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Promoting Thanksgivings
John Hartley is vicar of Eccleshill, Bradford

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 Jesus.

           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 of suspicion.

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.

See "Q&A" about  Christening, Baptism and Blessing

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