Christenings: Frequently Asked Questions

Prospective parents and in particular those from Christian backgrounds, may be considering whether or not to get their child baptised and the significance of doing so. Confusion is understandable; the intricacies of the ceremony can appear daunting, especially to parents who aren’t particularly religious themselves. What follows are a few answers to questions commonly asked about the ceremonies. We will deal here principally with practices common in the Church of England; other denominations of Christianity may have their own various idiosyncrasies.

Family Christening Portrait

What is a Christening?

The term ‘christen’ means to admit someone as a Christian. This is almost universally done through baptism – or immersion in water. The two terms are used interchangeably – some churches may announce that they are to hold a ‘baptism’; others may announce that they are to hold a ‘christening’.  There is no substantive difference between the two.

From where do Christenings originate?

In Christianity, the ceremony’s origins date back to Jesus’s baptism by John in the river Jordan, but baptism had long been practiced before then. The crucial difference between Christian baptism and its forebears is that it is open to everyone, rather than just those of a certain lineage. It holds significance for a number of reasons, not least of which is the washing away of our original sin.

What actually happens in the ceremony?

The specifics of the modern ceremony are fairly constant throughout the Church of England. The priest will bless some water and pour it over the baby’s head and then make the sign of the cross over them using a special oil. Promises will be made, by both parents and godparents (more on them later), on behalf of the baby. Finally, the church may also present the parents with a gift – usually a candle. The ceremony will invariably include some hymns and readings – the parents will be able to choose which. In the case of infant baptism, the immersion is only partial – for the obvious reasons of safety and practicality. Baptisms involving adults involve full immersion in water.

When do Christenings take place?

Christenings take place as part of the Sunday service, though they can be scheduled for other times if the parish allows it.  If you would like to arrange a christening at a different time, then speak to your local priest or vicar.

Am I allowed to have my baby christened?

In the Church of England at least, the answer is almost always yes. The Church welcomes families of every shape and size. You do not have to be married, you do not have to attend church regularly, and you don’t have to have been christened yourself. In this sense, the church is remarkably accommodating.

Does the Christening give my baby a name?

While the priest will use the baby’s name in the ceremony, christenings do not give baby’s names.  This is given when the birth is registered and then in confirmation when they are teenagers (if they wish to go through with this).

When can I have my child christened?

While most ceremonies take place shortly after a child’s birth, the truth is that a child of any age can be christened. While there is no upper age limit, once a child is older than seven they will generally be expected to make the promises themselves, rather than having their parents do it on their behalf.

What exactly is a Godparent?

A godparent is someone who aids a child’s parents in religious upbringing, though in secular households the role of godparent might be broadened to include ethical training as well. A godparent will help a child think about big concepts which might otherwise escape them. Parents should therefore select godparents they judge to be of excellent moral character.

When it comes to godparents, the Church of England is a little less flexible than it is when it comes to the parents. Godparents must themselves have been christened and they must also be of sufficient age to make promises on a child’s behalf.

The church stipulates that a child should have ‘no fewer than three godparents and at least two of the same sex as the child’. Since parents can be godparents, this means that a baptised couple need only have one additional godparent – though in many instances, it may be better to have more than one.

Where does a Christening take place?

In the vast majority of cases, christenings will take place in the parish local to the family. In some instances, however, the parents may desire that the ceremony be held at another parish – perhaps one which holds significance for the family. Look out for a directory of suitable Christening venues coming to the site in the New Year.

Are Christening’s free?

Church of England parishes will perform the ceremony for free; it is common, however, for families to make donations to the parish. There are costs associated with the ceremony, such as that of the robes your child might wear and the family party which almost always accompanies the ceremony.

I wasn’t baptised as a child. Can I get baptised now?

The answer to this question is invariably yes. It is far rarer for adults to get baptised but arrangements can definitely be made. If you would like to become baptised, then speak to your local parish priest.

I was baptised as a child.  Can I do anything further?

The main criticism of infant baptism is that a child has no say in the matter. There is undoubtedly merit in this objection; after all, you can hardly be expected to hold to a promise made when you were only a few months old. In many cases, the child does not grow to have any strong religious conviction. In some cases, however, the faith of a baptised child becomes particularly important as an adult.

Many Christians seek to reaffirm these promises later in life, in a ceremony known as a confirmation.  In this ceremony, the bishop will ask the candidate a series of questions, such as whether you have decided to turn away from evil and turn instead toward Christ. These promises will be made in front of the congregation, who will in turn promise to help you to keep them by offering their support wherever possible.


What are the origins of Infant Baptism?

Baptism and the FontInfant baptism was not practiced at the time that Jesus was around and instead arose a few centuries later. There is no mention in the New Testament of an infant being sprinkled with water it was only really in later life that this was done, nor was there any suggestion that it would be a good idea. However, there is no explicit instruction that only adults should be baptised, either. This is one of many instances where the bible is open to interpretation.

That said, few would dispute that infant baptism (or christenings) was not practiced at the time of Jesus. And yet in the modern world, Christians routinely baptise children. Which poses the question: where did this new trend originate from and why?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these questions are contentious and much debated among historians – and among wider Christian circles. There are many competing theories as to the origins of infant baptism.

One of the earlier mentions of the practice is by Carthaginian thinker Tertullian, who also puts forward the idea of a godparent who might aid in overseeing the child’s spiritual development.

Christianity spreads across the Empire

One school of thought views the prevalence of infant baptism as a by-product of a broader change in Christianity. The religion became more and more closely wedded to the state, as it spread across the Roman Empire under Constantine. Eventually, Theodosius I would make Christianity the empire’s official religion– but the religion would take root among the roman population long before that.

The focus of baptism thereby shifted. Whereas before, individuals would come willingly to Christianity, it was now possible to be born into it. Baptism was no longer a matter of personal choice; if you were a child of Christian parents, it followed that you were a Christian and would be baptised as such. This could be for many different reasons such as to remove ‘original sin’ or in the unfortunate case of infant death the belief that it will help send them on to heaven rather than being stuck in purgatory.

One consequence of Christianity becoming so wedded with the Roman Empire is that the emperor became endowed with authority in religious matters. This meant that the emperor was able to pass ordinances which fundamentally altered the way in which the religion was practiced. Some of these ordinances endorsed infant baptism and so the practice became more widespread and common.

Many of these practices concerned original sin.

The washing away of original sin

Washing away of original sinOne factor that cannot be underestimated is that of ‘original sin’ – that which was committed by the first woman, Eve, in the book of Genesis, when she tasted the forbidden fruit. The bible holds that that all human beings bear responsibility for this infraction. The power of sanctified water to ‘wash away’ this sin is one of the purposes of a baptism.

While many modern Christians view both the account put forward in Genesis in more metaphorical terms, there was a time in which sin was taken very literally indeed. It was a matter of grave concern to Christian parents, for whom the prospect of hell was very real and persuasive.

One popular idea was that baptism washed away all sins committed beforehand – but not those committed afterward. People would therefore elect to wait until they were literally on their deathbed before being baptised. Constantine himself was one famous adherent of this practice.

Of course, this tactic was dangerous, in that it posed the not inconsiderable risk that sudden death might rob you of the chance to be baptised. This risk made infant baptism all the more appealing.

Child Death

During the first millennium, child mortality rates were far higher than they are today. For every child born, there was a likelihood that some would die – mostly through causes completely unknown to the parents – infections, viruses and genetic disorders would take lives seemingly at random.

During this time, child death was a fact of life. That said, it was undoubtedly a cause of great stress to the parents of such children. In the face of conflicting views surrounding the efficacy of infant baptism, it seems likely that parents would elect to baptise their child, in order that they be sent to heaven – however remote the contrary possibility might be. After all, faith can be a powerful comfort and healer.

The differences between adult and child baptism

It is tempting to think of adult baptism as having transformed into child baptism, since the two ceremonies both involve immersion in water and the pledging of vows. But the two are, in actuality, wholly distinct acts. When an adult is baptised, he (or she) is expected to verbally renounce Satan and to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour. A child, by contrast, can make no such renunciations and declarations. These pledges are instead made by the parents and godparents. Child baptism is therefore a conditional act, contingent on the child receiving religious instruction as it grows older. Later in life, a baptised child may wish the make the same pledges spoken in an adult baptism. The ceremony of confirmation was therefore introduced in order to afford such children the chance to do so and carry on their faith of their own volition.


Understanding Christian Denomination

Christianity began life as an apparently harmless sect within a remote outpost of the Roman Empire. It spread with a speed and tenacity which few anticipated. The idea that a God could have a human son wasn’t new among Romans – Roman emperors had been making that precise claim for a long time. And the concept of an afterlife in the Elysian Fields or in the depths of Hades were well entrenched, but Christianity arrived at just the right time, when Romans were experimenting with numerous other cults (Zoroaster and Mithras for example) and were responsive to new ideas. Droves of Romans abandoned Jupiter, Venus and the other old Gods for the new religion and Christianity spread throughout Europe.

For a thousand years or so after those early years, Christianity proceeded– with a few refinements here and there – as one homogenous, indivisible block. You either believed that Jesus was the Son of God or you didn’t.

But now, there are many, many different denominations. The differences between them are sometimes subtle. So, where did they all come from?

To attempt to summarise a faith with anything approaching concision is to invite the scorn of its adherents. It is, after all, almost impossible to distil Catholicism into only a few paragraphs. Nevertheless, what follows is a brief journey through Christian thought – so that perhaps, the next time you are introduced to a seventh-day Adventist, you’ll at least have the vaguest notion of what that means. A short summary is preferable to ignorance of the rich tapestry of religious belief that exists in our modern society.

Although there were many divisions and secessions in the early church, such as the creation of the Egyptian Coptic church, the first and most significant divergence in Christian history occurred in the 11th century, during a period modern historians refer to as the Great Schism. During this period, Western Catholicism broke away from Eastern Orthodoxy – a geographical separation which endures to this day. It is best to examine these two categories first.


The Catholic Church is an organisation with an extremely rich and varied history with the largest membership at around 1.2 billion people. Its laws and doctrines are hugely convoluted – to attempt to describe them in detail would be foolhardy; it is sufficient to say that it is generally more authoritarian and socially conservative than its cousins. It does, however, hold several key features which distinguish it from other faiths:

Apolistic Succession

Catholic doctrine holds that, when founding his church, Christ appointed St. Peter as its head. Today, the bishop of Rome – or, as he’s more commonly referred to, The Pope – is viewed as St. Peter’s successor. The structure of the church is therefore hugely hierarchical: The Pope sits at the head, and beneath him sit a handful of cardinals and beneath them sit archbishops, deacons, bishops and priests. Unlike those of other Christian denominations, the catholic priesthood is composed entirely of celibate men – largely because Jesus was a celibate man.


This is the belief held by Catholics that, when a bishop repeats the words attributed to Jesus at the last supper, bread and wine can literally transform into the flesh and blood of Christ – though without exhibiting any outward change in appearance. Catholics would certainly hesitate to term this effect as ‘magical’.

Opposition to Contraception

The Catholic Church opposes artificial methods of contraception, such as condoms. This is in order to prevent sex being solely a means of pleasure – which is viewed as inherently sinful.

Opposition to Abortion

The Catholic Church also vehemently opposes abortion. They consider human life sacred from the moment of conception. Catholic opposition to Stem Cell research is based on the same reasoning.


Unlike Catholics, Orthodox Christians do not hold St. Peter to be foremost among the apostles. They believe that that the scriptures have been misinterpreted on this point and that Jesus was not talking specifically about Peter, but rather every one of the disciples.

This seemingly minor change has profound impacts of the way a church is organised. While the Catholic Church conforms to an extremely rigid hierarchy, Orthodox churches are instead ruled separately – through a series of national institutions. However, unlike protestant churches, they are all closely bound together and virtually all of them share the same communion.


Baptists, unlike most other Christians, believe that only professing believers should be baptised, rather than unwitting infants. They therefore only baptise willing adults. They do not, however, consider baptism a sacrament (something which is necessary to get into heaven). Baptists believe in religious freedom, as they believe that religion should be between the believer and God. The Baptist Church and associated congregations boast over 100 million members worldwide.


During the 16th century came a series of events which utterly transformed Christian thought in Europe. This change became known as the Protestant Reformation. Unlike Catholics, Protestants defer to no central authority – other than scripture, and, by extension, God. This freedom has led, as one might expect, to the growth of many different branches within Protestant Christianity – more so than any other religion.


Martin Luther was a German friar and theologian who, among others, prompted the protestant reformation. Luther had a number of problems with the Vatican’s modus operandi – among them its practice of selling salvation in the form of ‘indulgences’, with which any sins could be disregarded and the indulgent permitted to heaven.

He elucidated these complaints in 1517, in a writing called ‘the ninety-five theses’ – which he nailed to the front of his local church and disseminated copies, which spread quickly throughout Europe. This incident is now regarded by most historians as the beginning of the protestant reformation.

Luther held that scripture was the sole basis for Christian faith and that no huge church was necessary. The Catholic Church took exception to this and responded by banning his work throughout the Holy Roman Empire and threatening him with excommunication if he did not recant his beliefs.

Luther was placed under arrest and ultimately forced into hiding. He would make good use of the time, however. Up until that point, the Bible had only been made available in Greek and Latin – languages which hardly anyone spoke. Luther translated the Bible into German so that everyone could read it. Luther’s Bible quickly spread throughout Europe and the result is modern Lutheranism.


Christianity arrived in England following the Roman occupation. Although culturally it had absorbed some local Celtic custom, the church in England adopted the Catholic faith controlled by Rome following Augustine’s mission in the 6th Century. The break from Rome came nearly 1,000 years later in 1534 when Henry VIII declared himself supreme leader of the Church of England – an act that enabled him to divorce his wife and appropriate the church’s great wealth.

The Anglican Communion represents over 85 million Christians worldwide – some see it as offering egalitarian Protestantism, for others it provides non-papal Catholicism – a diverse group.


Presbyterianism is heavily influenced by the work of John Calvin, a French theologian. In Presbyterianism, churches are run in a democratic manner, with elected elders holding authority alongside ordained ministers. The movement can, for the most part, trace its origins back to Scotland during the reformation.

Presbyterian beliefs are similar to those of other groups within the protestant movement: that God is sovereign over everything, that scripture is his word, in the power of faith and in the priesthood of all believers.


The First Pentecost is described in the New Testament, in the book of Acts. The account holds that the Apostles were attending a gathering in celebration of the Jewish festival of Shavuot, when the Holy Spirit descended and entered the body of everyone present, causing them to speak in other languages – or at least, that was the explanation proffered by St. Peter.

Pentecostal Christians believe the Holy Spirit acts largely as it did then and can enter the body at any time. They also believe that Jesus:

  • Can save people from hell.
  • Baptises you from the Holy Spirit.
  • Can heal wounds.
  • Will one day return.

Pentecostalism is an evangelical tradition, or one whose adherents actively try to persuade nonbelievers to join them.


Methodism was created much later than other protestant movements. It was founded in the eighteenth century by John Wesley and later curated by his brother Charles. Methodists believe that everyone can be saved and – more distinctly – that everyone must be saved. The religion’s emphasis lies largely with helping others, especially the poor and needy, which explains the prevalence of schools and hospitals said to be Methodist.


Quakers (or ‘friends’) are a family of different movements who each believe in a ‘priesthood of all believers’. They believe that God’s revelation is ongoing and that believers need only liaise with Him directly to experience it. Quaker gatherings are, relative to those of other faiths, hugely informal – emphasis is placed on caring for one another and sharing goals for the world.

Church of Latter-Day Saints

The denominations thus far discussed have been broadly similar – but the Church of Latter Day Saints is certainly unique. While the supernatural origins of Christianity are shrouded in mystery a great deal is known about the origins of Mormonism. It was founded in 1820 by Joseph Smith, who, with the help of the angel Moroni, found and translated some golden plates which describe Jesus’s visit to North America.

Mormons believe, contrary to most of Christian tradition, that there was no ‘creation’ at the beginning of everything and that God and human beings are essentially similar – though at different stages of development.

The term ‘Mormon’ stems from one of the sect’s holy books, The Book of Mormon and was initially employed as a pejorative – though Mormons are now, generally speaking, happy to accept the label.


Non-denominational Christians are, as one might expect, those who do not associate themselves with any particular group, this makes up around 2.5 million people.

These are just a few of the vast amount of Denominations around the world, do you belong to any of these or one that has not been described, or something completely different?