In my first curacy I was
puzzled as to how the church could both give a welcome to those who
enquired about “christenings”, and also exercise some discernment so that
those who simply wanted a nice “do” for their children did not end up making
promises they wouldn’t keep. But
in my second curacy I saw God working through a sane approach passed on to me by
my vicar. The main idea was not to
dwell on why parents shouldn’t have a baptism, but instead to promote the
service of Thanksgiving as positively as possible.
Since then I’ve seen it work in three quite different places.
What we do
We offer everyone a “red carpet” Thanksgiving service,
at a time to suit them (during the main service or “privately”), and we try
to go out of our way for what they want. In
particular we have always commissioned “sponsors” (now called “supporting
friends” in CW), and we have never put two families together unless they have
both wanted it that way.
We explain that baptism is on offer to those who are
properly prepared for it: preparation consists of joining the regular
congregation on Sundays and doing a course on Christian basics as a way of
coming to personal faith. We try to
persuade families to accept the thanksgiving service even if they are looking
towards baptism in due course.
How we present it
We never discuss the form of service over the telephone or in an
“office hour” or after services - we arrange to visit parents personally.
We follow the “Evangelism Explosion” model of structuring a visit,
which has three 20-minute stages: (i) take a real interest in their lives, (ii)
explain about baptism and thanksgiving etc., (iii) try to give a testimony about
We present thanksgivings as “what we do in our church” for everyone.
We explain it is based on what Jesus did with children.
We explain the promises and faith statements which baptism demands, and
that the bible talks mainly about baptism being a sign of people making their
own decision to follow Jesus.
We try not to get drawn into a “compare and contrast” exercise on the
two possible services.
We invite people to visit a church service once, after which they can
book the Thanksgiving straight away.
Does it work?
Yes, it definitely works as a way of giving people a
positive welcome and avoiding their making false promises - this has always been
my main aim. Statistics in all
three parishes show that about 80-85% of
enquirers do have the service, and under 3% get annoyed or have bad feeling
about the policy. Many return for
thanksgivings for subsequent children, which is a measure of satisfaction.
However, it is not by itself a way of doing evangelism.
People have come to faith, but they have mostly been the ones who have
found a close friend in the congregation, and this, rather than the desire for a
baptism, has been the factor which has helped them. Regular “Alpha” courses have helped greatly.
One disturbing reflection is the number of people who came
to us for the second child (having moved into the parish), who had previously
had “baptism preparation” which had not made the slightest impact on their
lives or understanding.
Why does it work?
I think these are the main reasons:
We always treat thanksgiving as an important service.
They get the VIP treatment from us.
I have had many “that was a lovely service, vicar” comments.
Surveys show that one of the most important things people want from a
“christening” is to have special people (“godparents” in folklore) for
their children. The ASB was weak
here - CW is better.
Families like being able to come one at once.
They dislike the “feeding time at the zoo” multiple services as much
as we do.
People respect the fact that we respect their integrity. One grandad even said “that’s a much nicer service for
heathens like us”!
What do the regulars think?
The three places I’ve worked in are all quite different,
and all started from different places. One
of them was formerly “high church”, and initially viewed me with a good deal
But they have all warmed to the practice.
Many regulars worry about solemn promises made by those who are never
seen again, and once shown a way through this conundrum they welcome the honesty
of it. They also begin to see that
it follows the bible more closely, welcoming little children the way Jesus did,
and restoring baptism to its place of denoting the commitment of those who
really do want to follow Jesus. I
have also found that neighbouring clergy and the church hierarchy can see and
respect the point.