Saturday, July 18, 2009

Baptism boom hits Gloucestershire

Recently, my phone has been red-hot as all over parish in the valley, parents have decided that now is the acceptable time to baptise their offspring.
Time and again, the opening gambit
"Vicar, I wanted to find out about getting my daughter done..."

We've so many on the books that I'm baptising on Saturdays as well as Sundays, have long since abandoned suggesting of baptism at the Eucharist except for church families (we'd never have an ordinary Sunday at all - & it seems to me to demand too much of the huge crowds of supporters who've never set foot in church before) and even briefly entertained the idea of baptising two candidates at the one service (something I've never considered before, as it seems to me horribly easy for that to turn into a conveyor-belt experience - bad for everyone).

If even one in ten of this summer's candidates became a regular part of the church family, there would be a noticeable impact on our congregations - but my suspicion is that this won't happen,that though the parents are genuinely seeking "To do the best thing" for their child, they don't expect baptism to really change anything.

Of course I believe that in baptism, as in all the sacraments, the initiative is God's - that regardless of what happens once the bridesmaid's dress or tiny waistcoat have been put away, baptism celebrates something of profound and eternal significance - our adoption into Christ's family.So my views are light years away from those of a colleague in the diocese who once described the sort of baptism I engage with regularly as "a waste of time".If the initiative lies with God, it's not up to me, as a minister of God's church, to attempt to erect barriers, though I work hard to combine inclusive welcome with a culture of awareness that what we are engaged in really matters. So I spend alot of time in preparation sessions encouraging parents to reflect on the baptismal promises, and always say that I cannot think of anything worse than making that sort of declaration in public with one's fingers crossed. I make sure that we watch the First Steps DVD together and talk through the points it raises (faith is a journey, baptism the first step - you can't expect your child to continue on the journey alone so if you're not heading that way yourself, maybe thanksgiving would be the best option). I explain the ways in which we, as a church, are striving to make it easy for parents to keep those promises and I comfort myself (and possibly the parents too) with the recognition that is built into the service that we can only hope to stay faithful to our baptism
"with the help of God", that "Today we are trusting God for their growth in faith".

I don't, then, feel that I have a problem with my baptismal practice in terms of who I baptise- but I am increasingly challenged as to how to make the service feel meaningful, but welcoming - accessible but significant. Even pared down as best I can, the CW text is quite daunting for many of the families who come along.In the valley, it's pretty much unknown for baptism congregations to join in responses, & they are clearly often at sea despite all I can do to make them feel at home, though the typical response at the door is "You made us feel really welcome.." which has to be a step in the right direction. Another colleague uses only the barest of essentials, modelling her service in church on the rite for emergency baptism - but that's not strictly "by the book" - and, despite my longing to outgrow it, I'm congenitally compliant.

So the content of the talk seems to matter hugely.
My main points can be summed up as
1. Baptism is an ongoing process not a one off event (I AM baptised, not I WAS...)
2. Faith as a journey with/towards God
3. Nothing changes on God's side...Unconditional love there from the beginning, - we can't do anything to change that
4. Baptism recognises this & is our first response - but should change everything
5. To accept God's forgiveness, we need to recognise that there are things that need forgiving
6. Cross shaped lives are challenging - we're programmed for self interest, but called to something different. Christening = becoming little Christs...we can't do that alone.
7. Community of faith to share the journey & offer support...Birthday into new family, the church

You'll not be surprised by any of that, I know...but I do struggle mightily to present it in a way that is meaningful for a congregation restless for the celebration. I know I can't say it all, so I tend to major on unconditional love - but then fret that I've not paid sufficient attention to the demands of the Christian life. I don't want by any word or action to encourage abuse of God's hospitality, but I do want everyone to hear that they are, as the New Zealand prayer book reminds us, "Deeply loved and need never be afraid" .
I'm not in the business of changing lives, but I AM in the business of facilitating encournter with the God who can and does.
How do I convey THAT in a 2 minute homily?


Songbird said...

Oh, I think you do change lives, whether or not you get to see it happen right in front of you.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I think both your thoughts and your homily excellent.

One thing occurs to me, though - do you offer an alternative to baptism for those who find it rather daunting? I have heard of vicars who offer a service of naming and blessing/welcome/thanksgiving, to mark the rite of passage but not be quite such a commitment.

One of the most moving services I remember was just such a service, but, in that case, the parents were Christians and wanted to give thanks for the birth of their child while postponing actual baptism until they were back home with their family in Africa.

(Talking of private baptism, my family has its own private font, how gruesome is that!)

Kathryn said...

Yes I ALWAYS offer a service of thanksgiving as an alternative and try to use a rather clever mental checklist I borrowed from Colin Buchanan via the Praxis magazine once upon a time...but on the whole it's very unusual for anyone BUT church families to take that route.
Did one earlier this summer, which was a joy...

Song in my Heart said...

If the CW service is so unfamiliar as to be daunting, perhaps talking through the actual practical aspects of it would be good? Or a short explanation leaflet explaining that words in bold are said by all, etc, for the attendees of these services who are largely not regular church-goers?

What is your church-going community doing for these families and children post-baptism? Is there scope for some sort of sponsorship or buddy programme whereby one family might take responsibility for praying for another, or perhaps getting to know them socially?

A possible benefit of baptising more than one in a service is that some of the preparation classes could also be done in groups, which builds a sort of micro-community.

What sort of follow-up after baptism do you do, yourself?

Kathryn said...

Song...Going thro the service is very much part of the preparation I offer, and encouragement to join in the words in bold a standard part of every service, - but on the whole to no avail.
As to follow up, that's shamefully minimal. The children receive a card on their anniversary plus an invitation to come to the next All Age Eucharist, at which their baptism candle will be lit & they will be prayed for by name...beyond that, nowt, either from vicar or wider church family.
Any ideas welcome...

Song in my Heart said...

I thought perhaps my first paragraph was too obvious...

As for follow-up, what about making an appointment with each family for about a month after the date of baptism, to see how they're getting on? I don't know if that would be too pushy, but if it's presented as part of the your usual procedure it might be okay. Is there opportunity for some sort of enquirers' group for parents of young children? Do most of these families know one another already? Is there a way to put them in touch with one another? Are there existing families who might be willing to participate?

I have a strong sense that praying for these newly-baptised children and their families is important, an important part of follow-up. It may be that prayer is the only real bridge between the church-going community and these families. But I don't know how that should translate into concrete actions, how to make praying for people who are essentially strangers a meaningful thing.