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What happens when Ministers with a commitment to baptismal integrity are faced with a request to baptise a critically ill newborn or still born baby? The following article from a BI Council Member was described as "courageous"!

Infant Baptism – Changing Contexts  

Between 1976 and 1999 I served as an ordained Anglican Minister in four very different parishes – Liverpool outer estate, East Midland private development, ex-dockland and Lancashire market town. In every one I worked passionately but collaboratively with local church leaders to introduce a baptism policy that would suit the ‘culture’ of the area. The aim was to give time and space for parents to think through the meaning of the promises they were making on behalf of their child. The challenge was to do this in a way that was welcoming and not off-putting to families with little if any contact with their local church. The result was that we saw many, many families brought to a living relationship with Jesus Christ and to active membership within the family of his Church.  

I have always been comfortable with the practice of baptising the children of believing parents but also equally uncomfortable with baptising, indiscriminately, the children of those who appear to have no real understanding of the gospel or experience of its impact on their lives. Like so many of my Anglican colleagues, I struggled with this issue in my early days of ministry, and when the ‘Movement for the Reform of Infant Baptism’ (MORIB – the predecessor of Baptismal Integrity) was formally launched, I became a founder member – eventually becoming Chairman. I still continue as a member of the Council of Reference.  

So why do I now find myself practicing what I have never preached – baptising babies and, occasionally, adults indiscriminately? My beliefs have not changed – in fact only last Sunday, in the Free Evangelical Church we currently attend, my blood pressure rose significantly when the preacher, speaking on Acts 16, said that the account of the Philippian jailer’s dramatic conversion and the subsequent baptism of he and his ‘whole household’ was no evidence whatsoever for the erroneous practice of infant baptism – ‘because the passage says quite clearly that they all heard the word of God and put their faith in Jesus Christ.’ Does it? Not according to my Bible!! It just goes to show how prejudiced we all are when it comes to having our strongly held views challenged by Holy Scripture. But the incident served to remind me of the strength of my own deeply held belief in the rightness of infant or ‘household’ baptism. So… why the change in practice?  

Well, in 1999 my work took a totally unexpected change of direction. I moved from parish ministry to hospital chaplaincy. Just exactly how this came about is a fascinating story, but it will have to wait for another telling, but it meant a move from the North West to the South East, and a monumentally steep learning curve in how to ‘do’ Christian ministry in a large acute NHS Trust (I now find myself as Head of Chaplaincy Services for eleven hospitals within the Canterbury Diocese and leading teams of over one hundred lay and ordained chaplains).  

Part of the challenge was sitting with parents through the trauma of losing a pregnancy or new-born child. Following the Alder Hey organ retention scandal at the beginning of this decade I was asked by the Trust to chair a working party looking at how we could improve our care to these families – so often overlooked by both church and society. The policy was written and implemented in November 2003 – a long time before other Trust’s acted – and managing and monitoring it is one of my chief responsibilities. Most months my team and I deal, directly or indirectly, with over eighty such losses.  

But the real point of all this is to raise the sensitive issue of how we handle parental requests for a ‘Christening’ for their critically ill or recently deceased baby, and this can often include calls from those who have, often very reluctantly, agreed to terminate a pregnancy following the discovery, through improved scanning techniques, of foetal abnormality. In parish ministry, such requests seldom, if ever, came my way. They were not an issue because they did not show on my radar. So, what have I learned over the past ten years?  

Firstly, the vast majority of families we are called to minister to as Chaplains are ‘not religious’. They are facing a major crises in their lives, and, often for the first time in their experience, they are out of control. There is nothing that they or anyone else can do to ‘make things better’. I never cease to be amazed how, at such times, people look beyond themselves and, often to their own amazement, God comes into the picture. Healthcare Chaplains have a vital role in nurturing such discoveries.  

Secondly, when such requests come (often as an emergency ‘call out’), there is no time to ‘talk gospel’ with the family. They are often in shock and always extremely distressed by what is happening to them. In such situations (and there are many similar scenarios in the working lives of healthcare chaplains), what we ‘do’ and how we ‘do it’ speaks much more powerfully than words.  

Thirdly, if families show an openness to what might be provided by way of spiritual care, I would always sensitively suggest a ‘blessing/anointing’ rather than baptism; but if it is baptism they want – baptism is what they get. And it is administered gladly and wholeheartedly, and not resentfully and reluctantly.  

Fourthly, and I know this may cause shock horror to those with keen theological scruples, we would even baptise recently deceased babies if parents really want this. When questioned about this our answer is simple – what would be achieved by denying parents such a rite in these highly charged and extremely volatile circumstances? Theologically, it may be indefensible; pastorally, it is essential.  

Fifthly, we would always seek to ‘follow up’ the family, often by helping them to arrange an appropriate funeral and leading the service for them. So many of these families have no meaningful contact whatsoever with the church – we are their only link, and it is vital that we fulfil this role. Bonds have been formed, trust established, bridges built, seeds sown.  

Sixthly, we have to observe boundaries and cannot do more that visit the families once or twice after our initial contact. Healthcare Chaplaincy is a ministry of brief yet significant encounters’. We are paid by the NHS to provide spiritual, pastoral and religious care to our hospital communities, and this must be our focus. Any post-funeral home visits must be kept to a minimum. What is needed is to link the families of the little ones we have had the honour and privilege of baptising into the life of their local church, and this leads me to my final point…  

In my experience most, if not all, churches are light years away from where most of the families we deal with are at – and I include those who proudly proclaim (and really believe) that they are open and welcoming to all. I am horrified at how disinterested many clergy and church leaders are with neonatal loss. After my eighteen months of hard slog getting our Trust’s Procedure for Care following Pregnancy Loss up and running back in 2003, I wrote to every Area Dean in our Diocese asking if I could come to Deanery Synods or Clergy Chapters to explain what we were doing, and how this would improve the pastoral care given to grieving families. After all, every single one of the almost one thousand families suffering in this way annually live in the parishes of our Diocese. Most did not even reply to my request and only three invited me to speak! Of these three, one Area Dean stopped me after ten minutes (having told me I had 20 minutes for the ‘talk’ and 20 minutes for questions), because there were more pressing things on the agenda.  

For many of the families of the deceased babies we have been called to baptise in our hospitals, the experience they have been through contains elements of the spiritual. As one deeply distressed father of a still-born baby said to me a few years ago, ‘We did not give ‘Him up there’ a second thought until this unbelievably awful thing happened. What we need are churches for the un-churched, ready to welcome and care for families such as these, sensitive to the particularly painful experience they have been through, and able to lead them on in faith until ‘Him up there’ becomes known intimately as the Father who loves them and their lost baby more than they will every fully understand.  

Hospital Chaplains can only do so much – including baptising ‘in extremis’. We rely entirely on the local fellowship of Christian people to provide ongoing pastoral care for hurting families. Of course, we need the clear consent of such families to pass their details on, but in my experience this is not the main difficulty. The big questions for us is, ‘Can we trust the local churches to welcome and nurture the families who have been through so much and are not particularly ‘religious’?’ All too often the blunt and painful answer is a resounding ‘no’.  

It is my passionate belief that, in the same way that Healthcare Chaplains need the church, for support, nurture and prayer – so the church needs Healthcare Chaplains, to challenge and teach on how to make connections with people who are ‘not religious’ but find, often as a result of major life change, that they have deep spiritual needs which cannot be met through medicine or materialism. Chaplains are uniquely placed to make the initial contact and provide counsel, prayer and sacramental actions, but it must be the local fellowship of Christ’s followers who provide on-going welcome, nurture and training in discipleship.  

Rev. Dr. Paul Kirby 

Head of Chaplaincy Services East Kent Hospitals University NHS Trust and East Kent and Coastal NHS Primary Care Trust

An edited version of the above was published in the Church Times.

Rev Clifford Owen responded to some of these issues as follows:

Paul was BI’s second chairman. I well remember how we spent those Saturdays at BI committee meetings in the ‘dungeon’ at St. Matins-in-the-Bullring, Birmingham , in hours of thoroughly honest discussion and debate on issues which still haven’t gone away. Even if we could never quite come out with unilaterally agreeing and smiling faces, at least we knew that in the end we were serving the Gospel.  In particular, Paul was to the fore describing his Birkenhead Parish baptismal policy, which majored on Thanksgivings for the gift of a child. I think many of us wished that we too could be in his position in our own parishes, where it seems that Paul made more progress than many (any?) in helping to establish thanksgiving as an appropriate first step. We knew jolly well that what would go down well in Birkenhead wouldn’t go down well in the ‘Tory Shires’.  

Twenty two years ago when BI first set out, I felt that what was required pragmatically in parishes was the right initiation policy. The ‘right’ policy in the right place could become a useful tool in mission as has been substantiated by many of the articles in Update.  In fact, to underline this point, it was the need for such a policy in our new area of Hampshire back in 1984, which propelled myself and others towards establishing a national movement to look at baptismal policies. The rest is history.  

But the challenge, especially to our consciences, is how broad a range of baptismal policies can be permitted, before they start to become something else? In short; when does one start to pass from ‘discriminate’ to ‘indiscriminate’ baptism? No-one has ever quite defined that boundary…and I can’t imagine the General Synod doing so!  Nevertheless that boundary does exist for most of us, and our inner voice often tells us when we are crossing it. Our consciences can signal when we are trying to bend our core theology to accommodate beliefs and practices, which we wish weren’t there before us. The relation of indiscriminate infant baptism to folk religion is a topic which has received much attention in these pages. (No doubt the recent passing of Michael Jackson, will draw up responses from clergy, consonant with those which sought to help us understand what was happening in the ‘Princess Diana’ phenomenon some years ago.)  

So Paul Kirby’s locus of work has shifted radically from the parish, and he is now fielding out on a boundary where few of us have stood before. I think we ought to offer him congratulations (backdated) both on his Christology Doctorate, and also on finding himself Head of Chaplaincy Services in two NHS Trusts. My first reaction, in considering the issues he raises on pastoral care to families in the neo-natal loss area, was to ask about the authority structures for the Chaplaincies within the NHS. But perhaps Paul himself is the authority! However I note that there is a team of over one hundred chaplains surrounding him, and when one gathers a hundred chaplains in one place, there surely must be some interesting agendas and policies issuing forth on these things. So I ask: is there a policy on requests for baptism of the recently deceased babies, agreed by the team?   I turned for guidance to the obvious place Common Worship Pastoral Offices. Note 2 to Emergency Baptism, says ‘Parents are responsible for requesting emergency baptism for an infant. They should be assured that questions of ultimate salvation or of the provision of a Christian funeral for an infant who dies do not depend upon whether or not the child has been baptised.’  Is this the Alpha or the Omega of the issue?  Does it rule out baptising an infant who has recently passed on?  How recently does the infant have to have died? Is there a time limit?   

I have just asked my wife, who was a midwife many years ago, about her experience of these cases. She remembers the practice of calling for the hospital’s chaplain in emergency. Where time didn’t allow the chaplain to be present she can remember reading prayers near the death of an infant but wasn’t sure whether they used water! When the infant died, the case shifted. My wife (now as an archivist!)  also encountered the requests by members of the Mormon church to have  access to registers so that they could baptise the dead into the Mormon church! This is why some vicars still are fearful of depositing registers in Repositories, to prevent access by Mormons. (See the tantalising passage in 1 Corinthians 15 v 29,30, where Paul (not Kirby!) seems to remark almost in passing about the practice of being baptised on behalf of the dead). This is different from baptising the dead physically with water. Here we have an interesting topic for future issues of Update.  

I don’t think I would comment on Paul’s description of the Trusts’ pastoral policy of linking parents of infants into their appropriate parishes. It seems admirable. However I do feel annoyed that Paul had his Chapter meeting exposé time shortened after 10 minutes by the Area Dean. I assume an appropriate expression of annoyance was sent to the said Chapter?  

Finally I would ask if Paul is correct to suggest that ‘most, if not all churches are light years away from where most of the families we deal with are at’.  A light year is a very long way!   Is not the whole scenario of ‘fresh expressions’ the latest buzz game to bridge this supposed gap? We are back into the mission debate. We have to engage with people where they are, from where we are! I rather feel that Paul (St. not Kirby!) if he had access to Mars Hill Athens today (he would have his own website of course) would probably say something like: ‘my dear friends, I noticed as I watched the news today, the thousands of fans gathering around a famous musician whom you have almost deified. I have noticed it also with other ‘living icons’ as you call them. It is as though you demonstrate beyond all doubt your need of a God. The living God, as distinct from those on whom you pin your lives and hopes, I now declare unto you.’  At the end of the day we have to declare what you and I know is the good news.  Let us pray that we shall declare it into the face of and in distinction from all the sub –Christian and half baked notions with which we are surrounded.  Meanwhile I salute Paul Kirby’s ministry.  

Clifford Owen, Priest-in-charge, Oostende en Brugge, Church of England, Diocese in Europe .

Click here for the related subject of "Emergency Baptism" by laity


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