Could Prince George’s baptism rekindle rite among British?

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It would be impossible to compare coverage among major news outlets, so plentiful have been the stories this week hailing His Royal Highness Prince George of Cambridge’s baptism into the Church of England.

The event, as with all activities attended by several senior members of the royal family, was well publicized in advance and blanketed with coverage. Bets were placed on the colors the ladies would wear, which family members would carry the infant in and out of the chapel and who would be selected as Godparents. The usual questions, I suppose, for most who only care to scratch the surface.

Significant stories, however, went beyond the royal family hype, the fashion and the newly added fourth generation to the line of succession to give us a glimpse at the bigger picture: Could the christening of a 3-month-old cause a surge in the number of baptisms, recommittals and overall interest in the Church of England?

The Spectator says it already has:

In 1950, nearly 70 per cent of the population was baptised into the (Church of England), with most of the remainder christened into other denominations; in 2010 it was fewer than 20 per cent, and falling. Perhaps Kate Middleton can do for baptism what she does for Reiss dresses – bring it back into fashion.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a splendid little pep talk on video about the event, saying that he hoped it would inspire others to get their babies christened; at the same time he warned against thinking that it was something just for ‘special people’ as opposed to everyone.

Not among our usual lineup of religion reads, granted, but the Spectator’s story was interesting enough that I wanted to put it out there for discussion.

Back to our usual circle of coverage, Godbeat pro Elizabeth Tenety of The Washington Post does an excellent job of leveling things a bit, contrasting Prince George’s baptism with that of any baby:

George’s baptism and future role in the church make him both a typical British boy, as well as a historic figure in the Church of England.

And Tenety provides a good primer for infant baptism, a partial list of the faith groups that subscribe to the practice and the subtle differences:

For Christians who believe in infant baptism (which include Roman Catholics, Anglicans and Eastern Orthodox, among many others), the sacrament brings the child “into incorporation into the Christian family,” said the Rev. Roger A. Ferlo, an Episcopal priest who is also president of Bexley-Seabury seminaries in Illinois and Ohio. The Episcopal Church, like the Church of England, is part of the Anglican Communion, a global network of Anglican churches that unites under the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

At least two other religion writers — Time’s Elisabeth Dias and Religion News Service’s Cathy Lynn Grossman — also tackle angles of the story.

Similarly, the Vancouver Sun works to explain the symbolism for an infant, regardless of his order in the British Peerage:

In the video, the Archbishop explains the meaning of baptism and how the ceremony will unfold. “I will mark Prince George with the sign of the cross on his forehead, and that’s exactly what every single priest does at every single baptism,” he says. “It’s an extraordinary moment because that is the sign by which we understand that this person belongs to God.”

The Globe and Mail doesn’t seem so sure about a possible upsurge and paints a darker portrait of baptism in general. This view more aligns itself with the decline of not only the Church of England, which is the state-sanctioned religion in the British Commonwealth, but in the number of Christians of all stripes in Europe and North America, particularly:

The service befitted a future king and spoke to the traditions of the British monarchy, but it did not necessarily reflect the realities of today. Although a critical part of Christianity for centuries, there has been a steep decline in christenings and baptisms, which are essentially the same ceremony although a “christening” typically refers to the naming of a child as well.

Falling birth rates and rising secularism has meant fewer people going to church and fewer children being baptized across nearly all Christian denominations. For example, baptisms in the Church of England have been cut in half since 1980. In Canada, the number of baptisms by the United Church of Canada has dropped to around 8,000 from 32,000 over the same period and in the United States baptism rates are at 60-year lows in some churches.

Prince George will in several years be confirmed into the faith, and that committal ceremony likely won’t create quite the splash his baptism has. It’s harder to ooh and ahh over a boy when he gets past a certain age, after all. It’s harder still to squeeze his cheeks, though it can be done.

About Tamie Ross

Tamie Ross is a wife, mom, writer and all-around crazy-about-life girl now battling autoimmune disease. Her 20-year journalism career included stints as religion editor for The Oklahoman, online editor for The Christian Chronicle and freelancer for clients ranging from The Associated Press to United Methodist News Service. She has won state and national awards for her personal columns and editorials.

  • Darren Blair

    My question – what part of the “steep decline” is due to the rise of denominations that do not practice infant baptism?

    For example, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints actually *rejects* infant baptism as unscriptural. Membership numbers have gone up dramatically over the past 50 years, and so even though it’s still a fairly small denomination it might be enough to move the numbers over a percentage point or two.

  • Geoff McLarney

    The Globe’s republican editorial slant would preclude its acknowledgment of a royal event as anything but moribund and decadent, and if it ties in with its narrative of the “vanishing mainline,” so much the better.

  • Mikegalanx

    “Could the christening of a 3-month-old cause a surge in the number of
    baptisms, recommittals and overall interest in the Church of England?
    The Spectator says it already has”

    Actually,the Spectator article does not say that; it says it would be nice if it did. Colour me skeptical.


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