The Christening Service Dumbing Down to “Baptism-Lite”

With the current debate about “Champagne Christenings”, we reprint a piece written in 2011 considering the implications of less formal baptisms:

The King James Authorised Version of the bible is being celebrated this year – 400 years old and the language is still some of the most resonant in English. No matter what your religious persuasion, the seventeenth century translators certainly knew how to turn a phrase or two … apart from all the “begatting” that goes on in Genesis which can be a bit tedious.

Around the same time, using similar language, the Book of Common Prayer gave us the foundation for worship that lasted hundreds of years. Apart from the occasional tinkering over time, the Book of Common Prayer survived until the 1980’s when the Alternative Service Book was introduced, followed by the Common Worship series in 2000. Many of the changes were probably overdue with old services like the “Churching of Women” receiving their just deserts. Unfortunately, however, the erosion of that wonderful 17th century language had also begun in earnest.

And now, in 2011, the General Synod of the Church of England has decided to revisit the Baptism Service … to tone down the language even more.

The media have not been slow to label the process “baptism lite”, or as one commentator put it: “Christenings without much Christianity.”

This dumbing down of the service is designed to make it more accessible to us poor “non-theologically versed Britons”. Apparently, the language is not “earthed enough” and that non-churchgoers at the service may be squeamish about declaring that they “reject the devil and all rebellion against God” and renounce “the deceit and corruption of evil.” So there is now a desire for change.

This is a pity.

Firstly, the Church is underestimating the audience it is trying to placate. Those of us who do not regularly attend church enjoy the poetry and ceremony attached to a church service. To take away the bells and smells is often to take away the mystery. The Church’s reasoning is that by making the language more everyday they are allowing the service to resonate better with people’s experience of life. But don’t the majority of people seek something more from a church service, something that will lift them out of the everyday and help them to aspire for improvement in both their lives and the lives of others?

Secondly, with around 160,000 Christenings taking place each year in the UK, the Christening service is still seen as an important rite of passage. Surely a bit of poetic mystery wouldn’t be out of place on such an occasion. A Christening is the perfect opportunity for the Church to welcome people to the faith – an anodyne, prosaic service will probably be as uplifting as a PowerPoint lecture from your HR manager on Health & Safety.

Luckily, the speed at which the Church moves in matters of faith and doctrine can never be described as lightening fast and it will be many years before we see the new service in all its grounded, approachable glory. And maybe, just maybe, the authors of the new service will look back to the original language of the Book of Common Prayer and realise that there is power in provenance … the understanding and connection come from the way it is delivered.