A Tale of two Baptisms

For devoted readers with good memories, we first return briefly to that holiday baptism. Tony and Tina had no doubt that the vicar would christen their long-awaited twin babies. The young parents had been married at the church and taken a full part in its life. Not surprisingly, they were consulted about the choice of hymns. ‘What would you like to sing?’ asked the friendly incumbent. ‘This is your day!’

Reverently, responsibly, and after serious thought, they came up with their shortlist of fun favourites (see Idle Curiosity, June). The day dawned sunny and a wonderful time was had by the extended family and other young mums and dads they had got to know via the creche and toddlers’ group.

The middle-aged and elderly may have had mixed reactions, but after all they had their way for most of the year. The few teenagers or older singles may have felt like eavesdroppers on a private party, but the worship group tried hard to be inclusive. Since this was mid-August in a popular country town, some of the jokes were lost on visitors like us.

Change the scene to autumn, and a different but similar part of the country. Bob and Barbara were more cautious in making their plans; just as committed as Tony and Tina, they had recently moved house and were just settling in to their new home and church. But little Jack was growing fast and it would be good to arrange the baptism before Christmas overtook everything. We were here too.

No problem, the vicar had said. Hymns? You’d better ask the organist; he uses his own system. Well, said that personage, we stick to the Royal School of Church Music’s list for the New Lectionary, but I suppose if you have a favourite hymn we could try to slot it in somehow.

Ouch. Not quite the welcome they were expecting. A favourite hymn may not be quite what a baptism requires. It was not as if the font was awash with the newly-initiated every Sunday; that can happen in big parishes, and presents a different range of choices. That year, as it happened, we had attended two other baptisms where the rest of the service, and certainly the sermon, made no reference to either the sacrament or the candidates.

As one who has shared in compiling lists of suggested hymns for the church’s year from a variety of books, I was dismayed at the use made of the RSCM one. It may, for all I know, be nearly as good as Sing God’s Glory (Canterbury Press, 2002), but neither it nor any such selection is intended as a rigid rule-book: ‘Thou shalt have none other hymns but these!’ They are suggestions to help choosers to think. Special services may be enriched with newer hymns, local hymns, favourite hymns, even a hymn specially written for the occasion. What a gift that can be!

Even some texts from the esteemed Royal School arose from particular occasions and were penned with particular churches in mind. If the hierarchy had stuck rigidly to whatever then was the accepted list, goodbye to some which by now are old favourites!

Somewhere between my two extremes, each factual and only marginally in disguise, is a way forward for Christian Baptism. Babies need not run the show, but lectionary lists are good servants and bad masters.

Christopher Idle works in the Diocese of Southwark.