Rite on the Edge (a book review)

I’ve pinched the title of the post from the book I’m talking about: Sarah Lawrence’s A Rite on the Edge (London, SCM Press 2019). I don’t think she could have come up with a better title for a book that looks at the diverging languages of baptism and christening, and the ideas and practices that go with them.

Baptism or christening statistics are a bit hard to be precise about. According to the Church of England’s statistics, there were 94,000 baptisms in 2018. However, only 59% (55,000) of these, were of infants younger than one year old. This makes 8.4% of live births (according to the ONS) who end up getting christened in the Church of England.

We should certainly push that percentage up a bit, by counting in at least some of the 32% who were baptised under the age of 12. Experience suggests the majority of those will be toddlers and pre-schoolers. But the figures show clearly how far the typical family now is from inherited Christian cultural traditions, a gap that is felt even with those families who come and ask for a christening.

That gap is precisely what Sarah Lawrence explores in A Rite on the Edge. She investigates the difference between the ways most people talk about christening, in contrast with the ways clergy and increasingly, churchgoers, talk about baptism. What I found particularly interesting was the way she roots this in history.

She takes a corpus linguistics approach (analysing how language is used in collected and indexed bodies of texts) that goes back to the Middle Ages. Christen was both the Anglo-Saxon word for Christian, and the rite of making someone a Christian. Baptism comes into use in written texts after the Norman Conquest. As with so many words, this means there is a class-distinction in their original usage. Christening is the language of ordinary people, baptism that of the educated elite.

She then traces this through time, and shows how, at the Reformation, the word christening becomes attached to the popular rituals and family ceremonies surrounding the initiation of children, and is used by evangelical Reformers to dismiss them as irrelevant or superstitious. These Reformers much prefer the word baptism: it is the biblical word, and puts the stress on the theological meaning.

Following the ways these words are used right up to the present day, she notes how, for most of the period, illiterate working-class people (as represented by trial transcripts) tend to use the word christening, while elite and literate people (as represented by Hansard, the parliamentary record) tend to use both terms: baptism and christening. The exception is clergy, who hardly ever use the word christening. A similar pattern can be seen in the language of today’s newspapers. When a baptism enquirer contacts a priest to ask for a christening, they are then, almost literally, speaking a different language.

Much of the rest of Lawrence’s book explores what she discovers when she listens to what those enquirers are saying. (Her work overlaps considerably with that of the Church of England’s Life Events project.) Naming is very important. Belonging, particularly through the giving of godparents, is vital. (Note the importance of godparenthood in Harry Potter!) There are elements of celebration and welcome, and of giving identity. Somewhere in the mix is an inarticulate thing about God, meaning, and hopefulness for the future life of the child, marked by the parents’ and godparents’ commitment to do their best for them.

When it comes to how the church responds, Lawrence has a number of suggestions to offer. First, she offers an encouragement to speak the language of the people we’re talking to. This is closely accompanied by the need to listen to what they’re saying, and work with them. She does not assume this leads to indiscriminate baptism, and thinks there will be occasions when a naming ceremony might be much more appropriate.

She is quite clear that naming ceremonies tick far more boxes in enquirers’ minds than “Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child” services. She argues that naming, and the giving of godparents, should be central to any rites offered as alternatives to christening services. She shows us that parents and family use the rite to make a public commitment to this child, with some sense of it being a solemn commitment before God. And she reminds us that in the context of today’s society, where fewer than one in ten families with a new baby approach the Church of England for a baptism, those who do certainly think it is something important and meaningful.

I think every parish priest should read this book, and every parish’s baptism preparation team needs to discuss the ideas in it. It’s left me thinking what such a beefed-up naming ceremony might look like. Perhaps more radically, if Christ is indeed the “true light that enlightens everyone who comes into the world” then how far can a naming ceremony can go in christening – in-Christing – people without including sacramental initiation?

2 thoughts on “Rite on the Edge (a book review)

  1. Diane Reeves

    I think I’d be a bit disappointed if I approached my church for a baptism for my baby and I was offered a non sacramental naming ceremony instead. Personally I dont feel any naming ceremony is necessary?

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    1. I’m not sure where you got the idea I was saying “offer instead” rather than “offer alongside”. The question is whether a “naming” ceremony might be an attractive option to the 90% of new parents who don’t approach the church for christening.

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