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An American Thinks about the Royal Baptism: Wendy Dackson

Baptistry ceiling of Neon, Ravenna

Baptistry ceiling of Neon, Ravenna



Two days after my knee surgery, I woke up early to catch the coverage of infant Prince George of Cambridge’s baptism on Good Morning America.  Really, it wasn’t much to get up for—watching people arrive, but no actual broadcast of the service itself.  The real interest for me has been my Facebook feed, and the commentary by American friends (over whom the Supreme Governor of the Church of England has no jurisdiction) concerning this liturgical event.


After more than four years living in England, and working with churches, I found nothing remarkable about the occasion.  It was what I have come to expect as a typical Church of England baptism, despite the notoriety of the main participants.  The family gathered at a place of worship with which there is a significant connection, with family and friends with whom they share spiritual values and convictions.  The clergy invited to officiate have important relationships with the parents.  It was not an enormous gathering, but done at a time when the people who share the family’s spiritual journey could assemble to witness the event, and to welcome and encourage the new Christian to the household of God.  In many ways, there was absolutely nothing remarkable about Prince George’s baptismal service.


So, I was a bit taken aback with some criticisms I saw leveled, by otherwise open-minded people.  People who ordinarily would take to task anyone who inappropriately applied one cultural or theological norm to a situation where another was called for.  People who would ordinarily recognize a sort of cultural imperialism if the economically and socially privileged world imposed its standards on developing nations–but who did not recognize that it is equally imperialist to apply a US norm to the Church of England.  I found it especially disturbing, because these are people who, despite high levels of education, have not really taken the time to examine why the principles they insisted upon were not applicable.  There were two instances of critique which I attempted (unsuccessfully) to engage, but the discussion fell short of what I had hoped.  This reflection stems from those instances.


The first was when someone expressed gladness that the prince had been baptized, but wished that Archbishop Oscar Romero‘s insistance that “all people, regardless of their position in society, receive the sacrament equally and without exception.”  I asked what was meant by this, and how it was applicable to the situation of the baptism of an English infant prince.  The response, initially, was that I received instruction to go watch a video with Raul Julia entitled “Romero“.  (I am unable at the moment to go to libraries to hunt up videos and will not be able for a few more weeks—sorry.)  When pressed, my interlocutor cited the objection raised in the film to the ruling class custom of “private baptisms”, held outside the usual worship times and where only those invited could be present for the ceremony.  This may have been a problem in Latin America; my English experience is that most baptisms are conducted outside of Sunday morning worship, and are relatively small services where family and friends attend.  This is not just for certain classes, and the fact that the royal baptism was one of these typically small English ceremonies was probably what confused my interlocutor to the point of equating it with the aristocratic private baptisms in San Salvador.  This person did not realize that low-key baptism is an option available to most English families–not just the upper classes.


Furthermore, it seems a theological nonsense to say that baptism is somehow not the same depending on the character (whether public or private) of the ceremony.  One is not “more baptized” if the sacrament is administered by the archbishop in the presence of a handful of witnesses—nor is one any less baptized in that setting.  The grace of baptism is not something that can be quantified, and so to speak of baptism not being “equal” makes no sense.  Finally, the assertion that it should be “without exception” is unfathomable in anything resembling a religiously plural society (such as the United Kingdom, or the US, for that matter).  Baptism is the liturgical recognition of membership in the Christian community.  Its exact significance and timing will differ from one denominational group to another, but it is only for those who choose to enter (on their own, or through their sponsors).  The only “without exception” that can be imagined is that baptism will be provided without exception for those who wish it.  This side of the eschaton, we cannot expect a community of nothing but baptised Christians–and we may be surprised if we arrive on the other side of that divide and find that even there, baptism without exception does not exist.  If the church holds (as it generally does) that all people should seek the benefits of baptism, and does not have the power to require people to do it, the church needs to ask what are we doing or not doing to make the life with God in the community of the church a desirable good.  And then the church needs to do something about the answers to that question.


Those were my concerns with the critiques raised by one conversation partner.  Equally disturbing were the pronouncements made by an Episcopal priest in how a service of baptism held outside the Sunday worship of the congregation did not live up to the liturgiology of the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer—and how “far behind the times” the Church of England is (which may have some merits, but is not applicable in this instance).  Objections to the way the service was conducted (and remember, nobody in the conversation actually was privy to what went on—not even me) circled around the failure to welcome the newly baptized into the community of faithful; to do proper preparation and reflection prior to and after the administration of the sacrament; and to provide adequate pastoral care for the baptismal candidate and family.


I found this line of reasoning to be invalid.  First, we cannot judge what preparation occurred prior to the event, as we do not know.  What we can say with a fair amount of confidence is that the Duchess of Cambridge was confirmed shortly before her wedding in 2011, by one of the bishops who presided at her infant son’s baptism.  Her preparation was seen to be adequate by a senior bishop in her church, and there is no reason to assume that the private nature of the ceremony indicates a lack of preparation.  Secondly, the child was baptized in a worship space that is meaningful to the family, where they regularly receive spiritual nurture, and amongst people whose values are consistent with those of the parents of the newly baptized.  It is particularly interesting to note that the choice of sponsors was not a pro forma selection of who would be honored to be a royal godparent, but people who the Duke and Duchess trust with their child’s spiritual formation. This indicates a fairly sophisticated reflective process on the meaning of baptism and the role of faith in the life of a potential monarch.  The question of reflection subsequent to the baptism is, to my mind, a non-starter:  when do you know it has been enough, or done to a satisfactory degree?  The answer is very simply that it is not knowable.  It is a lifetime process, and cannot be captured or controlled by priest or community (and not every community is adequate to the task of baptismal reflection).  Finally, the question of pastoral care for the family is silly.  If any family was more in need of a quiet, low-key baptismal celebration, in the presence of those who mean the most to the parents and child, than the Duke, Duchess and their baby prince, I can hardly imagine who that might be.  But the main problem is to evaluate a Church of England service through the lens of the Episcopal Church (USA) 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and to make pronouncements that the service has failed to be something it never claimed.


What might have been an advantage, if any can be imagined, of the baptism of the newest royal being more public in its character?  I think there is a theological nuance that most have missed.  At least, I have not seen anyone other than myself make a claim for it.  It is that society has asked the church to help it transform into something better, nobler, more holy than it is.  The symbolism of the royal family—the highest echelon of English society—has submitted itself to the authority of God’s gentle and just rule.  Society, represented by a helpless infant, has asked to become what it is not yet.  It is a start for Prince George, and a re-start, a reaffirmation of aspiration to the Kingdom that we pray will come on earth, made in his person on behalf of the social order of the nation.  That is what we should be reflecting on as the significance of the royal baptism this past week.  That is what we should grieve that we did not witness.  The adequacy of post-baptismal reflection about this event is not just the task of the Duke, Duchess, their son and his sponsors.  The question of societal transformation under the guidance of and in partnership with the church needs all of our participation.  Critique from the cheap seats is not an option.

15 comments on this post:

Erika Baker said...

Thank you, Wendy.
Laura, I think Wendy dealt with all the points made on the Facebook discussion thread and there’s nothing else I could say to add to that.
Maybe one point – one of the people who objected to the private Baptism appeared to do so on the grounds that it was not a Eucharist Service.
My reply to that had been that one Baptism is almost universally accepted by all Christian churches, to my knowledge only the Baptists occasionally re-Baptise an adult who was first Baptised in a different church, especially when they were Baptised as a baby. But that’s not even true for all Baptist churches.
Not all churches celebrate the Eucharist equally frequently and many, especially the Protestant churches, often Baptise during non-Eucharist Services only.
If we can recognise their Baptism as valid, then we cannot insist that all Baptisms should be carried out during a Eucharist Service only.

And that’s without even knowing whether this particular Baptism did or did not include a Eucharist. Many private Services do.

28 October 2013 16:43
Wendy Dackson said...

Erika, thank you. You are right–in the Episcopal Church here in the US, it is pretty standard practice to baptize at the Sunday eucharist. Less so in the Church of England. A few baptisms I attended in the course of my research happened during Sunday morning worship, but in a ‘family services’ that did not include communion. And that itself is a balancing act–‘family services’ often attract quite a few more worshippers (and thus might be seen as ‘main’ services that involve the widest representation of the community). But the full sacramental symbolism of being welcomed into the household of God and then fed at God’s table immediately is lost if eucharist is not included.

My experience of 20 years in TEC and then 4.5 years in the CofE is that there is much more emphasis on eucharist in TEC, even though most ‘main’ Sunday worship in the CofE will have eucharist. TEC also provides for many more ritual markers, as Juan pointed out, on the way to baptism. I have my qualms about that.


“You are right–in the Episcopal Church here in the US, it is pretty standard practice to baptize at the Sunday eucharist.” This is true only if you mean the episcopal church of the last 20 years. before that individual baptism was a normal practice.

30 October 2013 17:30
28 October 2013 16:58
Erika Baker said...

Wendy, I find your reply interesting. You say that the full sacramental symbolism of being welcome into the household of God and then fed at God’s table immediately is lost if a Eucharist is included.
But as the CoE does not communicate babies, a Eucharist makes the very stark point that this child is now included … but not yet ready to be fed by God.

28 October 2013 17:02
Wendy Dackson said...

If it is NOT included. Another difference between TEC and the CofE is that pre-confirmation children are admitted to communion as soon as the parents see fit. I was a chalice bearer at a baptismal eucharist once, and taken aback that the parents wanted me to go get a communion spoon from the sacristy (I had never heard of such a thing, but we did have one, as I learned after I mentioned it) so their six-week-old could receive communion.

And indeed, there is always something about when one is ready for what kind of food. I think the Roman Catholic insistence on First Communion at about age 7 is helpful here–the child is prepared to be nourished on ‘grown up’ sustenance, and welcomed to the big people’s table, before the passage into adult membership symbolized by confirmation.

28 October 2013 17:13
Erika Baker said...

We do have Children in Communion programmes, but they don’t include babies, they still include a period of induction.
So if the church is saying that this baby is now a full member of the church but that it does not believe that he or she is ready to receive Communion, then we don’t really need a Communion Service to welcome him or her into our family.

Wendy Dackson said...

Perhaps communion as part of the baptismal service, if an infant is baptized but not communicated, can be seen as a way of providing sustenance to those responsible for the spiritual nurture of the newborn Christian. Kind of like giving the nursing mother a good meal (even if that spiritual mothering comes from male sponsors). It is rich and useful imagery, and loads of arguments can be made for all manner of practice.

28 October 2013 17:35
28 October 2013 17:21
juliettemintern said...

Wendy – thank you very much for your thought provoking piece. I really am simply a beginner at all this but I am wondering to what extent society has as you wrote

‘ *asked* the church to help it transform into something better, nobler, more holy than it is’

From a Christian view point that may be the deepest and most sincere desire held for the society in which we find ourselves. Along with many others I sense that the spiritual searching of society for the sacred is a reality but I am not sure that society has *asked* the Church ….. please would you be able to expand upon this?

Thank you

Wendy Dackson said...

Juliette, it is true that the whole of English society has not asked to be baptised. But as a symbolic act of the family which stands at the head of that society, an approach has indeed been made. There is powerful imagery here, if we simply take the time to notice it.

29 October 2013 15:04
29 October 2013 06:45
savih said...

In my experience, in the Church of England people are usually baptised in a parish church during a regular service and welcomed by the new family – not bounded by birth or status – which they have joined. I have some sympathy for families in their position for whom this is not so easy because of the level of media interest, expectations of being invited by various important persons etc. But I hope George gets some experience of worshipping alongside ordinary parishioners and begins to build relationships with at least some of his new brothers and sisters whose backgrounds are very diofferent from his own.

Wendy Dackson said...

I think it is highly likely that the new prince will indeed worship with a wider variety of people over the course of his lifetime than the average member of the Church of England.

29 October 2013 15:05
29 October 2013 09:55
Rev C Williams,OSV said...

The Episcopal priest is a wonderful example of why The Continuing Church is gaining many followers.

Wendy Dackson said...

Rev C, could you please elaborate on your comment?

03 November 2013 03:19
03 November 2013 00:03
Rev Ian Jennings said...

I am a Rector in the Church of England. We have Eucharist at 10 am and baptisms at 12noon on 3 Sundays of the month. We couldn’t possibly have a baptism in our regular 10am service for one reason only – no room! We regularly have 120 people turning up for baptisms. It is a huge family celebration. Since our 10am service is generally full anyway it leaves to alternative.

03 November 2013 17:51
Wendy Dackson, PhD said...

That is a fairly unusual and happy situation, Rev Ian!

03 November 2013 17:59

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