1. Why should I christen my child?
Christening is a religious rite designed to induct a newborn child into the church. It arose as a practice during the early Middle Ages, at a time when Christianity was spreading rapidly across the western world.
The precise religious purpose of christening was to wash away original sin from the child. That is, sin which is innate within every human being from birth. This would purify the child’s soul and protect it from evil. Christening newborn children also served to strengthen the position of the church in its quest to banish paganism by promoting a lifelong commitment to the faith, a task the service continues to perform to this day.
The ceremony itself is designed for individuals who are not able to undertake the commitments on their own behalf, and thus also give their guardians a stake in the future faith of the child.
2. Is there a difference between christening and baptism?
The two practices are often confused and indeed they perform many of the same functions, but christening has one important difference: the promises made are undertaken not by the individual being baptised, but by others on their behalf.
Baptism itself is one of the most important sacraments in the Christian faith, as the welcoming of an individual into the church. The term is derived from an ancient Greek phrase, which translates as ‘immersion in water.’ Baptism is a large part of any christening, but the key difference between the two is that baptism is undertaken by an individual in the full knowledge of what they’re undertaking. Christening is generally for those who are too young to give their own consent.
Naturally, a newborn child doesn’t have the opportunity to sin and be purified, in the same way as those being baptised later in life. Instead it’s designed to cleanse the child of original sin and enter into the church free of all evil. Either way, the primary purpose is to wash away the sins of the individual, purify their spirit, and welcome them into the church community.
3. Do I need to be baptised to have my child christened?
Surprisingly to many, it is not actually necessary for the child’s parents themselves to be christened or baptised. It’s common enough to find inter-faith marriages where at least one parent is not a practising Christian, but where the desire still exists to bring the child up as a Christian.
All that is required is an awareness of the promises being made, and an undertaking to bring the child up in the Christian faith. It is however necessary, that the godparents be baptised.
4. How old does my child need to be?
There is no age limit for a child being christened. Traditionally a child needed to be christened as soon as possible after birth. This was a reaction to historically high infant mortality rates when many children failed to survive their first year. For that reason it was imperative that they be christened at the first opportunity, to ensure cleansing and purification ahead of even the shortest of lives.
These days there’s less urgency, but most christenings are carried out within a year or so of birth. There’s no upper age limit, but it’s preferred that for an older child, who is capable of understanding the promises that are made, a baptism will be the more appropriate service.
5. Can anyone have a christening service?
Of course. All candidates for a christening are welcome. It wasn’t always so, but these days most churches will welcome any child for a christening, no matter what the make-up of the family. The only condition is they have not been baptised previously, because baptism is for life and can only be done once.
In most denominations, there’s no longer a need for the parents to be married, or even a co-habiting couple. You don’t need to be a regular churchgoer, though generally it is preferred that at least one parent has been in the past, and as a parent there’s no obligation on you to be baptised yourself.
6. Does a christening always have to be on a Sunday?
It’s traditional practice to carry out a christening alongside the normal Sunday service. The whole congregation will assemble around the font and take part. It’s not unusual for more than one christening to take place during the same service.
Some priests may be amenable to holding a more private service but it would usually be preferred to do this on a Sunday after the usual morning service. However unless there are very good reasons otherwise, the service should take place on a Sunday.
7. Is it OK to have it at a secular venue?
Unlike other services such as a marriage, there is no secular equivalent to christening. Christening and baptism have no civil, legal role; they are purely ceremonies of a religious nature to welcome individuals into the church. For this reason there is no purpose to holding a christening service anywhere other than a church.
There are of course exceptions to every rule. It’s perfectly acceptable for a christening to be carried out on board ship for obvious reasons. This too, is an established tradition with practises that differ slightly from a church service. The christening would be undertaken by the ship’s captain, who uses the upturned ship’s bell as a font.
Another, less happy exception, is where the child’s death is so imminent that the place and the day of service are of secondary importance, in which case the rite can be undertaken anywhere.
8. Who should I choose to be godparents?
Godparents should be chosen from friends and family. They should be people of good character, who are trusted and expected to remain part of the child’s life through to adulthood. It is technically possible for parents to act as godparents to their own child, but there seems little purpose in this.
The one vital qualification for a godparent is that they themselves need to have been christened or baptised. This is a basic requirement, due to the role godparents undertake in the upbringing of the child.
One interesting fact is that baptism is one of a very few cross-denominational rites. It’s accepted that an individual can only be baptised once during their lives so most Christian churches accept a baptism into another church as valid. This means that a godparent at a Church of England christening can have been christened a Catholic or vice versa.
9. How many godparents should there be?
It is customary for every child to have at least three godparents if possible, however in extremis two will suffice. Sometimes a child may have more than three, but the usual number of godparents present at most christenings is three.
Of these it’s generally seen as appropriate to have two godparents of the same sex as the child, and one of the opposite sex. If the parents are to act as godparents, there must be at least one other.
10. What is the role of the godparents?
The basic role of godparents is to provide help and support to the child until they reach maturity, whilst assisting them in the understanding and practice of the Christian faith. They need to be there for the child in times of difficulty, and be ready to talk and discuss the bigger questions in life, helping them to learn to make choices and become good Christians.
A historic role for godparents, and one to be born in mind even today, was to take over the parental responsibilities to the child in the event of them being orphaned. This is no longer a right the godparents gain automatically, such things being decided through the courts, but ones role as a godparent does not disappear in such circumstances, and may become more important than ever.
11. Do godparents have to be confirmed?
Such is the special role that the godparents undertake in supporting the child through their Christian faith, it’s preferable that the godparents themselves are confirmed. As with so much else, this isn’t a hard and fast rule and if three confirmed godparents couldn’t be found there is some latitude.
However, the promises made and the need to prepare the child for their life in the Christian faith requires a demonstrable commitment to living a Christian life at the very least.
12. I’m not the parent or godparent. How can I be involved?
The roles of parents and godparents are specifically defined, but this does not exclude others from involvement in the child’s upbringing.
Your presence at the service demonstrates your support and commitment to the future faith of the child, and during the service the whole congregation will be asked to affirm their support of the child in their journey of faith.
13. How long will the service take?
The christening service is not long. If it’s a stand-alone service it should take no more than twenty minutes to half an hour. If it’s done as part of the regular Sunday service, generally the preferred option, then times can vary according to the priest, but it would be unusual for it to last more than two hours, and often much less. If timing is of great importance, it’s OK to ask the vicar how long it will last.
14. What happens during a Christening service?
The christening service runs to a formula with specific parts of the service carrying particular meanings. To start, the vicar will welcome the congregation and speak about the significance of the service, after which the parents, godparents and wider congregation will make their promises to support the child from that moment on.
Next the parents and godparents will be asked to bring the child forward, and the vicar will make the sign of the cross symbolising the moment at which Christ claims the child. The priest will then bless the water in the font and baptise the child before prayers are said, and the congregation will welcome the child into the family of the church.
Sometimes, at the end of the service, a christening candle is presented to the child to symbolise the shining of light into the world.
15. How much does it all cost?
The great news is that the christening service itself is completely free, however there may be costs associated with the service depending on what the family wishes to do.
It’s likely there will be a party of sorts and clothes to buy, usually including a christening gown for the child. However if money is an issue, all you really need are the parents, godparents, the child and the priest, so it can be done for next to nothing.
16. Should I give a present?
It’s up to you whether or not you give a present, but it’s something that is becoming ever more common. Some gifts are more appropriate for godparents to give, but for others there is a range of meaningful traditional gifts to choose from.
Often you may want to give something that reflects the importance of the ceremony such as a Bible or prayer book, which will give the child something to help them through the journey of life. Lighting a candle is traditional also. One really enduring gift that’s increasingly popular is to plant a tree symbolising long life and growth. A fruit or nut tree is best.
If you’re especially close to the child, a gift of jewellery can also be a very special, and lasting keepsake, particularly for a little girl.
17. Will my child have to be christened again if they change faith?
Within the Christian family of churches, it’s generally accepted that an individual should only be baptised once. This of course includes christening for a child. Consequently most Christian denominations recognise baptism as carried out in other churches, so if a child christened as an Anglican wishes to become a Catholic, Methodist or Presbyterian then their original baptism during the christening service will be readily accepted.