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.