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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Planning a Christening

Planning a Christening and preparing for the party afterwards can seem a bit daunting. We have outlined below a few ideas we have picked up over the years that may make the whole experience less overwhelming and far more fun.

CHOOSING THE CHURCH

For continuity in the future, it is a good idea to choose a local church. Not only will this be helpful logistically in the run up to the ceremony and on the day, this is also the church your children will get to know over the years – a welcoming, local second family. The Church of England has a useful site to help you locate and contact your local parish church at:

www.achurchnearyou.com

If you have connections with a parish church close to your original family home, the vicar would be happy to discuss holding the service there.

Contact the church and arrange to meet the vicar when you will be able to book a date for the ceremony and discuss any queries you may have. When choosing the day, bear in mind other events or family occasions – you don’t want to have a clash of dates. And book a date some time in advance to allow guests time to fit it in their diary. The weekends around Easter are always popular for Christenings, as are the Summer weekends when the weather is better for parties in the garden at home.

Visit the church – you will receive an warm welcome. Also, why not make a trip to the church toddler group when you will get to know some of the other parents you will probably meet at the service.

CHOOSING THE GODPARENTS

Most parents choose relatives or family friends. It is best to choose godparents who you expect to stay in contact with you and stay close to your family long into the future. Whoever you choose, you are asking them to make a life-long commitment to your child’s faith and emotional wellbeing. You need to consider:

  1. You must choose a minimum of three godparents, although you may have more.
  2. Two godparents should be of the same sex as your child, whilst one should be of the opposite sex.
  3. You and your spouse can be a godparent.
  4. Godparents should already be baptised.
  5. You are not asking godparents to make a legal commitment or become legal guardians. Their role is as guides and mentors in your child’s spiritual and religious journey throughout life.
  6. Consider whether your chosen godparents will be comfortable making the promises and commitments in the church service detailed below.

PREPARATION

Here are a few suggestions that may help you avoid one or two logistical hiccups:

  1. DON’T book the church or print the invitations until you have checked whether the future godparents are free on the day.
  2. Think carefully about the guest list and how it will affect the budget. How many children will be there and of what ages? If there are a lot of children, you may need to consider special food and entertainment.
  3. If you want one of the godparents to propose a toast at the party after the Christening, ask them well in advance so they have plenty of time to prepare.
  4. Photography: Don’t rely on somebody taking some good pictures by chance. Ask a guest who knows what they are doing to take responsibility for taking a few photos at key parts of the ceremony. Some people enjoy having a role and will take on the project with pleasure. Do check with the vicar that the church is happy for photographs to be taken during the service.
  5. Invitations, whether printed and posted or emailed, should include the date, time, location (of both the church and the party), directions, RSVP (include a date to RSVP by) and dress code (if there is one). If you don’t wish to receive presents, or would prefer gifts to charity, you can let guests know in the invitation.
  6. Do any of the godparents want to be involved in the preparation – they could be very helpful support. Would they like to meet the vicar or find out more about the service?
  7. Where to hold the party: The majority of families hold a small party at home after the ceremony, although a local restaurant, hotel or village hall may be preferable for larger numbers, so review your guest list before making a decision. Budget could also be a big consideration – set yourself a limit and stick to it.

THE CEREMONY

During the Christening ceremony, your child will be baptised with water and welcomed into the family of the church. The ceremony often takes place as part of an existing church service such as a Communion or a family service. Key parts of the service include:

  1. The Decision/Promises: Godparents and parents make declarations and promises
  2. Signing with the Cross: The sign of the cross is made on your child’s forehead – usually with a special oil
  3. The Baptism: As you gather round the font, the vicar pours blessed water over your child’s head. It is at this point the vicar will use your child’s name.
  4. Light in the world: A lighted Christening candle is often presented to the child during the service with the vicar saying: “Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God.”
  5. Prayers, Hymns & Readings: As with most church services, there will be a variety of prayers, hymns and readings during the ceremony.
  6. You may find it useful to review the complete service at: www.churchofengland.org/media/1190836/holy%20baptism.pdf
  7. Baby’s gown: You may like to dress your child in a traditional Christening gown, especially if it is a gown that has been used by other family members in the past. In some families it is customary for the godmother to provide a gown or an item of clothing. There is however no obligation to use a gown and many parents choose something smart that the child is used to wearing. A comfortable, contented baby at a Christening can be far more relaxing for all concerned than a flustered, irritable little bundle, unaccustomed to a formal gown. The main thing to remember is … babies grow – a piece of clothing that fits when you start planning the Christening may be rather snug on the day.
  8. Dress Code: There is no formal dress code for the adults, but many families like to dress up for the occasion. Suits or jackets for the men and elegant outfits for the ladies. Imagine a relaxed informal wedding rather than “red carpet” glamour.

AFTER THE CEREMONY

The party after the ceremony is a wonderful occasion of friends and family, where some of the most important people in your life and that of your child are gathered, so enjoy it. Don’t turn it into an emotional and physical assault course. Here are a few thoughts when planning the party.

Christening Gifts: For safety and security, plan where you will put any gifts that people bring to the party. A helpful niece or nephew might take responsibility for looking after the pressies. And remember, when you do get round to opening them, have a pen and pad of paper handy to note down who gave what … it’s easy to muddle things up.

Don’t forget to ask the vicar to the party. Vicars are very busy people and they probably won’t be able to make it, but it can be so easy to overlook them in all the whirl of planning and preparation – an invitation is often appreciated.

A small speech or toast at the party is traditional and often expected. Plan ahead and ask someone (usually a godparent) to propose a toast well BEFORE the event. If you spring it on them on the day, they will be ill-prepared and won’t thank you for it. If the budget is tight, you don’t have to splash out on Champagne for the toasts, a dry Cava or Prosecco works just as well and is often preferable.

The food, drink, theme and location of your party will depend on your budget and your guest list, so we’ve outlined a few thoughts below to help with your budgeting.

YOUR BUDGET

To help you plan ahead, here are a few things you may need to budget for. You may find there are more added costs to consider than you think:

  1. Dress: Apart from what your child will wear at the Christening, think about what you, your spouse and your other children will wear on the day
  2. The Church: Is there a fee? Do you want to make a charitable donation? Flowers and decorations?
  3. The Party doesn’t have to be expensive, but here are the main costs to consider:
    >  Invitations
    >  Food & Drink
    >  Fizz for the toast
    >  Balloons & Decorations
    >  Table Decorations and Napery
    >  Christening Cake
    >  Entertainment
    >  Venue Fee
  4. Presents: You may be planning to buy something substantial for your child like an engraved silver cup or some silver jewellery, but also consider a small thank you gift for the godparents and maybe the grandparents. A little memento for the other children at the party is also a nice idea.
  5. Unexpected additional costs can include: Professional photographs or video; Musicians & entertainers; Putting up guests and relatives overnight who have travelled a long way; Transport and parking … and of course, the holiday you will need when it’s all over.
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Choosing Godparents

There are very few hard and fast rules about choosing godparents for your child, but there are probably three boxes you need to tick first:

1) The Church of England does ask that godparents have been Baptised. The Church also recommends that godparents are Confirmed, although this is not essential.

2) You will need a minimum of three godparents, two of the same sex as the child and one of the opposite sex. You and your husband/wife can be godparents, but there must be at least one additional godparent.

3) Godparents are not only making a personal commitment, they are also representing your child at the Christening, so the godparents have to be old enough to understand their role. It may seem attractive to ask a young cousin to become a godparent, but always consider whether they are mature enough to understand the promises they will be making.

Godparents are not taking on a legal obligation. They are not responsible in law for your child and are not obliged to care for your child should anything happen to you – You are not asking them to become a legal guardian. You are however asking them to make a lifelong commitment to your child’s spiritual and emotional wellbeing.

Remember, you are choosing someone who will be a spiritual and emotional guide for your child … It is easy to choose a godparent for the wrong reasons. Just because someone is wealthy, it doesn’t mean they will have the emotional maturity for the job or the commitment. Don’t choose somebody out of loyalty because they are an “old mate” or because you want to show them some recognition as a token of friendship. Also, just because someone has asked you to be the godparent of their child, it doesn’t mean you have to reciprocate and ask them to be a godparent in return. And, finally, think carefully before asking work colleagues, especially superiors, unless of course you are very close friends.

The bottom line: Choose a godparent for your child … not for you. You are choosing someone who you trust to provide encouragement in spiritual and church life and emotional support throughout childhood.

Try not to put your friends in a difficult position. Think about the character of the person you will be asking. If they are not churchgoers but are spiritually aware, they may be happy to make the declarations and commitments required at the Baptism. However if you are considering a friend who holds strong views about religion, or who would find the declarations at the service difficult to affirm, you may be placing them in the embarrassing dilemma of wanting to refuse, but not wanting to let you down at the same time.

Depending upon the church, the vicar and the service chosen, the godparents will be asked to answer a series of questions and make declarations on your child’s behalf … these vary according to recent changes in the service, but here is an example of the sort of responses you will be asking the godparents to say – will the godparents you are considering be happy to do this?:

Vicar: “Parents and godparents, the Church receives these children with joy. Today we are trusting God for their growth in faith. Will you pray for them, draw them by your example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ?”
Godparents: With the help of God, we will.

Vicar: “In baptism these children begin their journey in faith. You speak for them today. Will you care for them,and help them to take their place within the life and worship of Christ’s Church?”
Godparents: With the help of God, we will.

Vicar: “In baptism, God calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light. To follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him. Therefore I ask:

“Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?”
Godparents Response: I reject them.

“Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?”
Godparents Response: I renounce them.

“Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?”
Godparents Response: I repent of them.

“Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?”
Godparents Response: I turn to Christ.

“Do you submit to Christ as Lord?”
Godparents Response: I submit to Christ.

“Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?”
Godparents Response: I come to Christ.

It may be worth reading those declarations again and considering whether the godparents you have chosen will be comfortable making these declarations. Recent changes to the service may have toned down the wording, but the underlying meaning remains the same – ask your vicar for a copy of the service your church uses.

And finally … and I speak from experience … If you are going to ask one of the godparents to make a speech, do warn them in advance. Even the best raconteur needs a bit of time to gather their thoughts … The more time they have to prepare for a speech or toast the more meaningful it will be.

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A Christening Service without Sin and the Devil

Recent changes to the Christening service suggested by the Church of England’s Liturgy Commission have once again got the media in a bit of a tizzy.

In trying to make the service more appealing to more people, the Commission is adopting more approachable language, with slightly less fire & brimstone.

Making church services more accessible seems like a worthy aspiration, but the Church has unfortunately been accused once more of “Dumbing Down” the Christening service. Godparents will no longer be asked to “repent sins” and “reject the Devil’, but will instead be asked to “reject evil”.

The current wording is part of a trial that will run for the first part of 2014 and has the blessings of the Archbishop of Canterbury the Most Reverend Justin Welby, but for lovers of the Book of Common Prayer this is yet another departure from tradition which in the past asked godparents to “renounce the devil and all his works”.

Unfortunately the Church finds itself in an unwinnable situation. On the one hand it has to open its doors to all and be as accessible as possible, but on the other hand, in the traditional liturgy it has some of the most powerful words and poetry ever written in the English language that resonates through over 400 years of our history – which is a lot to lose.

Of course, there is another solution … since a Christening is primarily about the child and family, why not let the family choose the wording they prefer. After all, the wider family of the Church seems to accommodate traditionalists and modernist pretty successfully in many other areas of debate.

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