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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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.

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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.

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The Royal Christening

 

Now that the dust has settled following the Christening of Prince George in the Chapel Royal in St James’s Palace, we can look back on a ceremony that reflects both tradition and informality in equal measure.

William and Kate kept the occasion as simple and low-key as is possible when Christening a future king of Great Britain. They broke with tradition and, as well as holding the ceremony away from Buckingham Palace, they avoided the usual assortment of minor European Royals and unknown aristocracy on the list of godparents and stuck to close friends and family.

The godparents included:

Zara Tindall (Princess Anne’s daughter – William’s cousin)

Emilia Jardine-Paterson (A school friend of Kate)

Oliver Baker (A university friend of both William and Kate)

Julia Samuel (A close friend of Diana, Princess of Wales)

Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton (William and Harry’s private secretary)

William van Cutsem (A long term friend of William)

Earl Grosvenor (Heir to the Duke of Westminster)

 

The names given to Prince George at his Christening (George Alexander Louis) carry the weight of both national and family history. The name George has been associated with the crown since 1714. The last George on the throne was George VI, the Queen’s father (Prince George’s Great, Great Grandfather). George VI was actually Christened Albert Frederick Arthur George, but he took his last name for use as Sovereign.

“Alexander” is a less obvious choice, but it might be a tribute to the Queen whose second name is Alexandra. It has been suggested that the name also includes a nod to Scotland where Alexander III is considered, as Sellar & Yeatman would have it, a “Good King”.

“Louis” is a name George shares with his father, William Arthur Phillip Louis, but it was probably more likely that the name was given to recognise the Duke of Edinburgh’s uncle and Prince Charles’s mentor, Lord Louis Mountbatten.

The post-Christening shindig was hosted by Prince George’s grandparents, Prince Charles and Camilla, at their London residence, Clarence House. The four official portraits were taken here in the Morning Room by Jason Bell. One photograph is particularly eye-catching and pretty unique – an image of George, William, Charles & The Queen. Four generations on, or destined for, the throne.

Two other little known facts:

He wasn’t baptised in just any old water. The water in the font at the Chapel Royal came from the River Jordan.

The most unusual Christening gift so far? A wildflower meadow in Transylvania.

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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.

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