This is a brief account of the meaning of baptism (sometimes referred to as christening), followed by some practical notes for those seeking baptism, either for themselves or their children.
One of Jesus' last commands to his followers was 'Go and baptise' and ever since then baptism has been the way of entering into the Christian 'family'. It is a service full of signs and symbols; amongst them the giving of a lighted candle and the threefold dipping or pouring of water as the priest says:
I baptise you in the name of the Father,
So it is that the particular child's name is spoken in the same breath as the name of God.
There are many reasons why people bring children for baptism, ranging from a wish to give thanks for a safe birth and a new life, to 'granny thinks we ought to', to a hard-to-explain feeling that it is simply the right thing to do. The church takes these and other reasons seriously and respects them, whilst wishing also to affirm its views of baptism as a 'new birth' into a new relationship with God. Baptism (literally 'washing') requires faith (trust in God as shown in Jesus) and a commitment to try and lead a Christian life. When an infant is baptised, promises of this faith and commitment are made on behalf of the baby by the parents and godparents. In this way they are a living sign of the Christian belief that God loves us before we love God.
We are all used to water as something vital to life; both to quench thirst and to wash in. The 'breaking of the waters' means the birth of a baby is near. These universal meanings are experienced in fresh ways in the baptism service when set alongside the Biblical understanding of water. This includes Moses leading the people of Israel through the deep waters into new life.
This is true also of 'light', another essential for life and growth, but also having the meaning of living well by following the 'light of the world' Jesus Christ. There is a contemporary saying that expresses something of this:
'It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.'
Everyone lives with the boundary of a Church of England parish, and it is the task of the local parish priest to help parents bring their children for baptism and to conduct the service itself. The theory behind this is that the parents and godparents (who must see that the children learn the Christian faith and grow up to come to Confirmation) will need the help of the local Church to help them in their task of preparing their children for adult commitment. The only exception is when a family has a long-standing connection with another parish church, and in that circumstance it is courteous to inform the local priest.
Baptism usually takes place either within the main Sunday worship of the church, when the local community can be there to welcome the child. This is normally discussed with the parish priest when the arrangements are made.
Children over the age of eleven are normally expected to be baptised at the same time as they are confirmed if they have not been baptised in infancy. ('Confirmation' is a special service for adults and young adults, conducted by the bishop, where the participants confirm for themselves the faith commitments made on their behalf by the godparents and parents) when they were baptised. Baptism can take place at any age, but an adult would always be baptised and confirmed at the same time. After confirmation, Anglican Christians are able to receive Holy Communion for the first time, and have a particular responsibility to live out the 'full life' of Jesus as his witnesses and friends in the world.
Original article by The Reverend Canon Anthony Cane, now Chancellor at Chichester Cathedral
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