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What happens when a Minister feels unable on grounds of conscience to conduct a baptism?  The following article describes one such case.


Ian Robins  

I smile kindly, but with a trace of jealousy, when I read of clergy who have resigned their livings rather than accept the priesthood of women - and have been financially compensated!  It was of course a matter of conscience for them - but so it was for me and my wife, when in 1966 we lost home and job, because I knew in my heart that I could no longer invite parents and god-parents to commit perjury.  In the Mysterious Ways to which we trusted ourselves, I found myself as Head of Religious Education in a C. of E. Secondary School - and a new ministry opened up for me.  

By the time I returned to a large parish in 1986, Canon Law provided for the delay of Baptism where preparation was necessary.  In this parish I found a Parochial Church Council strong enough to support my conviction, and in five short years, a policy requiring parents to receive instruction before any Baptism date could be fixed led to a lively Young Families Fellowship and a busy Junior Church in a congregation which had previously been dominated by senior citizens.  

Having watched the Baptismal debate over many years, I believe that little progress will be made by further attempts to define exactly what is happening to the child, the parents, the god-parents or the Church itself when that crowd-pulling water splash takes place.  God only knows what is really happening through the Sacraments and I prefer to trust the Divine Wisdom.  Remarkably, Baptism still remains fairly popular, though I find the Laity deeply troubled when they have to witness (and by their presence, condone) parents’ and god-parents’ glib assent to The Faith - a Faith for which in our own century many have laid down their lives.  In my own practice and teaching I have been guided by two principles, theological in their implications, but uncluttered by doctrinal terminology.  

1.                  Acceptance.  The “baptise every baby-ers” are right that enquirers must not be met with an apparent refusal.  Everything must be said and done to make them feel that we hope to baptise their child.  It is at this point that cheerful plans must be made for a visit to explain the meaning of the ceremony, and under no circumstances must a date for the Baptism be fixed at this stage!  Regular monthly Baptism dates must be abandoned.  We baptise when we are ready!  Enquirers should go away feeling loved, and carrying a selection of the attractive literature now available, perhaps a video to watch, and the promise to “see you then on ... .”  

  2.                  Integrity.  God-parents are rarely accessible, although suitable literature may be sent via the parents to reinforce what is going into the preparation sessions.  And at this point, assuming that the couple concerned are not regular church-goers, it is a matter of basic Evangelism.  Somehow, in the quiet of a home, the vows must be explained - particularly what it might mean to “turn to Christ”.  There needs to be some demythologisation - it is not difficult to teach what a battle we all have to resist Evil in ourselves and in our society - but this may all be missed if people are allowed to go on believing they can simply renounce a Devil.  Eventually the question has to be put - “do you feel ready and able to make these promises?”  Often it is necessary to allow time for reflection - another visit is promised.  Sometimes one parent is able and ready - the other not; so that parent needs to be freed from the necessity to respond to the vows, but of course made welcome if and when the Baptism takes place.  It is a mistake to set pastorally unrealistic or trivial hurdles - parents will attend Church “religiously” (!) before a Baptism, but rarely after, if attendance has been made the condition of acceptance.  

But assuming that there are some services which are family orientated, and a parochial organisation into which a young mother-and-babe can be integrated, and trained laity (young parents themselves) who will visit and encourage closer links - something begins to happen.  The grace of God begins the gentle transformation, and within a year or two that family is part of The Family.  

Of course there are refusals - “we have decided to leave him to make up his own mind when he is old enough to know what he is doing.”  Fair enough, and we must feel no guilt at enabling people to make a decision which respects their integrity and the integrity of the witnessing Church and ministering priest.  Personally I have never refused to baptise a child, nor have I imposed disciplines which are beyond the capability of families quite outside the Christian experience.  But I have watched parents and their children grow gradually committed to the Church and the Faith, and for that I give thanks.

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