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This document is not so much a short Parish Policy but a description of a holistic approach to Christian Initiation in a large suburban Parish.  The material is copied by permission of the author Revd. Stephen Kuhrt and publishers Grove Books.  The review is by Roger Godin

A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE ON INFANT BAPTISM?

“Church Growth Through the Full Welcome of Children”

“The Sssh Free Church”

by Stephen Kuhrt1 (Grove Book ISSN 1367-0840 £3.99) 

Veterans of Baptismal Integrity might be forgiven for thinking there can be few new approaches to Infant Baptism (IB) theology and practice. But this booklet offers what to me is a challenging new perspective on the issue  of baptismal integrity regarding congregational practice 

Stephen writes humbly of the origins of their highly successful 9.30 am “Sssh free church” - and credits his predecessor Canon Downey with its origins and early development.  He makes it very clear that his church in affluent middle class Surrey has huge advantages of good plant but what he seeks to do is encourage the translation of the principles into other contexts and the final chapter. ”Transferable principles from “Sssh Free Church” whilst perhaps partly contentious for some, needs humble consideration by all - quite apart from the issues around baptismal integrity. 

Having lived in a neighbouring parish for many years (and even had the privilege of preaching there) I think one source of success that is not highlighted is the relationships that already existed in the Parish.   Stephen’s predecessor once shocked a Deanery Synod by saying “Our numbers come because we visit every home in the parish every year”.  Big affluent middle class parish maybe - but each home visited by clergy (with or without laity) seems a good start in any family work to me! 

Anyway - to the Book!  - From CHAPTER 1

The overall message of  the book is based on four convictions: 

a. That many more people want to come to church than actually do so (certainly in more ‘middle class’ areas and probably in plenty of others as well).

b. That this is particularly true of those people who have recently become parents and have experienced the important number of ‘life changes’ that frequently accompany the arrival of children.

c. That when such families do approach local churches they are frequently put off by ‘cultural factors’, particularly unrealistic demands and expectations by the church (and sometimes themselves) regarding their children’s behaviour and therefore quickly give up coming.

d. That if local churches can eliminate the factors which make it difficult for young families to attend (principally any element of “ssshing” or “tutting” towards young children) a vast amount of exciting growth is very possible 

Chapter 2  - The Life Changes that Often Accompany Parenthood” sets out the pastoral foundation stone. A number of changes  occur then within the lives of parents when children arrive, many of which make them very open to belonging to their local church. In particular he writes that “hearts seemingly hardened by the tough world of work and ambition can be remarkably softened by the arrival of a child” resulting “in parents … seeking , however vaguely  something meaningful that will speak into the “God-moment” that they have experienced”.   This leads into Chapter 3 which we reproduce below.

CHAPTER 3  in full

Recognising the Church’s responsibilities in regard to Infant Baptism

Within the evangelical Anglican tradition, ‘outsiders’ approaching the church in order to ‘get their child christened’ are often met with a degree of ambivalence. Both clergy and regular church members sometimes feel the tension between the desire to be appropriately welcoming and inclusive and the desire to preserve baptism from being devalued. My own theological background has been to understand baptism as God’s covenant sign and encourage infant baptism where parents intend to bring up their child in the family of the church, living out their baptism through a life of faith in Jesus Christ. 

The pastoral experience, however, of seeing so many parents seeking baptism for their child made me start to question whether the ‘failure’ of so many baptised children to be brought up within the church is primarily their parents’ fault. At our Baptism Preparation Evenings I would explain the commitment that the baptism promises entail and the alternative of a thanksgiving if these were seen as too demanding. However again and again it was clear that the parents wanted the sign of baptism. Rather than dismissing this as simply down to tradition or superstition, influenced by the observations in Chapter Two, I became persuaded that, in most cases, these parents had been touched by God’s grace and were seeking to respond. Mindful of the model of Jesus meeting people where they were, I became convinced that it was my duty to affirm their spiritual search and respond to their request for baptism with enthusiasm.

My theology of baptism remained unchanged since I was still convinced that the biblical understanding of the sacrament was that it ‘effects what it symbolises in the context of faith’. Where my understanding of the pastoral response to this had shifted, however, was in my growing sense that a really decisive factor (possibly the decisive factor) in baptised infants failing to grow up within the church was that church’s failure to cater properly for them. Discussion of ‘baptism policy’ commonly revolves around whether the parents (and godparents) can make their baptism promises with integrity but an equally pressing question appeared to be whether the local church could really proclaim with integrity “we are members together of the Body of Christ”. To be able to make such a proclamation, the local church, I came to realise, must be doing everything that it can to express with its pastoral practice as well as its words that these newly baptised infants are full members of the church. This in turn led us to a far more consciously ‘theological’ development of the “Sssh free” approach to church outlined in the following chapter.

Before turning to that, however, it would perhaps be helpful to outline the approach that we now take towards baptism at Christ Church.

Now that we have developed our “Sssh free” approach to church, we generally find that the first point of contact with families seeking a ‘christening’ is once they have started coming along to our services. Where this is still made through other means (such as a phone call to the Parish Office), we suggest that these families start coming along to the 9.30 service. Almost without exception, they appear happy to do this.

The next step is that the parents (and child, if the parents wish) are invited to a Baptism Preparation Evening which take place once a month on a midweek evening. This usually lasts between 45 minutes and an hour. At this meeting I try to be as enthusiastic as possible and explain that our aim as a church in regard to baptism is to combine an inclusive welcome with clarity about the importance and indeed sacred nature of baptism. The CPAS video2 ‘First Steps’ is shown and afterwards I underline the points it makes about the seriousness of the promises, the importance of parents being on the same Christian journey as their child and the great opportunity that baptism provides for the whole family to be renewed in this.  In addition, I also outline how seriously the church takes the proclamation ‘we are members together of the Body of Christ’ and our aim to express this in every possible way. The “Sssh free” ethos of the 9.30 service is explained as well as the priority on providing high quality groups for children and our general desire as a church to support the parents in every area of their child’s development (for example through our Parenting Classes). In short, I make clear our hope and intention that the whole family will continue to be active members of the church. In the light of the factors outlined in Chapter Two, the parents usually respond with considerable enthusiasm and are happy to be linked up with members of the congregation who arrange to visit them to discuss the baptism promises in greater depth.  I encourage those visiting to talk personally about what the promises mean to them and the difference that coming to church has made to their family.

At the baptism service itself, the twin emphases of an enthusiastic welcome and the importance of response are again strongly made. We limit the baptisms at our 9.30 service to a maximum of two families at a time to ‘keep it special’ and reserve seating at the front so that all the child’s family and friends feel especially welcome. A central part of the baptism itself is that it is recorded on video with the most important aspect of this being a message that I record for the child to watch as they grow up. In this message I try to use child friendly language in explaining our hope that the DVD will serve as a reminder to them of (1) how God declared through their baptism that they are special to him and (2) the need to respond to this promise by seeking to follow Jesus.  

I then link both of these to the gift of a children’s Bible which we present to the child asking that the parents (and any older sibling present) will help them to grow up reading and understanding it. I also allow as much other filming and photography of the baptism as the parents want, explaining that I wish to do everything possible to keep it in memory and facilitate their child’s response to it.

After the baptism, if invited, I always try to attend the ‘party’ since this communicates a strong sense of partnership and co-celebration, this time on the ‘territory’ of the family. Around a week after that I also visit the family taking with me two copies of the baptism DVD – one for the parents and one for the child. The cover on the DVD is made as attractive as possible and personalised to include the child’s name and the date of their baptism. This visit, coming so soon after the baptism, is usually a key factor in ensuring that the positive experience of church created by the baptism event is maintained and leads to regular membership. It will be clear that all of this practice surrounding the baptism has been carefully thought through. None of it, however, is more important than what follows next, which is the effort to produce an ongoing experience of church for the child and family that fully expresses their full membership of the Body of Christ. To produce a quality experience for a family at a single baptism service is not difficult and achieved in plenty of churches. Producing a similar experience week after week to ensure that this leads to regular attendance and membership is much more demanding but ultimately much more important. 

CHAPTER 4 and CHAPTER 5 These chapters set out in detail the stages of development of the “Sssh free service” and its evaluation as part of a concerted effort to take notice of the primary insight underlying the whole book. It is what the church and its members do or provide after a baptism which is crucial.

CHAPTER 6 sets out six principles which could be transferable to other churches. Stephen is arguing for more integrity when it comes to Infant Baptism rather than less. He points to a third way between open or indiscriminate baptism (which abandons the concept of integrity) and a policy so concerned for integrity that it comes over as ungracious and sitting lightly to the spiritual impulses that have led the family in the direction of the church. His growing conviction, reinforced during the six years spent  at Christ Church, is that there is always something spiritual ‘going on’ when parents approach the church for baptism. His determination, reinforced by the 9.30 ‘Sssh Free’ service  is to ‘meet people where they are but not leave them there’. and  with 95% of those who are baptised joining  permanently (he and his colleagues baptise around 30 children a year) the policy and practice clearly needs thinking about.

 Notice the serious approach to preparation3, that the alternative of Thanksgiving is offered and practiced, and other practical steps which may or may not be new to readers including the idea of the church making a personalised DVD for all baptised children for them to watch as they grow older and to encourage them to follow Jesus throughout their lives.  But the key to Stephen’s approach is “whether the local church could really proclaim with integrity ‘we are members together of the body of Christ’”   This leads into the following chapters which need to be carefully read in order to make full sense and give justice to the key point. These chapters tell the story of the church’s attempt to devise a service that is radically inclusive of children on the basis of their full membership of the church through baptism. There are some surprising blessings that can come upon the whole church when such an attempt is made to express the theological truth of baptism in practice.   

Some of the ideas mentioned in the book will not be new to many our members - for example “front-pew treatment”, and some may  feel patronised that “to produce a quality experience  for a family at a single baptism service is not difficult” Equally making a DVD for each service is not something a single-handed vicar can manage easily. 

Few of our members in pastoral positions will not  learn something from this book.

 1Yes Stephen IS the son of our Council of Reference Member Gordon Kuhrt—but not under undue influence!

2 First Steps referred to in the booklet is now available as a DVD from CPAS and was reviewed in Update 61

 Grateful thanks to CPAS and Stephen for permission to reproduce the above lengthy excerpts.

 

 

 

 

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