in me would suggest that many having children christened in the CofE, who are never seen in the church again, are doing it to get their children into the local CofE primary school – whose Ofsted rating is often very good.
The rebranding idea is excellent, but some CofE clergy are of the opinion that Christening ‘makes a baby a Christian’ which is very difficult to justify from the Biblical text.
I have for many years, in the churches of which I have been Pastor, offered three options.
1. A traditional Baptist dedication – with the understanding is that it is for committed Christians who wish to make profound promises to God.
2. A simple thanksgiving for the birth of a child, coupled with a prayer of blessing but no promises – this has usually been for the grandchildren of Christians, where the children (i.e. the new parents) are not committed Christians themselves but still wish to bring their new child into church.
3. A “half-way” house, for parents who want to bring their new child into church and, indeed, wish to make serious promises but cannot really make them to God. I ask them to make promises such as “to be the best parents they can possibly be” and “to teach the child good principles for life” without asking them to perjure themselves by declaring they’ll bring the child up in the Christian faith. Usually these parents are outsiders who want their child “done” and we have sometimes managed to retain contact with them afterwards, especially if they have been (say) involved in our Toddler Group.
To me there are two major sticking points. The first is those Anglicans who will baptise all children irrespective of the families’ beliefs or involvement in the church, and even go so far as saying that the children are now “part of Christ’s Church”. I know they will argue vigorously about God’s grace coming upon the child, but I just can’t see things that way. The other point is those parents who aren’t prepared to have a Thanksgiving alone but insist on the magical splash of water on the baby’s head. I’m afraid I cannot serve them; and they well end up saying that “the Church turned us away” even though I’ve tried to explain our position and offered them the alternative.
Having said all that, I once knew a High Church Vicar who had quite successfully built up a congregation almost entirely through Baptisms and other Occasional Offices!
Some interesting replies, which highlight the pitfalls- but generally I think the idea of a Naming Ceremony set as you suggest between a thanksgiving and blessing may draw in non church people and may be a way of pointing them in the direction of faith without their feeling too quickly immersed in “church language” .
Harald Frey, Hamburg-Altona Baptist Church, Christuskirche, Germany
Since about the 1980ies we do have a blessing ceremony during the Sunday Service. The family, including the elder children and if required the grandparents, are blessed by the elders in front of the congregation, normaly after a short interview about the family, their situation, and some personal information. We usually have a booklet for the child and the sisters and brothers, like the illustrated children´s Bible by Kees de Kort or something appropriate.
They go “on their way rejoicing.” and we feel this is quite a good way for a first step. One of our sons went further, having two friends as godfather or godmother. As their children now are 12, 9 and 6 we have been able to see that the concept is quite successfull, the relationship between the godmothers and godfarthers to the children and the family is quite close.