At the Baptism of a Baby
The arrival of a baby seems to demand some kind of rite of passage, and the one we have is baptism; we’d better make the most of it. Sadly it is now often seen simply as a religious ceremony rather than as a ritual that can express for us what the birth of a baby means, something that is of profound spiritual, if not necessarily religious, importance. But before saying more about that, we need to be clear about what we are not doing in infant baptism. We are not promising that the child will be a Christian. It would of course be ludicrous to imagine that we could really make this or any other promise on behalf of a child, who is quite unaware of what we are doing; we can nevertheless do real damage to a child by suggesting to him or her that we have arrogantly made promises in this way. As she grows up, this child must know that she is free to make her own commitments, including religious commitments, because only if she is genuinely free can those commitments genuinely be hers. Nor are we giving her a kind of visa for heaven; however you think of heaven, it’s surely not a state that can be entered merely through the performance of a ritual, and the notion of some kind of celestial immigration control that turns away those without the right papers, such as a baptism certificate, is preposterous. It is perhaps partly because such ideas remain current that baptism is not used as much or as positively as it could be used.
The conception and birth of a baby are private, family matters, and it is sometimes not easy for parents to appreciate that the baby they have privately produced, once born, does not belong to them. Of course they have weighty responsibilities towards the child, responsibilities that go way beyond the provision of the material necessities of life. But the person that the baby will become is not theirs to control. Baptism can help drive this lesson home, and one of the ways it does so is by the formal giving of a name – what used to be called a ‘Christian’ name, but is now more helpfully referred to as a ‘given’ name. Baby Smith is now become Jane, no longer an ‘it’ but a ‘she’, no longer a kind of appendage to the parents but a separate and morally independent person in her own right. It will of course be years before this independence of thought and action will be capable of full realisation, but its potential is acknowledged right now, in the naming of the baby at baptism. It is to be respected and indeed nurtured by the parents – and that’s unlikely always to be easy.
The baptism ritual ends with the child being welcomed into and by the whole community. This is another reminder to the parents that the child is a member of the community in her own right, not, or at least not only, as her parents’ offspring. But it’s also a reminder both to the community and the parents that the community has a real stake in the child. It will, one hopes, mean that the parents will allow the community to take satisfaction from watching and participating in the child’s growing up. It will demand that when the child needs a helping hand the community will find a way of providing it. But it is also an acknowledgement that the community has a right and indeed a duty to intervene when the child’s family seems to need help with parenting, or when the child is for any reason beyond parental care. And it’s not just about this particular child; every infant baptism reminds us of the commitment to children that we all need to make simply as members of the wider community. This is not just about children’s wellbeing and education; it is also about what kind of society and planet we leave to them. And sometimes – though not I hope in the case of today’s little child – it will involve taking steps to try to ensure that children are protected from family traditions of child-rearing that in the context of our society are damaging or unhelpful.
Among the valuable aspects of baptism is that it demands the appointment of godparents. Some people think of this role as being very specifically religious, but that is to seriously under-sell it. Because godparents don’t have the genetic investment in the child that parents and, to a lesser extent, grandparents have, godparents have a special responsibility to defend the child’s uniqueness and autonomy – the bit of ‘God’ that is hidden within them, some might call it – against any parental tendency to over-protect or over-direct their offspring in an effort to ensure that that child survives. It is also part of their job to try to protect the child from the parents’ more general fears and hang-ups until the child can protect him- or herself. In choosing godparents, parents therefore need to be careful, not only because the child will naturally come to regard them as the adults outside the family whom they can particularly trust, but also because they are in effect licensing the godparents to challenge their parental ideas when they believe that that is in their god-child’s best interests. To be invited to have a trusted hand in the development of a child is of course a great pleasure and privilege, but to carry out the role of a godparent with commitment and enthusiasm is a real responsibility.
Today we mark this child with a cross in the name of the Trinity. You must make of these sacramental acts what you will; that is the point of symbolism. For me at least, the cross is a reminder not just of the crucifixion and its complex of meanings but also of this new individual as the place where time, past and future, crosses with her consciousness of inner and outer reality. The invocation of the Trinity will remind me of the sense of Awe, and Love, and Truth that all of us here commit ourselves to try to communicate to her and show her how to express. With our respect, with our help, with our love, she will be able to live well.