Had an unusual weekend just gone. I took the baptism of my beautiful nephew in Skipton, North Yorkshire. That, in itself, is not unusual. I am often called upon to take the weddings, funerals and baptisms of family and friends. I enjoy it and I hope that it gives a personal, person centred feel to the occasion. What was slightly more unusual about this baptism is that it was held in the afternoon (not part of the usual morning service) and so the church just had me and my family and friends. It was like ‘An audience with …’ I would always prefer to have the baptism as part of the usual worship gathering of a particular community but there was good reason for having this one separately. But it did feel odd!
At first I thought it was because it was just me and a whole bunch of people I know (most of which have no or little church connection); but I have done weddings in this company (with no church members present) so it wasn’t simply that. I also thought it was because I was, as always, disorganised (and sadly that showed!) but again, most of the baptisms I have taken have happened during (so called) All Age Worship and have definitely being less than organised! I thought it might have been that I have become a little more radical in my preaching style (more of which in another blog); but actually I would have felt more uncomfortable if I had ‘watered down’ what I had said. I thought it might have been because I asked for a collection to raise money for the work that I am involved with in Ghana (we raised about £82 – well done family and friends!!); but apart from a few, most seemed comfortable with that.
Then I began to realise that it was a recurring discomfort that I have felt for a long time, and partly why I got into the Pioneer Ministry game. I was worried, in fact I knew, that the language and symbols that I was about to deploy were completely inappropriate to my setting. I felt caught between a rock and a hard place – on the one hand the family and friends wanted to celebrate the birth of the child, wanted to mark it as a special moment, and wanted to do more than say thank you for him. They wanted a ceremony of greater import than simply a thanksgiving or naming ceremony; something that began to articulate the meaningfulness of the moment. On the other hand the words in the liturgy (which in the church I was taking the service were words from 1975) were meaningless to the gathered body. How was I to ask the ‘congregation’ if they were willing to uphold the life of the church in worship and service? Only a handful would have been able to say that with any integrity. (incidentally – this is less of a problem for me in weddings – perhaps because the language is more appropriate, or perhaps because it’s very nature is both rock and hard place – a religious thread in an essentially legal tapestry).
This isn’t a debate about infant vs adult baptism. This is a question relating to pioneer ministry, fresh expressions and new forms of church. What are the symbols and signs that have powerful meaning in our world today that also resonate with a Christian Narrative? What is appropriate language for marking those moments of transition and importance? Important questions if I am to belong to a community that wants to mark significant moments in people’s lives who don’t want to (or cannot) access the language and symbolism of inherited church. This isn’t simply a question about baptism: at a recent Venture FX gathering we began a conversation about what to do when people show an interest in matters of faith – when all we have is Alpha (and Alpha type courses) to fall back on.
All that said – we had a great time staying with my sister and brother and their partners (not to mention one beautiful little baby boy!!!) So I was blessed – even if no one else was!