A baptism event or a Christian rite of baptism?

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It’s a question built on the harsh realities of journalism in the Internet era, when newspapers are thin and reporters often do not have the room in their stories to include essential facts. The question: Is the official version of a story the one that ran in the analog, ink-on-paper edition or the version of the story that ran online?

I’m in New Orleans at the moment, at the National College Media Convention, and as I flew into town I read the USA Today story about the baptism rite for Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge. The problem — surprise, surprise — was that this rather long story was all about godparent politics, Crown Jewels, designer clothes, tea parties, replica gowns and celebrity photographers.

Alas, all of that content is valid in the royals-as-movie stars era. The problem was that the story, to be blunt, covered a baptismal event, not a baptismal rite. There was depth to this story, but only on certain issues:

Compared to most rooms in Buckingham Palace, the Chapel Royal, started by Henry VIII in 1540, is much more intimate, with purple velvet-cushioned bench seating for about 40 people, beautiful stained-glass windows and gilded ceilings.

Like so many royal buildings in the U.K, the chapel has a rich history. It is believed to be the burial place of the heart of Queen Mary I, the elder daughter of Henry VIII. It’s where her younger sister Queen Elizabeth I waited and prayed during the Spanish Armada crisis in 1588. It was where Charles I received last rites before his head was chopped off in Whitehall in 1649. And it was where Queen Victoria married her Prince Albert in 1840.

But its real historic significance to the royal couple is its poignant association with the princess who would never be queen: Diana, William’s late mother. After she was killed in a Paris car crash in 1997, her coffin lay before the chapel’s altar until her funeral in Westminster Abbey.

And so forth and so on. The USA Today team stressed that this event was important because it once again demonstrated the “young royals’ savvy approach to duty, history, modernity and informality, obvious since their engagement in 2010.” Really? An details in particular that spell that out?

What about the actual status of the faith in this important and symbolic family? After all, Prince Charles has been somewhat controversial on faith issues, saying that he will someday be the “defender of faith” or even “faiths,” rather than the traditional “defender of THE faith” — meaning Christianity as expressed in the Church of England.

To my surprise, the longer online edition of this story suggested that the reporter on the scene even asked a few questions about the religious content of the rite itself, which was held in private and led by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

For the service, the Cambridges chose two hymns, two lessons and two anthems, the palace said. The hymns are Breathe on Me, Breath of God and Be Thou My Vision. The lessons are from St. Luke ch. 18, verses 15-17, read by Pippa Middleton, and St. John ch. 15, verses 1-5, read by Prince Harry. The anthems are Blessed Jesu! Here we Stand (Richard Popplewell) and The Lord Bless You and Keep You (John Rutter).

The verses from the Gospel according to St. Luke are totally logical, of course:

15 And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them.

16 But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.

17 Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.

However, the passage from the 15th chapter of John is a bit more interesting, if one is assumes that the content of the rite says something about what might be happening in the heads, hearts and souls of the participants:

1 I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman.

2 Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.

3 Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you.

4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me.

5 I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

There was one more intriguing question that could have been asked: What version of The Book of Common Prayer was used in the rite? How traditional was the service? How progressive? And, in particular, were these words spoken by the parents and godparents on behalf of the child:

Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help. …

Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
Answer: I renounce them.

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
Answer: I renounce them.

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer: I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer: I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer: I do.

In other words, there might have been actual religion-news content in the vows taken by the royals.

Really. Words often have meaning, in ancient vows with, for believers, eternal consequences.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • kmbold

    I too pondered this baptism, and wondered where they found seven godparents who could avow these questions of faith. My own children could scarcely find any friends outside their family to stand as godparents to our grandchildren.


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