Christening or Baptism?

The Revd Dr Sandra Millar, Head of Projects for the Archbishops' Council

The Archbishops’ Council Project on the ministry of baptism with children has begun to trial a range of resources in 4 pilot Dioceses, including a brand new website www.churchofenglandchristenings.org.

One of the most basic decisions has been what to call the project – Baptisms or Christenings? Early indications on social media revealed that there were many, particularly clergy, who objected to the term “christenings” as dumbing down a theological truth, that the journey begins with baptism and that “christening” is a subset.

During extensive research with families within and without the church it became very clear that they referred to the occasion as a ‘christening’. One story highlighted the problem.
The story goes that a vicar receives a telephone call from a parent asking whether “your church did christenings?” “Yes we do,” came the reply. “Thank God for that,” said the parent. “You’re the sixth person I’ve called and all the others only did baptisms.”

The research pointed to findings which underscored the story, such as “christening” is over 10 times more likely to be used in on-line searches than the word baptism. Christening is a great starting point when families want to talk to us and we want to respond by sharing with them all that happens when their child is baptized at a christening.

Baptism is a rite of Christian initiation, and is the beginning of a life-time of discovering what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. The research also showed that families who approach the Church of England asking for a christening want to give their child a good start in life, to seek God’s blessing and to surround them with the love of family and friends. Having a conversation with a family who ask for a christening opens up the possibilities of taking them on that journey of discovery.

But “christening” is not just a popular cultural word. It also has an established liturgical use and a depth of theological meaning. As Canon Tom Clammer, Precentor at Salisbury Cathedral, notes : “Although the word ‘Christening’ doesn’t appear often in the liturgical rites of the Church of England, it is interesting to note that it does appear in the Prayer Book of 1662 in the rite for the Private Baptism of Infants, where it appears to be interchangeable with the word ‘Baptism’. To ‘Christen’ someone means to make someone one with, or incorporate them with, or into, Christ, and as such it is a rather wonderful word to use to describe what is happening at a baptism. As a parish priest in both rural and urban settings I have taken very many telephone calls from people asking me to ‘Christen’ their baby. That will not be a unique experience. It seems to me that rather than try to correct the language, we might better celebrate that these ‘phone calls continue to come, and grasp the pastoral opportunity to explore together with the family of a young child what all the excitement and promise of being Christened – ‘incorporated into Christ’, might mean.”

By speaking in the language with which people are familiar we open up conversation, allowing us to listen to their thoughts, and then giving us the chance to take them on that first step of understanding as they realise what is really happening as their child is baptized.

This is the same principle going all the way back to Acts, when St. Paul proclaimed the ‘unknown God’, identifying that the local language expressed deep yearnings which could be met in Jesus Christ. Christenings give us an incredible opportunity to talk with 18 -45 year olds, about a relationship with the God whom for many will be “unknown”. As they approach us, they bring their friends and families along, as we aim to help them engage in a life-long process of living out the good news of God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ.

All the new Christening resources are designed to help families make the journey of Christian faith lifelong with their children. The website includes ideas about prayer and bible reading, ways to make faith part of everyday life, and lots of encouragement to see that having a child baptized at a christening is a beginning of something new.