Colleagues and friends celebrated with the Revd Sarah Lawrence last Friday as she welcomed everyone to the launch of her book ‘A Rite on the Edge – the Language of Baptism and Christening in the Church of England’.

David Dadswell, Diocesan Secretary; Bishop Nicholas; Stephen Pattison, sometime of the University of Birmingham and Elizabeth Adekunle, Archdeacon of Hackney in London each welcomed the book.

Bishop Nicholas said how wonderful it was for Sarah to be part of the ministry team and that it was a privilege to work with someone whose background and interests crossed over with his own.  A bit of inter-bishop banter ensued after Bishop Nicholas spoke of the how Sarah’s book focussed on the importance of language and “to find in a bibliography books that I might have read was encouragement that I am not entirely passe”.

Bishop David chipped in “Bishop I think you mean books you might have on your shelf” and Sarah asked if that was Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as it is listed.

Rising to the challenge, Bishop Nicholas retorted with “Bishop, I challenge you to find JL Austin’s ‘How to do things with Words’ which was a very important book in my own life and work and I hope I have learned how to do things with words since!” He finished by offering his congratulations to Sarah for a great piece of work.

The Archdeacon of Hackney spoke warmly of the book’s relevance for use as the clergy went on their journey.  She said that as an Archdeacon and a priest she had acquired ‘wise insights’ into the clergy’s psyche and one of those was sadly, but truthfully, that many feel a block at being able to reach non-church people and that Sarah had tackled this issue “beautifully, pragmatically and with care” through the rite of baptism and christenings.

She spoke of the frustration that many clergy feel about a rite that they feel is valuable and has theological weight with a kind of ambivalence about that importance in the non-church world and how this causes misunderstandings. Families seeking a christening come to church on one occasion, perhaps with a sense of naivety, but wanting to feel included, and yet are met with frustration by the clergy as a result of these differing positions. 

However, she believes that rites of passage are one of the things that still hold real value to non-church people and if the church is to attempt to become more relevant in people’s lives it must look at this.

In closing she said that the book opened up an important conversation about how the church does what it does; what it may choose to hang on to and why, and what it may choose, or dare, to let go, in order to let other people in.

Fittingly for the occasion, Stephen Pattison thanked Sarah for inviting him to ‘wet the baby’s head’ and he raised a glass to those assembled and toasted ‘the book’.

As her supervisor for her PhD, and as a rite of passage, he promised to oblige the crowd with indiscreet stories about her weaknesses and shortcomings! None arrived, but instead he said the ultimate tribute for a student is for their supervisor to say he was looking forward to reading their paper, which he had. Furthermore, he reread it in preparation for writing the foreword and still enjoyed it.

In his speech he said he thought it was an important book not just about baptism and christenings but about the inside and the outside of the church and the different understandings of each. He suggested that the book was really about managing people on a journey as they come in and go out of through the church’s door and their experience whilst they are there.   

Having been a curate 41 years ago he spoke about his own experiences of doing baptismal visits during ‘the height of liberalism’. He recalled how everything had been made accessible to people so they could understand what was being asked of them and so they could be involved in the baptism. There was ‘nothing mysterious’ about it although “we were asking them to disavow the devil!” So, he went along to see the parents and had conversations with them and “they swore blind that they believed in everything he wanted them to believe in; and they would come to church forever and ever and then they turned up on the day and he never saw them again”. Stephen remembered thinking - were they lying? Or was he no good at explaining things to people?

He believes the answer lies somewhere in the socialisation of clergy – professional Christians have a very different understanding of what it is to be a Christian, and what it is to be committed and what it is to understand faith than many of the people who feel attached, however obscurely, to the church.

Sarah’s book explained all this to him and he wished he had known it before! He realised that these people are coming from a completely different place, not an invalid place, but their attachments and engagements with faith and religion are different from professional clergy.

His parting comment was that Sarah was a “modest and self-effacing person with a lot of cylinders under her bonnet and if we didn’t already know this, we would very soon!”

The final presentation came from Sarah herself and she talked about her inspiration for writing the book.  She spoke of how precious her faith is to her and how when she looks at the declining numbers of churchgoers she asks herself why this is.  

In her experience as a curate doing her baptism visits with families she had the sense then that there was a disconnect between what was going on for them and what was going on for her. She felt this as a ‘brick wall’ – they were both talking and understanding each other but there was still clearly an undefined ‘issue’.

This made her think - where does faith come from and what is it about for people? Why do some children start to get that feeling that there is more out there and others not?

For her, that sense that there was more, that there was somebody or something that she could relate to, came whilst sitting in a cold traditional Yorkshire church, and she wanted it.  But where does it come from?

She explored this as a theme of ‘family connection’, albeit peripheral, to the church and it is this loose connection that the church needs to do more to tap in to. What Sarah saw in her research is that religious affiliation has declined at a generational level whereby families are not passing their faith onto the next one – so what is it that makes people pass their faith on within a family?

Statistically, children of churchgoers have a greater chance than those of non-churchgoers to grow up with a faith, but even for churchgoers the proportion passing on a faith to their children is low, resulting in each generation having fewer Christians than the previous one. So, churchgoing is helpful but not everything. She wondered whether the church has been trying to wrestle the role of teaching the faith away from families and putting it into churches and would it be better if the church resourced, encouraged and affirmed what families are doing instead ie. the christenings and the Christingle services, as these are important in people’s faiths.

For Sarah there is something about the word ‘christening’ that says something about that family-based religion that is passed on through the generations. However, when she looked at what the church/priests etc have been saying for 500 years she saw that they have been trying to teach that use of this word is childish, misleading, or possibly just plain wrong.

In the 16th century the word christening was very important as it referred in practice to family traditions. If you said then that someone christened a child you could be referring either to the priest or to the godparents of the child.   If you look at the catechism in the book of common prayer the child is asked “what is your name?” “who gave you this name?” and the answer is “my godfathers and my godmothers at my baptism”. Here the child is taught that all the crucial benefits of baptism are given by the godparents. Sarah believes that this lay-led christening or baptism, has been taken away from families as churches have tried to be more and more involved in development of faith, rather than godparents and parents.

Over time use of the two words is seen to highlight social gulfs – as priests used the word baptism, use of this term was picked up by the ‘posh’ people through the 18th and 19th centuries whilst the ‘normal people’ carried on using christening.

In the 20th century the clergy started to try and restrict baptism to children of parents who were ‘genuinely religious’ and preparation for baptism started to be seen as being really important. Teaching the catechism was now done by the clergy rather than relying on the godparents as they had done in past centuries.

In her thesis Sarah tries to dig down about what families are thinking - what does this word ‘christening’ actually mean to people and does it have any spiritual value?  The conclusion she came to is ‘yes’ it absolutely does.

She suspects that the outcome of dismissing and discrediting the everyday religion of families who don’t perhaps often go to church has been detrimental to the faith life of the country. Generations of clergy have regarded this as mere ‘folk religion’ and in the 20th century theologians started writing about it saying that this was ‘simplistic, dreadful and stupid’. But Sarah argues if folk religion is the religion of the people, isn’t this exactly what we want we want them to have?

Sarah asks: “If real religion is mixed up with the business of making a living, educating our children, celebrating, mourning, loving and maintaining relationships, this is exactly where religion should be. Folk religion in its best sense is exactly what we should be encouraging and not trying to sweep aside. The church doesn’t reach families any more effectively by trying to dismiss this.” She believes that the kingdom of God would grow more if the church sees itself as a resource to help families to share faith within the family context.

She hopes her book will help the church to understand and have a sympathy with folk religion, the religion of the home that seeks out a child’s christening and doesn’t necessarily see that as anything to do with church going. Sarah stresses she doesn’t have all the answers but having raised the question about how the church can better support families to pass on the faith she is passionate about having these conversations. “Lets start talking!” she said.

You can obtain a copy of the book at the discounted price of £20 from Sarah at [email protected].  

She would also welcome more conversations about how the diocese can connect more positively with baptism families and may be organising a forum for this in the near future.