The Church of England has just launched a new website for those interesting in having their children baptised, or ‘christened’ as the website mostly calls it. (The language here is a little odd: at one point it says ‘Baptism is the heart of the christening’; I had thought the two words were usually used synonymously.) And very impressive it is too. Or is it?
The reason I knew about it was because a friend of mine posted a negative comment on his Facebook page:
Church of England manages to produce a website for baptism without mentioning Jesus on any of the main pages! Who on earth puts these things together?
What followed then was an interesting debate between three of us who had trained together (plus others) on what the purpose of such a website should be. Should it tell the whole story? Or should it be an appetiser, giving the basic information and leaving people wanting more? Should it only the positives, and leave more challenging questions to later, where they can properly be dealt with in the context of a personal relationship with a minister? As one person put it, the purpose of this site is simply ‘to lead people to the vicarage door.’
Some people will feel unsettled by this. Are we actually disguising what baptism is really about? By calling it ‘christening’, are we perpetuating the widely-held myth (within and beyond the Church of England) that there are two practices and two theologies, infant baptism and adult baptism, in the Church? (In case you were in doubt, there is only one!). If the material on the site is misleading or incomplete, is it then harder or easier to correct these wrong impressions when you meet?
I also discussed the site with Arun Arora, the Church of England’s Director of Communications. It turns out the design of the site was based on extensive research with church members and with ministers, so the decisions on what to include and exclude were well informed, at least from a user’s point of view. It seems to me that the approach shares something with widespread marketing wisdom. As I write this, I am munching a ‘Wheelie’, a small version of the Wagon Wheels that I loved as a child. It turns out that I have (inadvertently) just eaten my fourth—so I have consumed more Wagon Wheel by taking a little at a time than I would have if I had been presented with a whole big Wagon Wheel at the start. Perhaps this website is offering infant baptism one small bite at a time. This isn’t a problem—unless the new ‘baptism lite’ liturgy also fails to really set out what baptism means. You might never actually see the whole Wagon Wheel!
Whatever the problems we might have with it, it is worth noting one important thing: it looks great and works well. Just pause there for a moment. The Church of England has produced a website for the ordinary user which is clear, well produced, is easy to understand, and is well illustrated. If you don’t think that is important and significant, just think back a couple of years to the myriad of seriously naff church websites out there. I was also excited to see the really good material that the site linked to, including Scripture Union, Bible Reading Fellowship, Bible Society, Lion Hudson, and others.
Having said that, it seems to me that there are three surprising omissions.
First, as the Facebook comment said, Jesus doesn’t make much of an appearance. In fact, given that baptism is (theologically) baptism ‘into Christ’ (Romans 6.3), this is a really surprising gap. If the aim of the site is to lower the cultural and theological barriers in order to allow people to explore, I still think that Jesus could feature more. After all, even if people don’t like church or religion much, they are still fascinated with the person of Jesus, even regarding him as a ‘great teacher’ (until they read what he taught about himself!).
Secondly, there is very little mention of baptism as becoming part of community. Given the fractured nature of many relationships today, it could be very attractive to talk about baptism as discovering a new community of which to be part. This is, of course, why baptisms should ‘normally’ take place in the main service of the day…
Thirdly, there is little mention of baptism as the start of a journey of discipleship. Instead, the language used is of ‘a journey of discovery about faith.’ This is, perhaps, the most general phrase you could possibly invent! And ‘faith’ does not for most people mean what it does in the New Testament; instead, it suggests a vague notion of something reasonably respectable which might involve God somewhere along the line. In my experience, parents often start asking about baptism for their children precisely because they realise the need to have values in which to bring them up. So a mention of discovering values for living could easily be made in a way which would still make the site an attractive ‘sell’ for baptism.
I would still like to be positive about the good features of this site—but also note its significance within our current missional dilemma. It seems to me that the approach here is part of a softly, softly, lower the barriers, one step at a time approach to mission—assuming that those who then form relationships with enquirers see faith and discipleship as the end point. And this strategy does work; it is the thing which is seeing attendance at Cathedral worship grow. The problem with this approach can be the lack of explicit exploration of discipleship; I am not aware of any Cathedral running an Alpha course, for instance (though do, dear reader, correct me if I am wrong). This strategy seems to be assuming that Christendom is not as dead as many think.
But in the C of E there is also another, quite different, strategy at work. Last week I met a friend who leads a church in Lincoln, and he told me that Christopher Lowson, Bishop of Lincoln, has invited a team from HTB to plant a church in the city, as part of a wider diocesan strategy for growth. The same day, I saw on Facebook that HTB are planting a congregation into a disused church building in Bournemouth. I daresay this is happening in other places too. This is a very different strategy—but it is one which has been responsible for turning round decline in London diocese.
The question is: are these two strategies compatible? Are we, in reality, growing two different kinds of Church of England? Or should we simply be pleased that, by whatever means, ‘Christ is preached’ (Phil 1.18)?