A Rite on the Edge: The Language of Baptism and Christening in the Church of England, written by Sarah Lawrence, (2019)

In: Ecclesiology
Nicholas TaylorRector of St Aidan’s Episcopal Church, Clarkston; Convenor, Liturgy Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church; Associate Tutor, Scottish Episcopal Institute, Scotland, UK

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London: scm Press. xvi + 156 pp. isbn: 9780334058502 (pbk). £25.00.

This book reflects very accurately the state of the Church of England and the conscientious attempts to discover new ways of approaching the challenges posed by its ambiguous and contested identity and spiralling decline. The administration of what are sometimes called rites of passage, almost inevitably at moments of heightened sensitivity in the lives of families, presents these issues in particularly sharp relief, perhaps more to clergy of any theological and pastoral sensibility than to many who seek their services.

Sarah Lawrence has made available in this volume the fruit of her doctoral research at Birmingham University, which was supervised by Professor Stephen Pattison. While essentially a work of pastoral theology, it is both distinctive and innovative in analysing the use of words in a variety of digitized historical documents, many if not most of which may seem at first glance of little relevance to the subject. Her contention is that the verbs ‘to baptize’ and ‘to christen’, and their cognates, have been used over the centuries in quite different ways and in rather different social contexts. She believes that understanding these usages and their cultural and theological connotations is crucial, not only to understanding differences of perception as to what baptism is about, but also to discerning avenues through which the Church of England may be able to connect with that significant proportion of the population who avail themselves of its rituals without sustaining any overt or active commitment to the life of the Church. She observes that some baptismal liturgies were originally framed for initiating adult converts, and that they have not been sufficiently amended for use as rites of passage administered to infants. There is certainly truth in this contention, though it is unlikely that baptism was ever only a conversion-initiation rite, in any individualist sense of conversion. However, the change of context from mission to established community life (irrespective of whether the rite is administered at birth or at puberty) is nonetheless crucial to addressing the issues raised in this book.

After two introductory chapters, Lawrence surveys the recorded usage of ‘baptize’ and ‘christen’ from Old English to the modern period, taking into account differences in Roman Catholic and Protestant parlance where possible. It was surprising to learn that Wycliffe’s translation of the New Testament recounted John the Baptist’s having ‘christenyd’ Jesus and others. Her discussion of the Reformation period takes no account of the publication of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, its impact on Bible translation, and the prominence of baptismal motifs and images in the Pauline corpus which were less overt in the liturgies of the medieval Church. Her conclusion, that ‘baptism’ and cognate words are preferred by clergy, and by religious and social elites, as being theologically more coherent and more consistent with Church doctrine, while ‘christening’ has become a more vernacular term, with wider and more secular social connotations, would almost certainly resonate with the experience of other clergy, even if some of us could provide anecdotal evidence that suggests that ‘christening’ is the preferred usage of lay people of all social backgrounds, irrespective of their level of commitment to the life of the Church.

Lawrence gives considerable attention to the rather tenuous, but nonetheless significant, association of baptism with conferring names. Her historical survey, being Anglocentric, does not discuss instances where the Church has associated indigenous names with paganism and insisted that converts take a ‘Christian’ name, which has often meant that of a British political, military, or colonialist figure, rather than a biblical or saint’s name as was imposed in the Roman Catholic empires. The popularity of secular ‘naming ceremonies’ for babies in contemporary society raises questions for the practice of baptism and whether the Church ought to make more use of liturgies in which children are welcomed into families and into society, and their birth (or adoption) celebrated, in a ceremony to which their name is central, but which does not include the actual liturgy of baptism. Lawrence notes that the provision made in the Alternative Service Book 1980 and in Common Worship has not proved particularly popular, but the reasons for this seem to merit further consideration. She notes that some parents do not wish to make the unequivocal commitment on behalf of their infant children which the liturgy of baptism requires (even if that aspect is frequently ignored), and that there might be quite diverse reasons for this. Whether a rite ultimately derived from ancient forms of admission to the Catechumenate is appropriate today is questionable; even with the connotations of probation excised, it would be extremely difficult not to present this as a consolation prize for those deemed not worthy of the sacrament. A further problem, which is not mentioned, is that the most approximate rite in the Book of Common Prayer, 1662, that of Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, gives thanks for the safe delivery of the child, and the recovery of the mother from the rigours thereof, but with pejorative associations of procreation with sin, and residual primitive overtones of blood-contamination.

A sympathetic study of the motivations of non-churchgoing parents in seeking ‘christening’ for their children leads Lawrence to conclude that, while these motivations vary considerably, there are many with sincere intentions, informed by some godly or spiritual insight. She argues strongly that, however difficult it may be for some clergy to reconcile these assumptions with Church doctrine, and however far what they are seeking may be from what the Church believes that it offers in baptism, clergy and parish communities should accept and build on these tenuous and fragile connections between the Church and those elements in society that claim connection with it. She speaks of ‘marriage-like promises’ which parents wish to make before God to their children, which she believes the Church ought to encourage and even to host.

In dealing with the vexed question of the role of godparents, Lawrence could profitably have given more attention to changes in culture and family life, before considering what roles in the nurture of children might be played by adults outside the immediate nuclear family. Geographical and social mobility and the instability of many nuclear families, as well as the increased autonomy of the latter from wider clan networks, have severely curtailed the influence of grandparents, uncles and aunts, and have made enduring friendships less viable. In a world and a Church increasingly confronted with the increased vulnerability of children to unscrupulous adults, which is not unrelated to the centrifugal forces impacting on family life, there are certainly hard questions to be asked and it is hardly surprising that the anonymity and (often false sense of) safety provided by virtual communication and agony columns is often more attractive to young people as they grow up. It would at the least be arguable that the Church ought to be more rigorous, not less, in scrutinising prospective godparents, subjecting them to safeguarding checks, and encouraging lay parishioners to engage in this role, so helping to build lasting relationships with families who seek baptism for their children.

The chapter dealing with ecclesiological questions might usefully have been placed nearer the beginning of this study. While Lawrence correctly recognises the tension between the role of the Church of England as a national institution with fluid boundaries and the theologically and sociologically more strident and rigid models favoured by some within it, the church-sect typology of Ernst Troeltsch has long been shown to be inadequate. The more nuanced typology offered by H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture (1951), while far from perfect, provides a rather more adequate model for addressing such complex issues. Lawrence is evidently persuaded more by the school of thought associated with Linda Woodhead and Martyn Percy than with that of Steve Bruce and Callum Brown, in believing that a significant but declining proportion of the British population will retain sufficient connection with the Church of England to continue seeking its rituals into the future. The work that has been invested in this book, however, indicates that she is not complacent, but recognises a need to seek ways of sustaining and renewing the increasingly tenuous connections between the Church at every level and the communities and cultures of the society that it serves. She recognises the importance of collapsing the increasing polarisation between committed membership and liminal adherents; and this is surely where the Church of England, and other ecclesial communities of all persuasions around the world, have theologically rigorous and sociologically informed work to do over a sustained period. Whether a basically consumerist approach, offering the rites of passage on the terms of the customer, would be at all viable is highly questionable. The Church, as custodian of the sacraments, has a duty to administer and to interpret them with theological coherence and integrity if its mission is to have any credibility. Sarah Lawrence has made an important contribution to addressing complex and long-running issues in the life of the Church. There remain outstanding questions to be addressed with methodological rigour and theological coherence in the coming days.

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