Robbie Low wonders if some new Synodical notions will ‘take’ in his parish
A NUMBER OF PEOPLE in the congregation – and in the street – have asked me about the recent General Synod proposals to abandon the calling of Banns of Marriage and the removal of the requirement that a godparent should be a baptised Christian.
These are both, in their different ways, very clear statements about an understanding of the calling and task of the church of Jesus Christ and it is, therefore, important to say very clearly what is the policy of the parish.
The proposal before General Synod is that the calling of the Banns should he abolished and replaced, as in the registry office, with the posting of a notice of intention on a public notice board. It is true that this is all that is legally required. But the church is not simply about the law – it is about the Gospel. The reading of the Banns of Marriage serves several vital functions in church and in the wider community.
(1) When the Banns are read, it is normal in a traditional parish to preface it with the simple words: “Please pray for, as I publish the Banns of Marriage between…” We are commending these two people to the praying life of the parish as they prepare for this sacrament – placing their own love within the love of God.
(2) It is a public statement of intent at which the couple are usually present within the worshipping community. Marriage is increasingly in danger of becoming a private arrangement, celebrated in exotic places, with no notion that it is essentially a community celebration, enlarging and changing the community in which it takes place.
(3) It is also evangelical opportunity for the church. People, who on no other occasion might cross the threshold of the building, suddenly find themselves introduced to the warmth, welcome and fellowship of the church. They become aware of a witness to Christ that is bothered about them and, as far as the congregation is allowed, actively and excitedly preparing for their celebration.
It is not a faceless and impersonal legalization of emotional commitment or carnal and legal reality but something much greater. Don’t get me wrong, many registrars do a remarkable job of humanising and personalising the ceremony – but that is what it is at the registry. We are about something more.
We are very foolish if we miss this opportunity to engage newcomers in the sacramental life of the church and, whether they come again immediately or a seed is sown, to know that the church is there for them and that they are loved by God and represented in the prayers of the people is a significant experience. For the reasons given above, I take this opportunity to re-assure you that, whatever final decision General Synod takes, the Banns of Marriage will continue to be read in published at the main service on a Sunday in this church for as long as I am parish priest here.
In the earliest days of the church. Christians encountered a major pastoral problem. When people came to Christ they often brought with them, unsurprisingly, children who were too young to answer for themselves. It was, certainly until the late l9th century, pointless to say to people, “Wait until they are old enough” for one simple reason. The heavy infant mortality rate meant that the reality for many children was they were unlikely to survive to adulthood. This, of course, continues to be the case in many areas outside our privileged first world.
The church responded with the generosity of Christ. Children, it said, could be baptised on the promises of their parents and godparents. In the same way that parents did the best for their children in home, food, clothing. education, love and care, so they were able to decide the best for them spiritually. God is sovereign and he is able to engage with the uneducated innocent heart and soul as much as with the adult sophisticated and learned soul – often, if we are honest, more so. The only requirement was that the proxies, or sponsors, could, in all honesty, hand on heart, make those promises themselves as baptised Christians seriously undertaking, however inadequately, the. same pilgrimage. Indeed, in the early church, godparents were likely to be chosen, not by the parental newcomers, but from the worshipping community and these “sponsors’ would take active responsibility for encouraging their charges in the faith.
The primary task of godparents is prayer. Wherever a Godparent lives, prayer is uninhibited by geography, and the effect of praying godparents, I can testify in my own life and ministry, is profound.
Of course, they are also to assist parents in the education and upbringing of those children in the faith. leading to confirmation. Certainly, they are to develop a relationship with the children so that, when they reach that peculiar age when parents become quite intolerable and very limited in their understanding, there will be somebody within the faith (whom the parents also trust) with whom they have a deep and continuing relationship. But the primary task is prayer, prayer, prayer. You cannot do this consistently and willingly through Christ if you art, not in Christ yourself.
Now the reasons given for the proposed abandonment of this basic requirement by the Synod are that it will help us in our evangelism and exercise an open door policy. (It is worth noting that, even before such a decision is finally made, most baptism forms no longer require this vital information from prospective godparents!)
I do not believe this to be true, nor do I believe it to be theologically sustainable. We ask little enough of people already, and that may be right. We explain their duties and we do not judge whether they are going to carry out their tasks, any more than we judge whether someone’s marriage is going to work when they present themselves as an excited young couple at the altar. Frankly, we do not know. It is not our job to judge them. We explain and we ask thus to make a decision.
As far as evangelism goes, it is nonsense to suggest that the abandonment of the challenge is in any way going to advance the Gospel. The fact is that an so many occasions the challenge is just what is needed. We have had a good number of would-be godparents who have come in my time who have not been baptised. Ask them; challenge them, tell them quite frankly that they cannot be godparents unless they have committed themselves to Christ and they do so. Indeed, last month a young woman, in her 20s, stood at the font because she wanted to be baptised and she wanted to be a godparent. She was glad someone had actually asked her, as she felt, like a good many under-informed folk, that her parents’ neglect meant that she had missed the boat and somehow couldn’t be part of the church. She cheerfully went to a simple set of classes and came to faith.
The same has often been the case with people coming to be married. Only one partner need have been baptised. But what about the challenge to the other person?
“You’re taking your vows in a Christian marriage – have you ever thought about being baptised, about your commitment to Christ?” Each year there is a trickle of adult baptisms and confirmations produced by that simple invitation and challenge. I can’t recall anybody ever turning it down. And in this new year there are already two who will be baptised in response to this invitation and in preparation for the sacrament of Christian marriage. There are couples sitting in our congregation today because of that invitation and encouragement, and several more in other churches where they have moved after marriage.
The question: is do we care about them enough to offer them the things of Christ or are we happy just to fill in a few forms and send them on their way without ever involving them in the life of the Spirit? It is not surprising that many folk are a little contemptuous of churches like that. The pastoral offices afford great opportunities and people know instinctively when they are being cared for and when they are being short-changed.
When people are challenged about baptism. my experience is that, more often than not, people reply: “I’ve always wanted to be Christened, but never known what to do. My family never went to church and I’ve been frightened to come… etc., etc., ” – all kinds of reasons, just waiting to be asked. Why are you not baptised? Why are you not in church? “Nobody ever asked me. No one ever invited me. It didn’t seem important to anyone-else.”
Our task is to encourage people to do the right thing, not to tell I thus that it doesn’t matter. Because, if we say that it doesn’t matter, we are saying that they don’t matter either. People are never impressed by carelessness and God is not to be rocked.
Godparenting is a sacred duty. To pretend unbaptised can do it – goodness knows it is difficult at times for the baptised – is a deceit and is unworthy of the church of Jesus Christ. So, whatever the General Synod decides – and let us pray that is comes to its senses – we shall continue to ask the question here, put the challenge and accept only godparents who have, themselves, been baptised.
I tell you this now because if the rules change there will sooner or later be someone who will challenge that; challenge the stand on the Gospel that we take as a parish church. You will have to be ready to take, with me; the consequences of any such decision.
It is, I believe, a matter of profound doctrinal importance and integrity in the faith as much as any of the great issues that have come before Synod. It is a matter of the truth on which we stand and a key to evangelism and the heart of the Gospel.
Robbie Low is Vicar of St. Peter’s, Bushey Heath, in the diocese of St. Alban’s, in whose parish magazine this article originally appeared.