Baptism – it’s all about the welcome

New baptism research and resources are having an impact nationally on church growth. The Door talked to churches about their approach to this important ministry.

THE highest number of baptisms in the Diocese of Oxford is in Thatcham, near Newbury. With two extra services at noon and 3pm dedicated to baptisms on the second and fourth Sundays of every month, and up to four baptisms at each service, the Revd Mark Bennet, the Rector, and his team are very busy.

Welcome to the Church: A baptism ceremony in Beaconsfield. Photo: George Mardall.

Welcome to the Church: A baptism ceremony in Beaconsfield. Photo: George Mardall.

Baptism

Photo: Shutterstock

“Yesterday we put on an extra service in the afternoon to meet demand,” said Mark, speaking to the Door on a Monday during the summer. “Sometimes we’ll add a baptism service on a fifth Sunday.”
Mark said St Mary’s has an open policy in line with the Book of Common Prayer, which states that baptism should not be delayed. “We welcome anyone and have specific baptism services. If we baptise a child at a normal Sunday service, it is normally a family who are already associated with the church.

“We couldn’t fit all of the people who want baptisms into our normal Sunday worship and if they are not regular church goers, we want to make sure they come to a service where they are comfortable. We use as simple a version of the liturgy as we are allowed to use to engage people with the Christian faith.”

The team at Thatcham regularly discuss creative ways of making the baptisms accessible. This year they have been giving away the book The Servant Queen and the King She Follows at each baptism.
Samples of books and Bibles that godparents might want to give as gifts are displayed at preparation sessions, that normally take place on Saturdays. After baptisms, families are kept in the parish’s prayer cycle and contact is kept through the Adults, Babies and Children (ABC) mother and toddler group and Sunday on Saturdays (SOS) messy church.

The Revd Brenda Harland, who organises the children’s work in Thatcham, said: “ABC started in 1999 and attracts around 30 to 40 children and 30 to 40 adults. That often leads to baptism by word of mouth.” SOS also takes place on Saturdays, as the name suggests, and attracts up to 100 people. “We get everyone including little babies,” says Brenda. A Café Church run by St Barnabas Church, every couple of months at Thatcham Park School, is a way of connecting with people who may want their children baptised. All baptism families are invited to the various events and services at St Mary’s and St Barnabas.

Mark added: “We want to make connections in the local community. We give families permission to speak to us and ask us questions, making an effort to say ‘yes’ to requests as often as we can.” Thatcham has also seen a rise in the number of adults wanting to be baptised, some so that they can become godparents. “We’d like to see more adults go on to confirmation, and I know that’s something the Bishop wants,” he says.
The Revd Marion Fontaine is a retired community midwife turned part-time priest. She said: “A lot of the people who come for baptism come because ‘grandma said we ought to have the baby done’. For them coming to church may be the equivalent of me going to a betting shop. I’ve never been so I wouldn’t know where to start.

“There are three hurdles for most people: making the phone call, getting over the doorstep of the church and having the initial meeting. Those are before you can even have the baptism. For most people having to do anything more would put them off.”

Marion says she still meets people who are aware she was the midwife when they were born. “That’s about them seeing someone who has been part of their life and is still a member of the community in a formal role,” she says. “For baptisms it’s about letting them know the church is central to community life and not giving them too many hurdles to coming along.”
Mark added: “It’s about being a parish church and keeping as much contact with people as possible. It’s about commitment and consistency over time. People know what to expect and the message has got out that we are approachable.”

A family friendly church in Beaconsfield

BAPTISMS are just one way that St Mary’s in Beaconsfield encourages people to see the church as a place of blessing.

With a ‘Who Let the Dad’s Out’ group once a month and a weekly parent and toddler group as well as Messy Church within the Anglican team in Beaconsfield, there is plenty to help families stay connected once their child has been baptised.

The Revd Dr Jeremy Brooks, the Rector, said the church has high numbers of baptisms because Beaconsfield has a traditional community where people consider getting a child christened the right thing to do. “Our geography helps as most people know there is a church in the old town.”

Beaconsfield is a large town with a population of around 12,000. St Mary’s has around 350 members, with around 200 at Sunday services. Baptism families are invited to go through the service on a Saturday lunch time so they know what to expect on the big day. They are also invited to church and other activities, but with no obligation to attend.

Jeremy works closely with his colleague, the Revd Narinder Tegally, Team Vicar of St Thomas’, Beaconsfield, who takes many of the baptisms at St Mary’s.
Narinder said: “Baptism should be available for everybody and people here know that their child should be welcome for baptism. We are lucky at St Mary’s as we do a lot of occasional offices, weddings and funerals as well as baptisms. That is who we are as a church.”

Baptisms are carried out on the first and second Sundays of each month, with up to three children being christened at each.
Narinder said: “When you tell families that there may be other baptisms in the service the reactions are jolly. No one really minds sharing the service with others. We try and accommodate people’s needs. If a family is flying in from Tokyo, we will fit in with that. It’s about welcome.

Jeremy added: “The whole concern about people taking vows and not being part of the church in which they can fulfil those vows is not my primary concern. Well over half of the families who come for baptism I will see three or four times a year. They are part of our community and we let them find their own way in to church at their own pace.
“I hope that the community at St Mary’s, not just the church services but the whole community, is a family-friendly place. That is about more than just getting them into the church on a Sunday. It’s about encouraging people, whatever they believe or don’t believe, to see St Mary’s as a place of blessing and that is central to our understanding of who we are.”

Witney’s gracious welcome

By Toby Wright

IN Witney we are fortunate that people are still coming regularly to seek Baptism – what St Clement called in Quis Dives the ‘freshness of grace’. We see this freshness as a vital part of our ministry of welcome to those who are not yet convinced of the Gospel.

We have an amazing baptism co-ordinator, Esther Partridge, who is the first point of contact for people. Her gracious welcome helps to put people at their ease and reassure them that they will receive a warm welcome at any of our four churches. Once Esther has completed the administrative detail she arranges for the parents to come, with the godparents if they wish, to a preparation morning. This is as an opportunity to ask ‘How is baptism a means of sharing in the life of God?’.

This gives us a great opportunity to reach out and talk about faith in simple terms. We ask challenging questions about what people think baptism is, why they want their child baptized, whether they believe the good news of the Gospel and, of course, what’s the point of church? It is relaxed, with toys for children to play with. There’s coffee and biscuits or doughnuts. We take the opportunity to talk though the service and use the symbols of the cross, water, oils, and candles to explain baptism. We emphasize that they are signing their child up to a life-long adventure, not a one-off event. We encourage them to spend time talking with the other participants.

Esther then invites the parents or guardians to bring the child to church on a Sunday for a commissioning. This is an opportunity for the parents to see the community into which their child is becoming a part – not a chance for the congregation to have a gorp at them! Then the big day comes and the adventure of sharing in the life of God takes a leap forward. Our hope is that people will have learnt the church is a human place where different people come to share mercy and kindness as we renew the ‘freshness of grace’.

The Revd Toby Wright is the Team Rector of the Witney Benefice.

Book now for Baptism Matters – a one day presentation on those involved with baptism and family ministry on Saturday 15 October at Christ Church, Flackwell Heath.