Royal christenings over the last century

Just over three months after his birth, Prince George, was christened. Tradition in the royal family has long held that christenings be held in Buckingham Palace’s Music Room. William and Kate elected to break from tradition, however and hold the ceremony in the Chapel Royal of St. James’s Palace.

Not all traditions were dispensed with, however. The ceremony was conducted by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and maintained the royal custom of minimalism – a mere twenty-two guests were invited, with only senior royals and immediate family members gracing the guest list. The attendees spanned four generations of the royal family. Interestingly, the birth of George marks only the second time in history in which three generations of direct heirs to the throne have co-existed (the first being during the latter parts of the Victorian Era).

Having only a small ceremony is one of the many traditions acquired by royal christenings over the past few centuries. Another is the customary wearing of a family gown, first created for the christening of Princess Victoria (daughter of Queen Victoria).  Since its debut, the gown has been worn by more than sixty royal babies, including that of Queen Elizabeth II.

As one might expect, the condition of this gown has deteriorated a great deal since it was first conditioned. It needed to be especially treated; after every outing it was washed by hand in sterilised water before being stored in an air-tight vault in Buckingham Palace. It became clear that the robe would eventually fall to pieces, and so it was finally retired in 2004, after being worn at the baptism of Lady Louise Windsor and now resides in the Museum of London.

Shortly afterward, a replica was created by Angela Kelly, who has been the Queen’s personal assistant since 2002. This is the gown which has been used in every ceremony since, beginning with the 2008 christening of James Viscount Severn, Lady Louise’s younger brother.

Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth’s baptism occurred when she was just over five weeks old – and passed without a great deal of public interest, as she was not expected to be Queen at the time. This is in sharp contrast to Prince Charles, who certainly was – though he is still waiting, sixty-six years after his ceremony! When Charles was born, Elizabeth was not yet queen. In attendance was her husband – the Duke of Edinburgh, along with her father and then then King George VI.

Prince William

William’s christening was conducted in 1982 and was one of the many which took place in the Music Room of Buckingham palace. The ceremony was performed by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie. Dr. Runcie also presided over the christening of Prince Harry two years later, in 1984 – though that ceremony took place in St. George’s Chapel in Windsor.

Most christenings in the Queen’s immediate family are conducted by the archbishop of Canterbury; there are, however, a few exceptions. Of these, the most notable recent memory is that of the christening of Princess Beatrice, whose ceremony was performed by the Archbishop of York and of Princess Eugenie, whose ceremony was performed by the Bishop of Norwich. The Earl of Wessex, Prince Edward, was christened by the Dean of Windsor, as were his two children, James and Louise (though the office was held by different men, namely Robert Woods in the first instance and David Conner in the latter two.)

The more modern flavour introduced into Prince George’s christening reflects the fact that the bridge between royalty and the people has been strengthened through Kate and William. What the next royal christening has in store will likely be along similar lines as it will be Prince William’s and Princess Kate’s second child, due April 2015.

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The Importance of Christenings to the Christian Faith

Infant baptism is a Christian tradition spanning thousands of years. The reasons to perform the ceremony have changed slightly during that time. What motivates Christian families to get their children baptised and – perhaps more interestingly – what motivates families who are otherwise quite unreligious to do so?

Christians

In the Christian faith, the baptism of infants takes place for a number of reasons. Among Christians, there is furious debate – so what follows is by no means a definitive version of the faith, but rather a short exploration of what motivates a Christian to have their child baptised.

  1. 1.       Declaration of faith by the believer

With a few exceptions – such as Baptists – most Christian denominations practice infant baptism. Obviously an infant cannot declare their faith – which is why the confirmation ceremony was created. Instead, a christening inducts a new member into the church family and affirms that the child will receive proper spiritual guidance from the Godparents (who may or may not include the parents).

  1. 2.       Induction into a community

In a contemporary understanding of the ceremony, this is perhaps the most important rationale. The child will be welcomed into the wider family of the church and Christendom as a whole and finally into humanity.

  1. 3.       Wash away sin

For centuries, an idea has run through Christian thought: that all humankind is born with the stain of the original sin taken from the story of Adam and Eve. The trouble is that this idea is difficult to reconcile with the more figurative interpretation of Genesis advocated by most Christians. And so the washing away of sins becomes more of a metaphor.

Though, of course, where there is sin, there is…

  1. 4.       The threat of hell

The truth is that few modern Christians are motivated by fear of hell. While historically the idea of eternal hell has been crucial in enforcing religious observance, the modern Church of England is keen to downplay the significance of baptism in what may or may not happen after death. Critics of religion are often keen to point out that such an idea is morally unjustifiable and modern British Christians tend to agree (though their American counterparts, for the most part, do not). This makes sense; after all, it seems hardly likely that a loving god would inflict such a punishment on an innocent infant.

Not particularly religious

At the time of writing, most of the UK’s population consider themselves Christian – though it isn’t always clear what that means. The 2011 Census places the figure at 59%. However, another poll, conducted by IPSOS-MORI in 2012 found that 46% of Christians consider themselves Christians mainly on the grounds that they were baptised into the religion. This is in sharp contrast to the 18% who answered that they believe in the tenets of the religion. Interestingly, only 35% of those polled knew that the first book of the New Testament was Matthew.

Why is this the case? Well, the respondents are not lying to the census-takers; nor are they, as some might suggest, wrong to profess to be Christian. A more plausible explanation lies in the diversity of conviction among nominal Christians, among whom many variously doubt that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was crucified, or that he returned from the dead, or that he even existed.

One might expect to see these trends reflected in a decline in christenings. But while church attendance is dwindling, christenings remain constant. In an increasingly secular society, with increasingly secular values, it seems counterintuitive that christenings should prove so resilient. There are several possible explanations for this.

  1. 1.       The pressure of tradition

Tradition and cultural identity undoubtedly play a role; if umpteen generations which preceded you have been baptised, there is an expectation that you, too, should be. In Christian families, it is overwhelmingly likely that everyone present at a christening would have been christened themselves. It would be a bold move indeed to part company with a custom spanning thousands of years. Of course, familial expectations also undoubtedly play a role. Few would defy a devout grandparent in order to score an academic point. There is also the thought that parents do this to get their children into a good school where being christened into the family of God is a requirement.

  1. 2.       Doubt

In matters religious, most people have yet to make up their mind. Even the most committed believers still suffer from doubts on occasion. The same is assuredly true of those who don’t consider themselves religious, in spite of a strong belief in something. Perhaps, to them, the metaphysical claims of the Old Testament seem a little implausible – perhaps the idea of sin seems a little far-out. And yet, they believe that there is something more – they are simply hesitant to assign it a label. In this respect, infant baptism seems to have received the benefit of theistic doubt.

  1. 3.       Why not?

Among believers, christening is a way of inducting a new member into a broader community. I suspect that a similar motivation lies behind more secular couples electing to have their offspring christened.

To have no ceremony at all would be something which very few would countenance. The prospect of a secular ‘baby naming ceremony’ – empty of all tradition and shaped only by the whims of the parents – would give pause to even the most fervent atheist. It seems entirely appropriate that an occasion such as a birth should be marked with a ceremony of some sort where all the family comes together to celebrate – a christening seems as good an opportunity as any.

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