History of Baptism in The Episcopal Church
The 1979 Book of Common Prayer restores and renews the ancient Christian understanding of Holy Baptism in the liturgical life of the Church. It is clear that Baptism is the initiatory rite of the Christian Community. In the words of the Catechism, "Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God."
This is why we catholic Christians have never resisted baptizing infants—not because we fear that unbaptized children will not be "saved", but because we want children to be incorporated into the Body of Christ and "branded" as God's own. Having said this, we cannot logically exclude baptized children from Holy Communion; the grace of both sacraments flows from God and is not contingent upon the understanding of the recipient. Having been made members of Christ's Body in Baptism, children need the spiritual nourishment of the family meal of the Christian Community. (With this renewed understanding, the 1970 General Convention of the Episcopal Church authorized admission to Communion of baptized, but unconfirmed, children.)
But commitments to live the Christian life must be made in Baptism (see pp. 302-305, BCP). In the case of infants and young children, the sponsors (parents and godparents) make these promises for them and take vows to "support them by prayer and example in their Christian life." For this reason the Prayer Book requires that sponsors be “instructed in the meaning of Baptism, in their duties to help the new Christians grow in the knowledge and love of God, and in their responsibilities as members of his Church."
Now, it should be obvious that choosing (or agreeing to serve as) godparents should not be done lightly, or even as a nice gesture to honor friends of the family. For many years godparents were obligated to become the child's guardians, should the parents die. No less sober a commitment is expected of godparents today.
What we have said about the child's incorporation into the Christian Community makes obvious why the Prayer Book stipulates that Holy Baptism be administered “within the Eucharist as the chief service on a Sunday or other feast." The community must be present to welcome and to vow support of this new child in the Household of Faith. Private baptisms, then, are out of the question (except in extreme emergency, and many would argue that even then it is unnecessary for God's innocents).
Moreover, the traditional baptismal days of the Christian year are preferred: the Easter Vigil, the Day of Pentecost, All Saints' Day, the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord (Epiphany I), or the Visitation of the Bishop. Baptisms should be deferred until one of these days, if at all possible, and instruction scheduled for parents and godparents in the meantime. Of course, our mobile society makes this more complicated than in the past. But surely grandparents and godparents can plan (with several months' notice) a visit at one of five occasions, if they can do so for weddings and graduation exercises.
Many of us clergy hesitate to use the traditional term for children's baptisms—"christening"—because of the unfortunate connotations it has acquired. The word literally means "en-Christing," which is precisely what is done in Baptism. But it has come to mean, or at least symbolize, many of the corruptions of baptism practice which the present Book of Common Prayer attempts to correct. It brings to mind the image of a small group of family members and very close friends gathered around the font on Saturday afternoon for a short, "sweet" service, followed by a party for the adults and a nap for the baby. Hardly what the Prayer Book intends! Moreover, "christening" describes the launching of a new ship more frequently than a new life in Christ.
Don't misunderstand me, dear reader, joy and celebration are entirely appropriate on the occasion of God's claiming a new child. But the sacrament of Holy Baptism unites one with Christ in his death and Resurrection; its significance (though not its validity) can be eviscerated by sentimentalizing and privatizing the event. The celebration—both in the liturgical and in the social sense—appropriately expresses the joy of the whole Family of God into which the child has been "born." Therefore, it should not be restricted to the "natural" family.
Perhaps it becomes apparent now why priests do not simply or routinely schedule baptisms "on demand." First, it should be determined whether a particular Community of Faith (congregation) is the one in which the parents intend to bring up the child “in the knowledge and love of the Lord.” This means, of course, that it is rarely appropriate for the child to be taken to the grandparents' parish to be "done" by its mother's childhood rector. And it might mean that the child should not be baptized yet, if the parents have not made their own mature commitments to their responsibilities as members of Christ's Church.
At All Saints', baptisms are not scheduled until a priest on the staff has verified the commitment of the parents and godparents to bring up the child in the Christian faith and life.
Instructions to Baptismal Sponsors (Godparents)
Congratulations. You have embarked upon a journey with the person you are presenting for Holy Baptism; a journey that will last the rest of your shared lives. Please be assured of our prayers for you and your charge and accept these suggestions to help you be the best Baptismal Sponsor (Godparent) possible.
The job of Baptismal Sponsor (Godparent) is not a social appointment, but a sacred one. Consequently, you have been chosen for this ministry for your ability to support the person you present in his/her life in the Church, and not merely because you are a close friend of the Baptismal Candidate's family. Your chief responsibility is to support the person you present in living a Christian life in fellowship with the Church. You are promising to do all in your power to support (the person you present) in his/her life in Christ." The best way to do this is to help make sure he/she gets to Church regularly. Setting an example by regular Church attendance and by being willing to take the person you present with you to worship is a great witness and a fine way to keep your oath as a Sponsor.
Another fine way of supporting the person you present is by remembering them in your daily prayers by name. It is not only appropriate for you to pray for your godchild each day by name, but to let him/her know that you are doing just that! We all like to know we are remembered in prayer; your godchild is no different.
Not only are Sponsors called to remember their charges in prayer, but it is also quite helpful for Sponsors to remember their charges on birthdays, Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and the yearly anniversary of his/her baptism with a card or a religious gift. The gift need not be extravagant — it is the thought that counts. Again, the purpose is to make sure the person knows that he/she is remembered and supported in his/her life as a Christian.
Again, congratulations on taking on the solemn responsibility of being a Baptismal Sponsor. Please know that we at All Saints' will pray for you in your new job, and know that God will fill you with His Grace and enable you to be an effective role model and witness. May God bless you by the exercise of the responsibility you have taken on.
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