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Baptism questions that every clergy person must face
By Anna Brett
If Posh and Becks are talking about it, pretty much everyone is talking about it. Such has been the case with many issues during the development of Britain's most high-profile celebrity relationship. Whether it's the male sarong, the return of the Mohican haircut or wedding thrones, somehow the whirlwind around the famous whisks us all up, whether willingly or unwillingly, into its sphere.

Depending on how recent you want to get (David does change his hair quite a lot, so there's always recent news), one issue raised lately by the Beckhams, interestingly, is baptism. The Church of England Newspaper's March 28 front page pictured David and his son on the pitch with the headline "Vicar says 'Don't baptise Brooklyn'," drawing attention to Bradford priest the Rev John Hartley's letter urging Victoria and David not to baptise their son into a faith that they are not sure about. The letter, distributed to his parishioners, was in response to an interview with Beckham in The Mirror where he is quoted as saying: "We definitely want Brooklyn to be christened but I don't know into what religion yet."

Mr Hartley's gentle yet clear response to David helped many of us to think through why we feel strongly about protecting the sanctity of baptism. In a world where almost anything can be used as a lifestyle accessory it is perhaps unsurprising that people outside of the church many not realise that baptism must not be this. We must be sure of how to help our unchurched friends see past what may seem simply a nice ritual, and help them understand its earnest and true meaning when the issue arises.

Moreover, inviting guests to attend baptism ceremonies where we know the gospel will be explained can be an excellent way of introducing them to the church. Although for many church may be 'out', families are most definitely 'in' and people want to be seen supporting them. In 1999 25 per cent of live births were still baptised in the Church of England.

Although acknowledging that church may be unfamiliar to guests, the Rev Jeremy Fletcher, Chaplain to the Bishop of Southwell, is convinced that "people will still come". Believing that it is important that churches consciously welcome guests and set them at ease, Mr Fletcher lets the congregation know that there is no offering. Using more familiar hymns and trying to involve as many lay people as possible, both with preparation sessions and on the day, makes it much more community focussed than centred purely on the vicar.

He would also inform the family that the baptism certificate would be presented at the next family service, to encourage some kind of continued contact. Mr Fletcher believes that: "If a couple have come to you, as the church, you have to keep your part of the contract". Some churches do this by arranging baptism reunions, follow-up home visits, or sending cards to the child and, later on, suggesting attendance at Sunday school.

While in the past it may have been expected for a vicar to marry a couple and sometime later christen their baby, this seems to be less frequently the case, with many people moving away after marriage. Another factor is that the changes in society mean that people sometimes ask for the baptism before the marriage. In these cases, Mr Fletcher said he would "always reserve the right to ask 'Are you going to get married soon?'." Often they then would.

Churches employ various means of preparing candidates and their families for baptism. The Rev Patrick Coghlan, writing in The Church of England Newspaper this April, recommended the Jesus magazine, produced jointly by Deo Gloria Trust, Jesus Video Project, CPAS, New Start and the Open Book as a popular way of introducing the gospel in the lead-up to the ceremony.

Church House publishing can provide a Baptism leaflet (available in a pack of 20 for 10) taking the reader through many commonly asked questions. They also recommend Baptism Matters by Nick and Hazel Whitehead, a 'complete guide to baptism' for 7.95, that provides a framework for the church's approach to baptism.

If you'd like to find out more but are unable or unlikely to read a whole book there are several websites devoted to the specific issue of baptism. I looked at www.baptism.org which covers general issues and matters of interest relating to baptism. For a discussion of the many scriptural passages relating to baptism see www.bebaptized.org. If you want to direct friends towards a more objective, definition-giving website, try www.wcc-coe.org, the World Council of Churches site.

Baptism Matters by Nick and Hazel Whitehead is published by National Society / Church House, price 7.95, ISBN 0715149008.

The Baptism leaflet is also published by National Society / Church House, price 10.00 for 20, ISBN: 0715148966.

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