Main Menu  

   

This article was originally published in the Summer 2003 issue of The Journal.

A blessing for our children

As a Catholic-Baptist couple, we were always aware that the question of how we should approach the issue of whether or not to have any children baptised as infants was going to present interesting challenges. At the time of our engagement and marriage we were asked: 'But what will you do about the children?' Whilst unable to give a specific answer to what was then a theoretical question, we felt very strongly that if God had drawn us together in marriage, as part of his purpose for both our lives, he would also enable us to address this issue in the right way, if and when it arose.

It did arise, in the spring of 1995, when I (Pamela) became pregnant with our first son, Thomas. We had just become members of the Association of Interchurch Families and, in the months that followed, we received much support and encouragement as we began to actively explore this issue.

As a Christian within the Baptist tradition my understanding and experience of baptism is of an immensely rich and powerful statement of commitment to follow Jesus as Saviour and Lord. As a child I watched many baptisms. I heard the testimonies of those who had met Jesus, had responded to his call to discipleship and were very clearly and vividly declaring this by being baptised. I sensed both the seriousness of repentance, of counting the cost of following Christ, and the immense joy of forgiveness and new life in him. As I prepared for my own baptism I learned more of the rich meaning it expressed; the washing away and cleansing from sin; dying to self and being united with Christ in his death; coming out of the water and being raised to new life in Christ, a new creation, clothed in Christ and filled with his Holy Spirit. I wanted our child to have a similar experience of baptism.

Although from a very traditional Irish Catholic background, Jim understood a great deal of my perspective on baptism. Jim's view from the time of our decision to marry was that it would be fundamentally wrong in our circumstance to have any resultant children baptised as infants, since this practice runs totally at odds with 'what makes a Baptist a Baptist'. The once-traditional Catholic idea that unbaptised children who died were cast into limbo was not something that Jim subscribed to. He has too much faith in the mercy of God! As a couple we therefore decided that we would delay baptism until any children could express their own faith in Christ. We felt we wanted to give our children the opportunity of being aware of the significance and richness of their own baptism when it happened. Having made this decision we then began to explore the possibility of a service similar to a Baptist dedication, but one that involved both our churches.

Waiting and hoping

During the months leading up to Thomas birth in January 1996 we received much practical support and encouragement from the Association of Interchurch Families. Our situation was not one for which there seemed to be any precedent in the Catholic Church. However, various ways forward were explored. It was suggested that perhaps a child could be welcomed into the Catholic Church as a catechumen preparing for baptism, in much the same way as an adult is in the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults. The Catholic priest who had so willingly facilitated our wonderful joint Catholic-Baptist wedding service had, by now, been moved to a different parish. The new priest expressed sympathy with our situation but was very cautious and felt such a proposal months old. would have to be approved by a higher authority within the Catholic diocese. Consultations eventually resulted in this being refused. Thomas was, by now, four months old.

Although the catechumenate proposal had proved, at least at that point in time, to be unacceptable to the Roman Catholic Church, we continued to receive unstinting support and encouragement from AIF.  A second possibility was found in the form of an approved Catholic liturgy entitled, 'A Service of Blessing for a Child not yet Baptised'. This seemed to us a very good way forward. We showed the service to our parish priest, but once again he was very cautious and said he would need permission to perform such a service for us. At that time our bishop was in poor health, so the matter of permission remained unresolved. During this period we had conversations with one or two other senior clergy within the diocese. These were not fruitful and at the time I felt our child was being rejected by the Catholic Church: if he was not to be baptised as a Catholic in the usual way he had no part in the Catholic Church and they would not even pray for his blessing.

In addition to this sense of rejection, as a new mother I was also increasingly feeling a great sense of loss. The precious early months of my new baby's life were already gone. It was especially in those early months that I had longed to come into the presence of God, surrounded and supported by our two church families, and praise and thank him for the wondrous gift of new life which he had given us, and to pray for his blessing on the life of our child. My sense of awe and deep gratitude to God was intensified by the fact that I had undergone a long and traumatic labour ending in an emergency caesarean section. I reflected upon the fact that, had I been living in another place or time, it is likely that both my baby and I would have died. I felt a sense of grief that those powerful emotions had never found expression in the appropriate place, the Church, at the appropriate time. Of course the gratitude remains, but the intensity of feeling associated with those early months does fade and is not easy to recapture.

Thomas passed his second birthday and still we had had no service of any kind. We could, at any time, have had a dedication service at the Baptist church. But we felt strongly that we wanted any service to reflect and embrace our child's Christian heritage and belonging in both churches. And so the issue remained unresolved. The pain and disappointment perhaps faded a little, but it never went away.

A shared blessing

By this time we were expecting our second child. Ellen's birth happened to coincide approximately with a change of parish priest. We then discovered that the experience and outlook of an individual priest could make an inestimable difference to a situation such as ours. Our new priest had an entirely different attitude, saw no problem in our having a simple Service of Blessing for our children, and warmly welcomed the full participation of the Baptist minister and congregation. When Ellen was six months old, and Thomas by then turned three, we celebrated a service of blessing for both of them, which we planned ourselves. It took place in the Catholic church and involved participation from the Baptist minister and congregation as well as friends from the Association of Interchurch Families. The Baptist church hosted a tea afterwards. There was a special sense of unity and we felt our children embraced and welcomed by both churches.

Two years later our third child, Charlie, was born with severe heart defects. The first year of his life included two major heart operations. His little life was drenched with the prayers of more people than we can number and God graciously answered them beyond all expectation. And so when Charlie was fourteen months we held a similar blessing service. Congregations from both churches, friends from AIF and also representatives from the hospital where Charlie was treated joined to celebrate, in wonderful unity and great joy, all that God had done in Charlie's life.

Reflecting on these events several years on we are aware that the issue of our children's formal relationship to the Catholic Church is not resolved. At the time of Thomas' and Ellen's blessing, the great warmth and understanding of our current priest, in comparison to that which we had previously experienced, and our joy at celebrating the gift of our children jointly with both churches, seemed to eclipse the need to be too concerned about the exact formal relationship of our children to the Catholic Church. When Charlie was born we might perhaps have returned to the issue. However, in our overwhelming joy that our child, with only half a heart, had survived two major operations and was leading an apparently completely normal life, the matter was, again, not at the forefront of our thoughts.

Thomas, Ellen and Charlie are now aged 7, 4 and 2. They attend both churches with us, participating in the children's liturgy group at the Catholic church and the Sunday school at the Baptist church. They experience the richness of both formal liturgical worship and informal charismatic worship. We know that they are welcomed, prayed for and greatly loved by both our local churches, and that this is but a small expression of God's very own love and commitment to them. In our home, our own domestic church, we pray with and for our children; we read Bible stories and talk with them about God our Father, Jesus our Saviour and the presence of his Holy Spirit with us in our lives. We pray that increasingly they will know and love Jesus for themselves and be baptised. This prayer was expressed very beautifully in words written for the Blessing of Thomas and Ellen in April 1999. We, of course, now include Charlie in that prayer.

God our Father, we thank you for bringing together today their nllO Christian communities in a joint commitment to support Pamela and Jim, in their marriage covenant and in their role as parents, as they seek to bring Thomas and Ellen to maturity in the faUh of Christ. We pray that this commitment of the two church communities may continue and deepen as Thomas and Ellen grow up, especially at times when it may be difficult to see how the two different traditions can be reconciled in one family. We pray that in fulfilling their commitment to help Thomas and Ellen to share the riches of both their traditions as they set forth and continue on their pilgrim way, the two church communities will share those riches with one another as well. May they discover that they share more than they ever thought possible of faith in Christ and life in his Spirit, which is signified and celebrated in baptism.