The topic of Baptism has been current here this week, as it has on my Twitter-feed. where Fr Angela Rayner raised the issue of whether the Church of England should be open to all who want their child baptised, or whether conditions, such as attendance at classes and Church should be set. I agreed with those who thought the latter a bad thing, and in so doing, I did what I seldom do on Twitter, which was to say something about myself. But it may be worth elaborating on this to explain why I take the view I do.
My father, who had been “raised” (and I used the word in its loosest sense as I use the noun which follows) in a “Christian” orphanage had what amounted to a visceral distrust and dislike of Christianity. The fruits of the “care” he had received were bitter in his mouth. My maternal grandmother was a good chapel-going widow of the old Yorkshire school, and the Calvinist gloom of that experience left my mother alientated but ambivalent. At home she had been forced to go and disliked it. Nonetheless, once she married and moved away, although she stopped going to chapel, she had been brought up to believe that her children should be baptised. So it was that, just over a month after my birth, I was baptised on Christmas Day.
That experience did not prompt my mother to go to church regularly, but after the birth of my youngest brother, she started to go to a local Methodist Church. My father, a man of the old patriarchal school, was not best pleased, and his displeasure was, as usual, vocalised; but still she went, often not telling him. I don’t know why she went, any more than I know why she stopped going after about a year, though I can guess at the answer to both.
My memory is of a wall with a communion table in front of it and a banner along it in blue and gold which stated: “God is love.” I have no idea why that made sense to me, but it brought the five year old me great comfort. I loved Sunday School where I learned about interesting people such as Zachaeus, about whom we sang. I liked him because back then I was quite small for my age, and it felt good to know that Jesus liked short people, and that naughty people were welcome, provided they said they would be good in future (and did it). Thus the reasoning of the child.
I can’t remember much about the crucifixion; it certainly was not emphasised. Jesus died, we were told, to save us all, and He did so because He loved us. I loved Him too. Although a perpetually questioning child (to my father’s vocal displeasure) I saw no reason to question any of this. The deepest instinct in me told me that was right. Then, after no more than a year and a half at most, my father put his foot down; no more church. His word was law, and so there was no more church.
Oddly, he persisted in this stance despite one of the formative events of that period of our family life. The birth of a daughter left my mother weak, and the insistence that she should take “the pill” to avoid any more children, led to a stroke; no one had warned my parents of the dangers. My mother was whisked back home to her mother, where she remained for a year. This coincided with a prolonged dock strike which left my father with three sons to care for and no regular income. The weekly visit of the Methodist Minister with food parcels was something I looked forward to, not just for the obvious reason, but also because he was a kind man. My father accepted the food with bad grace, but resiled not a jot from his dislike of Christianity and his belief that all Christians were hypocrites. His childhood experiences had bitten too deep for even this act of selfless kindness to touch his heart; but it touched mine.
Yet, unchurched though I was from that point on, I knew God was there, just not how to access Him except through the Lord’s prayer. What that did mean, however, was that when, at University, the chance to go to church again was offered, I was able to take it.
My own children were baptised and taken to church as a matter of course until they reached confirmation age, at which point they decided for themselves; one is an Independent Baptist pastor, his twin brother exercises a lay ministry with regular preaching. My pride in them is immense. The bread is cast upon the waters … .
One can debate and discuss infant baptism and whether or not the Church ought to put conditions on it, all I can say is that I remain profoundly grateful to the unknown Minister who baptised me on Christmas Day. I like to think that he knew in his heart that his action was what God wanted. It may be unwise, or theologically illterate to generalise from personal experience, but there are times when I feel it necessary; this is one of them.
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