Today’s post is written by the Revd. Lucy Davis, from Flitwick Parish Church.
In the last 6 months, 19 children have been baptised in the font at Flitwick Church. That’s 16 different families who have taken the brave step of sending an e mail or picking up the phone to a complete stranger, asking for something that feels somehow instinctively important or significant, with no certainty of what the response would entail. To the vicar of a large Parish, those messages could sometimes feel burdensome, each request signalling a new round of negotiation about dates and guests and Godparents, knowing that very few of those families would retain contact with us once the baby was ‘done.’
Following Sandra Millar’s wonderful training day Baptism Matters, I found myself needing to repent. The Baptism liturgy talks a great deal about repenting, about turning to Christ. And I found that it was me who needed to turn again, to be prepared to see afresh, to look outwards and see these Christenings in a new light.
“If a family asks for a Christening, we now talk about a Christening.”
And therein was the first turning, a turning of vocabulary. Parents approached us asking for Christenings, and we would persist in talking about Baptism – on our website, on the phone, in our literature. To what end? Yes, to the end of being theologically and ecumenically correct, but also to the end of immediately excluding, of making families feel as though they were asking for the wrong thing, on the back foot and inadequate in the face of our secret Church language. So there was the first change. If a family asks for a Christening, we now talk about a Christening. On the phone, by e mail, on our website. Christening it is. I have climbed down from my high horse. At the service, we unpack these words a bit, talking about the oil of Chrism as the priest and parents mark the baby’s head. Suggesting we dunk the baby in the font like hand washing some clothes, in keeping the original meaning of the word Baptism (this one usually met with a little light laughter).
“Do we make it easy for them to return? Do we even invite them to return? And what would they be returning to?”
Where else have we turned? Importantly, in our attitude to communication. It used to be that parents would approach us, we would prepare them for their child’s Baptism, have a lovely service, wave goodbye at the door and then be disappointed when they didn’t return. But why should they return? Do we make it easy for them to return? Do we even invite them to return? And what would they be returning to? The changes in us have been several. Creating a children’s area in the Church which visually communicates “You are welcome here. We want you and your children to worship with us. We absolutely expect that will come with the noise and movement children bring.” The difference the children’s area has made is extraordinary. From being a church with almost no children, I have received comments like “I had no idea you were so welcoming to families.” “We love coming here, it’s such a child friendly place.”
We communicate our welcome with words too; all families are now quite deliberately invited to come and join us one Sunday morning before we take a Christening booking (how I hate that word!). A simple invitation to come, very often taken up, which says at a deeper level “This is not our Church, this is your Church too. This is not our God, this is your God too. You belong here. Christening is not a one off, but is surrounded by the prayer and people of this place.”
“Instead of … providing a service, we are making relationships.”
And then, after the big day, more communication. More invitation. Another turning. Instead of lamenting the fact that we don’t see families again, we now see it as our job to keep in touch with them. Yes, cards on the anniversary of their Christening. But also more frequently too, using Mailchimp e mails to stay in touch, letting families know about special services, about our toddler group, about Messy Church, about social events and fetes and Christingles and Christmas Carols. And here is the thing: the majority of those e mails are opened and read. We are not met with a wall of indifference. Far from it.
So what has changed, where has this turning taking us? Into a new relationship with our Christening families. Instead of quite literally providing a service, we are making relationships. Some will be closer than others. Some will take longer to develop than others. Some might yet drift and fizzle out. But by becoming relationship builders rather than service providers, we already see the children we Baptise as members of Christ’s body, not in some distant, abstract way, but emotionally and practically, we see them as belonging. And I am beginning to see that belonging as catching, catching hold of the families we encounter as it catches hold of us.