SELLING THE FAITH

Philip Murphy shares a revealing glimpse of baptism, Essex style

 

FOLLOWING the death of Victor Meldrew, it is now left to the Clergy of the Church of England on opening their Diocesan post to exclaim "I don't believe it". I do not think that this will be too difficult a task considering the nonsense that emanates from most dioceses. If there were to be a league table of incredulous postings, Chelmsford surely must be a worthy winning ranker.

However, we now seem to have moved from the predictable tree-hugging lay empowerment days that are so frequently advertised, into the realms of sheer heresy. Certainly the latest offering from the diocese must come into this category.

CHEERFUL ERROR

New Beginnings is a glossy magazine for the parents of those preparing for baptism. Although the crest of the Diocese is emblazoned on the front, there is no sign of any blessing from the Bishop. A wise move on his part it must be said.

But who needs a Bishop when we have 'Jenny' our Diocesan Communications Manager who welcomes us to this 'informative and useful' publication. Well Jenny's imprimatur must be as good as any Bishop's, so let us proceed.

One cannot fault the quality of the publishing itself. Too often Church booklets blur with the ghost of dirty copier drums and Guardian quality spelling. This is bright, colourful and full of good cheer. Perhaps this is what the Church of England is to be. Sadly, just as we know all too well with the dear old CofE, the magazine is misguided and in error.

There are two strands of criticism with which I wish to concern myself here. Firstly some of the errors themselves and secondly the nature of the advertising.

CHURCHY HOWLERS

The FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions for those not surfing the waves of the web) cover a variety of areas such as the difference between Christening and Baptism and the age of Baptism. Good start. Let us continue. 'My baby is sick, can he/she be baptised somewhere other than church?' The anxious parent is given reasonable advice until they are told 'If the child is well enough at a later date he/she can have another baptism service in church.'

(In a way that would do credit to Mr. Meldrew himself, I rush for the highlighter pen and settle myself down for a long session with this guide.)

I have to admit that it is difficult to find many ecclesial errors in this 36 page magazine. Not because it is well written, but more for the lack of content. However Baptism is set aside in favour of the supposedly more important Sacrament of Confirmation which, we are told, 'provides the opportunity to take a full part in both the Anglican Church and those churches that are in communion with it, such as the Methodist, Baptist or United Reform Churches'.

Someone had better tell the General Synod before they waste time in looking at closer union with the Methodists!

Continuing with an Internet style approach to our faith, we are also told that through Confirmation ones' status as a 'communicant member gives you access to this world-wide family' [The Anglican Church].

EVERYTHING FOR THE CONSUMER CHRISTENING

Leaving such gems aside, let us turn to the advertising within the booklet. It seems from a rough count that there are 48 individual shiny advertisements. In reality there are far more because most of the articles between the covers are written in the manner of the Sainsbury's magazine, which urges you to cook a delicious meal with items only available at your local branch.

The advertisements themselves range from Marks and Spencer's full page at the front to cake shops within. They cover a vast array of 'essentials' for any baptism; Christening robes of distinction, two companies making personalised Christening shoes (no, really!), photographers, videos, jewellery, fine gifts, marquees, two companies for hand carved rocking horses, maths tuition, the hire of the Shire Hall in Chelmsford, pelvic dysfunction and Peugeot. There are many more categories with which I shall not bore you now.

REDUCED TO TEARS

The articles themselves are enough to bring the average Parish Priest to tears. In an item concerning the Christening Robe the parents ('mum and dad' in this friendly magazine) are reminded that 'the materials used are usually the more luxurious natural fibres such as silks and satins'. 'The memories of the day', in an article on the photographer, 'may be determined by your choice of professional'. After all:

Christenings do not have to be an expensive business, but if you decide on flowers, a cake, catering and other trappings, it makes sense to complement these with a professional service for your day's photography.

A cake-maker, in an unbiased column, declares that keeping the top tier of the wedding cake is not a real tradition and that they 'prefer to suggest the top tier is taken on honeymoon for the newly married couple to enjoy. I like to make a new cake for a new baby.'

In a piece on gifts, alongside advertisements for custom designed silverware, parents are encouraged to think of a gift in the stockmarket or the like. There then follows a number of items on healthy eating for children, immunisation, toys and 'skooling' (sic).

One of the most touching Baptisms I have celebrated involved the family and friends of the mother (single) 'forgetting' to come. At the last minute members of the parish rallied around and provided godparents, the hall was given for the rest of the day, shared plates of food were brought in and cameras fetched from nearby homes. Mother and child still come regularly.

If the Diocese of Chelmsford is happy for material such as this to make its way into the hands of struggling young parents in a materialistic world, then the Diocese is little more than theologically and spiritually bankrupt.

But perhaps we knew that already.

Philip Murphy SSC is Vicar of S. Margaret's Leytonstone, London E11

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