Christopher Smith reflects on the naming of children and the meaning of baptism
I recently turned up a cutting from a 2013 copy of Private Eye, specifically from ‘Pseuds Corner,’ a ‘pseud’ being, in the jargon of that magazine, someone pretentious, affected, trying too hard to be something that they’re not. What had amused me was an anonymous contribution to an internet forum on the subject of the naming of babies. The paragraph begins with the word ‘so,’ which will give you an early flavour. ‘So we are having a very difficult time finalising our name choice for our baby boy, who is due in only a few months.’ You know what’s coming, don’t you, even if you don’t know the actual names. ‘Our finalists include Orion, Augustine, Salem, Sebastian and Milo.’
Christopher was one of my father’s middle names. Christopher Matthew: straightforward, un-angsty Christian names. Now, I have to concede that I have never been through the process of naming a baby, but the experience was clearly traumatic for our Mumsnet contributor. ‘We like Orion a lot, but we are worried it will lead to a lifetime of frustrated introductions and pronunciation controversies. We also love Sebastian but worry it is way too common.’ That last point amuses me, since anyone called Sebastian when I was at school would have been taken to have walked straight out of Brideshead Revisited. As for Orion—really!
‘Mostly, we are looking for a name that is strong yet romantic, unique enough to support the independent individual we hope to raise, and that travels and ages well.’ Glossing over the fact that ‘unique’ no longer seems to mean ‘unique,’ all that guff really means something like: ‘We don’t want to pick a name that will make us seem common, and we want people to know how trendy and edgy we are.’ Naming this baby is evidently going to be more about the parents than the child. I’d love to know how ‘Salem’ made the shortlist; it makes me think of the witch trials in seventeenth-century Massachusetts, although I realize that what should spring to mind first is biblical Salem, where Melchizedek was king. Indeed, Old Testament names (not including Melchizedek) have become popular for boys in leafy parts of London, according to the Evening Standard: Jacob and Judah, Noah and (still) Joshua. But in seven London boroughs, the most popular boy’s name last year was Muhammed. Among the girls, Olivia and Emilia have conquered eighteen London boroughs, and Miryam is the most popular choice in the boroughs with the highest Islamic populations. Given how few of these children will be brought for baptism, one wonders why anyone bothers. Why not just number them? Keep it simple!
Nationally, baptism numbers are in freefall. The 2017 statistics were released in November, and they do not make for cheerful reading. Usual Sunday attendance is down another 2.25%, and the twenty-year decline is a terrifying 28%. But baptisms are down by 7.6% between 2016 and 2017, and have dropped by a quarter in only five years. My diocese, which has prided itself on its attendance figures in recent years, now baptizes fewer babies and children than the dioceses of Chelmsford, Chester, Durham, Lichfield, Liverpool, Manchester, Oxford and York. And the London diocese has a population of 4,306,000, over a million higher than second-biggest Chelmsford.
Here’s some food for thought, then, for the talent pool: how are you going to arrest that decline? Because, of course, the decline in baptisms shows the depth of the problem. Fortunately, of course, God sees it all rather more in the round: the number of Christians is still going up, since we don’t leave the Church when we die. And it’s worth reminding ourselves that the business of becoming a Christian is God’s initiative, not ours. It is easy to fall into the belief that ‘becoming a Christian’ is something we do, by adopting belief in God as he has revealed himself to his Church, or by taking on a new mode of behaviour in accordance with the teaching and example of Jesus. But those things are the consequence of our becoming a Christian, not the cause of it. Behaving as a Christian should be what follows from the act of God which makes us a Christian, which is being incorporated into Christ in baptism. The Christian is someone to whom something has happened, something which is irreversible and which penetrates into the very roots of our being, because we have been recreated in and into Christ.
And baptism is not merely about an individual being put right with God, being made righteous, being justified, although it is all that; it is also about becoming part of a redeemed community. Baptism is not just a matter of recreated individuals, but of a recreated human race. And that human race is able to be recreated because human nature has been recreated in the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ. And so St Paul speaks of us being baptized into the death of Christ precisely because we are baptized into that sacrifice which takes away the sins of the world, symbolized for us by washing in the waters of baptism. And so we are wonderfully able to receive the fruits of the incarnation and of the cross by being baptized into the one full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.
In the words of the Prayer Book catechism, by baptism a Christian becomes a member of Christ, a child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven. Our job is to strive always to live up to that great calling, knowing that by baptism we have been reborn into the human nature of God incarnate, and thus taken up into the very life of the Godhead. Obsession with the statistics is small beer by comparison.