Preaching at infant baptism services
In the Anglican churches, Methodist churches and some others in which families seek to have their children baptised, but do not regularly attend church, ministers often find infant baptism ministry can be both a joy and a worry. We rejoice that people are still seeking to be part of us, and to ask God to be part of their children’s lives. Yet many of us also fear that, for many families, they do not really understand the promises they are making, or what it means to bring their child up as a Christian. Are we being roped into a pretence, into using one of the most precious gifts of the Church as an excuse for a party?
This was the question with which I approached a study of the language used about baptism, carried out between 2013 and 2017, which formed the basis of my book A Rite on the Edge (2019). My core question was, what do families seeking baptism think it is all about? And can we communicate with them in a way which is more likely to be effective? And it is these questions which will be core to help us to prepare to preach at an infant baptism service. Where are the people we are talking to, when we preach at an infant baptism, coming from? And how can I talk in a way most likely to make sense for them?
Of course, most of the communication we do with baptism families is in the preparation and follow up process, but preaching at a baptism is a unique opportunity to share a glimpse of the love of God, not only with the families themselves, but with their guests, family, and friends. There are thousands of children baptised every year. 48,400 children under 10 were baptised in 2021 in the Church of England, according to Statistics for Mission, and this would have been down due to the pandemic. These services are usually attended by dozens of guests, most of whom will have very little experience of Church, so this is a unique opportunity to communicate. But we can only communicate effectively if we understand something of where they are coming from. So, why have they come? And what do families seeking baptism for their children in England today generally think it is all about?
First of all, to most people outside of regular churchgoing communities in England, this is a christening much more than it is a baptism. Christening is a much more comfortable word to most English speakers in Britain, with many people having negative associations with the word baptism, linking it with ideas of suffering (‘it was a real a baptism of fire’) and seriousness. Christening on the other hand was seen as positive and exciting (‘I’m going to christen the new champagne flutes’).
I did a study of Twitter posts from 2013-2016 in England, and noted every time the words baptism or christening were used, and separated out the results into Tweets which clearly were connected with the church (church accounts, ministers’ accounts etc.) from those without such clear connections. Tweets with clear church connections used baptism almost exclusively, and hardly ever used christening. Tweets from other accounts used baptism only 10% of the time and christening 90%. This was the most striking of a series of such analyses which showed the difference in how language is used inside and outside the church. Both words are commonly used in the broader spectrum of language in England outside church circles, but to many people, this is a primarily thought of as a christening.
I found that some regular churchgoers and ministers found the word christening to be associated with lots of negative ideas and gave a signal to them that those using this kind of language would probably not be taking the service seriously and were not really interested in faith. Certainly, I myself almost never used the word christening prior to engaging in this study. It felt uncomfortable and unnatural. However, we do not help our communication with families by avoiding the word christening. Our negative feelings associated with those who do use it often leak out to families. They feel our disapproval of them, and this makes them feel unwelcome and less likely to return to church, and maybe even to explore the idea of God.
What’s more, as a word, christening has good Christian roots, and can be something Christians can be confident to embrace rather than avoid. Christening is older in the English language than baptism. It was used in some of the earliest forms of the English language, coming from the Latin word for Christ, to make someone a Christian. Baptism was not used in Old English; it was introduced in the centuries following the Norman invasion, also from the Latin via the French language. And until a few decades after the Reformation ‘christen’ had the dual meaning of ‘to baptise’ and ‘a Christian’. Prior to the Reformation, christening was especially appropriate to use for adult baptism, for conversion from other faiths, since they were being ‘Christian-ed’.
In the eighteenth century there was a gradual social separation of the use of these words, with a divergence along class lines. In the seventeenth century all classes of lay people used christening more than baptism. But in the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries, those from higher classes gradually increased their use of baptism and stopped using christening as much, while those from lower classes continued to use christening much more. This led to the tendency in the early twentieth century that using christening became a marker of lower social status. That clergy hardly ever used christening meant that what in church circles was seen as theological objections to the word christening, was perceived by many in the population as simply snobbishness.
One of the ideas attached to both words which came up again and again from pre-Reformation times onwards, is the association between baptism and the giving of a name. Like the word christening, many modern-day Christians have, erroneously I think, begun to see naming as a secular matter. Up until the sixteenth century there is a beautiful spiritual depth to how people talked about naming at baptism. You see this in the Catechism of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), which begins the instruction of children preparing for confirmation by asking them their name. They are asked who gave them this name, to which they reply, ‘My Godfathers and Godmothers in my Baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven’ (BCP, p.289). An anonymous writer wrote in 1535, just as the Reformation in England was beginning:
think upon the great goodness of God how much grace he hath wrought for ye, first in making thee of nought, and then how he with his precious blood bought thee. Departing and discerning thee from all misbelieving people, pagans, and heretics. Giving thee a christen name, by receiving of the sacrament of baptism (quoted in Lawrence, 2019, p.44)
For most of Christian history, the giving of a name was seen as a sacred duty, done at baptism by the godparents, and this was seen as essential in the child’s relationship with God. This connection between our relationship with God and our name is seen time and time again in scripture (Genesis 2:23, Isaiah 43:1, Matthew 16:18 etc.).
It was only in the more legalistic world of the eighteenth century that giving a name began to be regarded more and more as primarily an administrative rather than a spiritual issue. In the nineteenth century the government lost its faith in the Church of England to register births through the baptism records alone and introduced a secular system in the Act of Registration of 1838. It was well into the twentieth century before the Church accepted this loss of function and began to see naming as a secular matter, and thus to regard families’ association of giving a name at baptism as a sign of their lack of interest in the spiritual meanings of the rite. The name of the child, and God’s care for the child and knowing them by name, are excellent themes for a sermon at a baptism, which are both likely to make sense to the family and draw on deep scriptural ideas.
There is real spiritual depth to the traditions which still exist in the background of many people who seek to have their children christened, but it has often not been nurtured, affirmed, or given encouragement to grow into a living faith. The role of the preacher at a baptism is to understand and affirm their starting position, acknowledging that they have moved towards God by requesting a baptism for their children. Their friends and family may share this openness to things of God, or they may not, but you never know what God is doing in their hearts. The reduction in numbers of people requesting an infant baptism may in some ways be an opportunity to give each family more time, getting to know them, keeping in touch after the service, building a relationship. The sermon in a baptism service will be much more effective if it comes out a real understanding of the family, and if it is seen by those attending to be affirming and building on their starting point, rather than dismissive of it. This takes time, to listen, to understand, to see the Spirit at work even where the outwards signs of faith may seem to be very limited.
‘I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth’ (1 Corinthians 3:6).
Church of England (1662). The Book of Common Prayer and the Administration of the Sacraments according to the use of the Church of England. Standard edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lawrence, Sarah. (2019) A Rite on the Edge: The Language of Baptism and Christening in the Church of England. London: SCM Press.
Church of England (2021). Statistics for Mission. Available online: https://www.churchofengland.org/researchandstats
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