Thursday, January 28, 2010

Baptism: early or late?

Baptism by the Book (cont)
As mentioned in my previous post, my daughter's recent baptism gave me an excuse (not that one is ever really needed) to re-read "The Ministration of Publick Baptism of Infants" in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. As one does, I also wanted to compare this service with the earlier prayer books of 1549, 1552, 1559 and 1604 (and the Scottish prayer book of 1637). All of these earlier texts included a very interesting paragraph regarding the timing of the baptism.

In my experience, infants are often (usually?) baptised once they are at least a couple of months old. This allows time for godparents to be selected and asked, family members invited and for an occasion to be made of the event. All this can be a fun and joyful celebration of new life, sometimes with informal festivities continuing after the service over a meal. Indeed, we did all this, though being in Scotland, only managed to get one of three godparents and one family member from each side to come and join us. Partially, we picked our timing based on when those family members could be here, and since we didn't want to wait too long, having the baptism exactly a month after the birth seemed appropriate (and means that we now have an alternative date for birthday celebrations if Christmas Eve tends to overshadow things).

However, in all the prayer books prior to 1662, some version of this rubric appeared:

The pastours amd curates shall oft admonyshe the people, that they differ [defer] not the Baptisme of infantes any longer then the Sondaye, or other holy daye, nexte after the chylde bee borne, onlesse upon a great and reasonable cause declared to the curate and by hym approved.
In other words, unless you have a very good excuse, it is best for your child to be baptised on the first Sunday (or other holy day (e.g. Christmas)) after birth. No mucking around here!

I will discuss the reason behind this in a little more detail in my next and final post on "Baptism by the Book". But the short answer is that when it comes to baptism, church family trumps blood family. No waiting until great aunt Gertrude can make it up from the farm; the child is welcomed immediately by and into the congregational family at their next major gathering. And this makes good sense. If children are to be welcomed into the household of God so that they are always raised within the Christian faith (as the practice of baptising infant baptism implies), then to be consistent, this baptismal welcome should occur as soon as possible. Why then wait until Sunday? Why not baptise on the day of birth? The answer to that will be in my final post.

Therefore, resolve to make your arrangements for a baptismal celebration prior to the birth. Expectant parents often spend hours researching prams and selecting nursery colours. Why not also (instead?) put some time into making preparations for the child's spiritual growth? Settle your conscience on the good gift of infant baptism. Meet with your priest or minister to discuss any concerns and to ensure you understand what baptism means and how it will work. Think about godparents early (and remember, godparenting is not primarily a chance to honour your closest friends, but a responsibility for those who will be faithful in prayer and example, taking the lead in discharging the duty and privilege of the whole church family in raising a new child in the faith and love of Christ). Check your church has a font or pool large enough for the infant to be dipped into. Have your child baptised at the first service available after their birth. And read your prayer book.


Anthony Douglas said...

...of course, in the sixteenth century, you probably didn't need to extract your rellies from the other side of the world, so perhaps the 'church family trumps blood family' line is a bit anachronistic.

Nevertheless, it's a helpful anachronism. Baptism is meaningful within the church family, and its meaning amongst the blood family (or some of them, anyway) may be horribly confused. Getting in early might provide the opportunity to shed some light!

byron smith said...

Yes, global families probably weren't the first thing on Cranmer's mind, but I don't think the "church family trumps blood family" line is anachronistic (at least, I didn't intend it to be), as I suspect that part of the reason for this rubric was a preference for doing baptisms at home (as I will discuss in my next post), which perhaps arose from a too-low view of the church family. But I'm no 16thC historian. I would love to hear from any prayer book experts about the social context that led to this instruction.

Natalie Swann said...

I'm enjoying your reflections on baptism, Byron. I find the idea that we should welcome little ones into the church family as soon as possible after birth quite agreeable and particularly like the encouragement that provides to faithfully prepare for the arrival of a child.

I wonder though, do you think that the urgency to baptise might have been fed in some part by high rates of infant mortality?

Irith said...

I love your throw away line "As one does, I also wanted to compare this service with the earlier prayer books of 1549, 1552, 1559 and 1604 (and the Scottish prayer book of 1637)." Yes, I too am in the habit of flicking through my copies of centuries old prayer books. ;-) Seriously though, I'm with Natalie, the longer baptism was left the greater the chance of an infant ending up in unconsecrated ground, sorry for the macabre thought. Or at the very least the greater risk of a panicked family calling the priest out in the middle of the night to administer whatever rites were necessary. I think the distinction between 'weak' and 'strong' infants in your discussion of sprinkling vs pouring bears this out.

byron smith said...

Natalie and Irith - yes, I suspect that this was part of it, as I will discuss in the final post in this series. Having a child who dies soon after birth baptised can be a powerful symbol and assurance to the parents that Jesus welcomes little children. I don't think this is the only reason, however. I feel that there is something powerful about the child being welcomed in baptism at its first church service. This is how a child is introduced to the congregation. I particularly love the end of the baptism service where the congregation say, "We welcome you into the Lord's family. We are members together of the body of Christ; we are children of the same Heavenly Father; we are inheritors together of the kingdom of God. We welcome you." Of course not doing this at the very first Sunday doesn't mean the child isn't welcome, but it models and emphasises the fact that the child is welcome because of Christ, not just because we might happen to like the parents.

byron smith said...

I'm (mildly) surprised no one has asked me about the omission of this instruction in the 1662 BCP and its replacement with this: Due notice, normally of at least a week, shall be given before a child is brought to the church to be baptized. If notice of "at least a week" needs to be given before a baptism, then the child is not being baptised at the first full gathering of the church after its birth. This may be a concession to newborns being allowed to skip their first Sunday if they are only a couple of days old and the mother is still recovering (recall that Israelite boys were not circumcised until the eighth day). Or it may be a more significant shift away from immediacy. I would love to hear from anyone with some expertise in this area.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to know, Byron, where you find godparents "who will be faithful in prayer and example, taking the lead in discharging the duty and privilege of the whole church family in raising a new child in the faith and love of Christ". Where are such people to be found? If I baptise my child I will have no- one I could truly trust to take such a special and long- term role! People seem to simply move on, change priorities etc. I've even had friends volunteer to take on an extended family role and then admit that they haven't really done this and this isn't a high priority for them any more. Do you expect consistent, long term involvement from your Godparents, or is it a choice 'for now'? Has anyone else had difficulty finding godparents?

byron smith said...

Anonymous - that is an excellent question. It is indeed one of the curses of modern life that we are all so mobile with relationships so often coming second to career. I say this as someone struggling myself with having moved away from family and friends to study at the moment, and as a godparent to child who is now long term in a country in which I am very unlikely to ever live, and as the parent of a child with godparents in multiple hemispheres!

I don't think there is a simple answer. But I do have some hope, since long distance relationships are possible (and all the more possible than ever before with Skype and similar things). But I sense that this is not so much your question. Is your concern less with geographical instability and more with relational instabilty? That is, with finding people who are willing to keep their word despite personal cost?

Anonymous said...

Yes, perhaps Byron the difficulty is finding people who will truly honour their committment- willingly and gladly rather that from guilty obligation. I'm glad you found some people to be godparents...such a blessing.

Unknown said...'s a hint... "oil was created by God the Creator". Oil did not evolve by 3 million years of compressed transformation. (I read your quote again)

byron smith said...

LoveFights - I assume this comment was intended for the discussion here.

byron smith said...

I like this Danish tradition - names are not publicly revealed until the baptism. That would encourage early baptisms!