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John Hartley was Priest-in-Charge of Hanford 1991-2000

Hanford is a little urban village (pop. 3182) in Stoke-on-Trent, and before I went had an open baptism policy which had conspicuously failed to recruit anyone to the church.  It had many other problems following 28 years of an unpopular high-church vicar, and baptism reform was by no means the main need of the church.  

In spite of a neighbouring vicar’s expectation (“Thanksgivings sound super, John, but you’ll find they’ll never work in Stoke-on-Trent”), I embarked on a strategy of visiting all enquirers, positively recommending Thanksgivings, asking them to come once to church and then we’d book the service, and inviting them to sustained attendance if they really wanted to pursue baptism.  (The policy was described in Updates Nos 7 & 16 in 1988 & 1992.).  

Of course one’s policy evolves over the years.  Initially I didn’t ask the PCC: I suspected they needed to see the policy working before they would endorse it, so better not ask them too soon.  I think I was right - eventually they agreed it unanimously, but asked me to change so that we would insist instead of just suggest that the parents came to church at least once before booking.

In those 8 years there were no baptisms at all.  I don’t disbelieve in Infant Baptism, but we started with just two young families, and we found that families who did start coming to church (not many) decided that Thanksgivings expressed more closely what they wanted to say to God.  

In one way we succeeded.  During the 8 years we had 97 enquiries, which led to 81 services of Thanksgiving and Blessing.  (Judging by primary school numbers, the birthrate was about 30 per year.)  The “success” ratio was higher in the early years when attendance was not required - although about 3 of the enquirers expressed hurt and rejection that we didn’t offer a baptism immediately, we lost most of the 16 simply because they never got around to coming.  I had my suspicions in 1993 that a neighbouring vicar was stealing my Christenings - but he left to join Rome and numbers started to pick up again.  By the end of my time many people had seen the service, and enquirers already knew and wanted what was on offer.

But in another way we didn’t do too well.  Although a few came more than once, we didn’t really get over the hurdle of inviting people to sustained attendance at church.  We ran “Saints Alive” and “Alpha”, and some came, and we established and built up a core of Christians, almost all new, in the heart of the church.  But we never managed to add large numbers of new families to them - Christening enquiries were not a fertile ground for recruitment, despite the fact that our PCC secretary came in through a Thanksgiving.  

Professor Paul Bradshaw (in Update 37, p4) set the church the vision of providing an experienced alternative to the present reign of exclusively infant baptism.  I think we did this with the babies - Thanksgiving and Blessing came to be recognised and acknowledged.  But our new Christians were all from the indiscriminately baptised majority in Hanford.  We heard some wonderful testimonies, but we didn’t manage the second half of Paul’s challenge - the admission of new Christians to the fellowship by adult baptism, denoting commitment


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