An item on Radio 4 this morning concerning proposed revisions to the Church of England’s baptismal service prompted the following tweet from David Allen Green:
This led to a discussion with some of my fellow Twitter users on whether it’s right for Christian parents to “impose their religion on their children” by baptising them as infants, or whether it should be left for children to decide for themselves once they get older.
Part of my own response to this question was set out in the following tweet – the point being that baptism is a gift, not an imposition:
(That’s not to say that in some cases children, particularly older children, may be manipulated or pressured into undergoing baptism. Which to my mind is an argument in favour of infant baptism.)
But the real issue for me is one of individualism vs community. If you are thinking of “religion” principally in terms of people’s individual beliefs and convictions, and of baptism as an expression of the beliefs and convictions of the individual who is being baptised – and there are plenty of Christians, as well as atheists, who think of it in those terms – then it makes sense to say that people should not be baptised as babies, but left to make their own decision as adults.
However, children are not born into a vacuum. They are born into a web of social relationships and communities, and (in the case of Christian parents) one of those communities is the church. At the most basic level, the parents will be taking their children to church on Sunday mornings, and their children may well get involved in other activities centred on the church community as well. This is no more (and no less) “imposed” on the children than their connection with all the other relationships of family, friendship and community in which they participate with their parents.
In that context, what baptism says to children is this: “You are not outsiders, waiting for admission into our community. You are already welcomed by us (and above all by Christ) into this community, full members of it alongside us.”
Yes, many baptised children may grow up deciding that they no longer want to be part of the Christian community – though the fact that they remain baptised means that the welcoming hand will always remain outstretched towards them. Equally, children may grow up deciding that they no longer want to live in the same town or the same country as the one where they grew up. They may even decide they no longer want to be part of the family in which they grew up. But that doesn’t mean we treat them as only contingent or provisional members of our communities and families until adulthood.
Given that our children’s involvement in the church community is pretty much unavoidable for the duration of their childhood, at least let their involvement be as welcomed members, rather than as outsiders held at arm’s length or on a contingent basis pending their “deciding for themselves” – which can so easily turn into manipulation to ensure they make the right decision.