Prince George’s Christening and the Liturgical Movement

In many ways, the baptism of Prince George, son of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and the coverage of it, represent the antithesis of the Liturgical Movement’s ideal for the rite of baptism.

CNN and others have noted the private nature of this ceremony in comparison to those of Prince George’s father and grandfather. The private baptism, like the private mass, was a central critique of the Liturgical Movement. What has also received much talk is the dress designed for Prince George, which is a replica of the 1841 christening dress of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. The media has treated Prince George’s christening as a red carpet affair.

In describing the significance of the event, CNN notes that “being baptized into the church is more significant for George than for most people, since he is in line to become king, which would also make him the supreme governor of the Church of England.” While understandable, the coverage of Prince George’s christening misses the point. Baptism is not important because it is a hurdle one must cross in order to reach the throne, at least in regards to the temporal throne; rather, it is important because it marks a radical reorientation and reconfiguration of one’s life to Christ.

Notwithstanding my criticisms, someone in the royal palace apparently thinks liturgically. The Chapel Royal was the resting place of Princess Diana before her funeral, and the christening cake served at the reception after the christening was one of the tiers taken from William and Catherine’s wedding cake.  One could hardly connect birth, marriage, and death in a more poignant way.

Archbishop Welby also provided a breath of Christian air to the ceremony by pointing out that through it Prince George “join[s] the family of the church.” The service itself consisted, according to CNN, of two hymns, two lessons, and two anthems.  The readings were taken from John 15:1-5 and Luke 18:15-17. The hymns were traditional, “Breathe on Me, Breathe of God” and “Be Thou My Vision.” CNN also reports that the water for the font was taken from the River Jordan.

However, a liturgical review of Prince George’s christening would not be complete without a look at the font used. Termed the “Lily Font,” this font was commissioned by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840.

 

Image Source

Image Source

While a beautiful service, I wish that Prince George’s christening had erred more on the side of liturgical maximalism. As a witness to Christian baptism, Prince George’s christening, even if required, is a significant event. One only wishes it had been more in keeping with the Liturgical Movement’s ideas and vision for the rite of baptism.

It would have been wonderful if this had been a communal event. Having the baptism in St. Paul’s Cathedral, though I am sure this would have been a logistical nightmare, would have placed the baptism within the context of the community. As it happened, Prince George’s christening in the Chapel Royal was exclusive and private. One could argue that having a more public service would have increased the pageantry and further detracted from the true meaning of baptism. However, this was a risk I think which would have been worth taking.

The usage of the Lily font, which is so small that it has to be placed on a table, minimizes the importance of baptism. The font is the chief symbol of baptism.  Such a small and decedent font domesticates what should be a rather unruly and dramatic ritual action. It expresses an understanding of Church as a tame and theatrical institution. Additionally, its usage (I assume) only for the royal family once again leads to a privatization of baptism.

The scriptural readings and the hymn selections I find to be fascinating. The usage of John 15:1-5, about the vine and the branches, does situate this text within a more communal understanding and gets away from a purely Romans 6 theology. However, what is most striking is the hymn selections. The pneumatological emphasis of “Breath on Me, Breathe of God” is refreshing and the underlying message of dependence on God in “Be Thou My Vision” is fitting for a future king.

It would have been more impressive if the symbols of baptism, like the baptismal font, were bigger, symbolically more lavish, and more communal. While the usage of water from the River Jordan, historical treasures, and venerable traditions is very commendable, more could have been done to make this service less an individualistic rite for a future king, and more a rite of initiation of another child of God into God’s holy family.

However, I understand the royal family’s rational for keeping this special day free from prying eyes. For the baptism of an heir to the throne will inherently be seen as yet another piece of royal pageantry. All in all, I think the baptism of Prince George serves as a powerful witness to an increasingly secularized Europe even if it could have been more in keeping with the sensibilities of the Liturgical Movement. Ultimately, we should be thankful that Prince George was baptized.

In reflecting on Prince George’s baptism, perhaps this image would have been more profound. Enjoy!

Share:

34 comments

  1. My baptism was very soon after my birth. Present were my father, the hospital chaplain, and a religious sister as godparent. Mom was very ill; my twin brother was in perilous shape. Better to baptize then than hold off for a communal expression.

    The notion that baptism should be a liturgical rite of a parish is very new indeed. Throughout most of western Christian history infants were baptized soon after birth — three days at the most. Only the recent decline in infant mortality in developed countries has allowed for baptisms months after birth and during a public liturgy such as Mass. I say that it is more important to baptize a newborn child privately as soon as possible at even a hint that mortality might occur. The chrismation can wait for a more suitable time if it must be postponed.

    The royal baptism likely reflects the older understanding that infant baptism is imperative and usually private. I see no point in changing this custom even if Prince George is a healthy child.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #7:
        I read somewhere (was it Gueranger?) that in the early days of the Easter Vigil (way before Trent) that baptisms took place in a separate building (think Florence or Pisa) during the first art of the Vigil (Matins, 12 Lessons). Those already baptized remained in the Nave for the Lessons, while the baptisms were taking place simultaneously across the street. Don’t know if that is true or not. But having visited those places, I saw that they both can hold large crowds.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #3:

      “The notion that baptism should be a liturgical rite of a parish is very new indeed.”

      Not at all. It was quite normal before the rise of quamprimum baptism in the sixth and seventh centuries, and even in modern times, it was emphasized by the Swiss Reformers. Bucer recommended it to Cranmer for the 1552 BCP, but Cranmer didn’t take up the suggestion.

  2. I appreciated this article, but I think it is also worth pausing to consider a less prescriptive tone. The English royal family has navigated some of the most turbulent social changes with its public role (if not its power) intact, and it has done so by the remarkably sophisticated use of symbols and signs.
    Itself attempting to navigate the same turbulent social changes, it might be interesting for the church and for liturgical theologians not only to prescribe how, according to the Liturgical Movement, the monarchy “should have” behaved and to ask, from their own extensive familiarity with the successful use of sign and symbol, “Why did the monarchy behave this way?”

  3. I think Nathan makes some good points. It was a communal event in many respects – Prince George’s baptism has been in the media for many weeks. The clergy, godparents and other members of the assembly have been known. The service details were released. It could hardly have been said to be an urgent baptism – Prince George is now 3 months old, and, happily, looking perfectly healthy. It was a public, well anticipated ceremony.

    And then, at the last minute, it was not a communal event. The doors closed.

    All that said, I don’t know what approach would have been better. It doesn’t sound practical, given the determination, energy and technology behind the media and paparazzi, for the royals simply to slip into the front pew of a local parish on a Sunday morning, then slip away before the final hymn was sung. The church would have been surrounded in seconds and the Sunday Mass ruined.

    I guess an alternative would have been a quasi-state event, held in St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, with full, live media coverage. Is that better or worse than a private event in St James’s Palace? It seems to be the job that the royals have taken on.

    Long life, health and happiness to George Alexander Louis!

    1. @Jonathan Day – comment #6:
      Worship at a local parish certainly would have been different if the royals had gone there for the baptism, but not necessarily ruined. (I’m not sure if this is aimed at my suggestion in the earlier post, but I’ll reply here.)

      The push from the media is for images — still or moving — especially when the images in question are unique. “Buy our tabloid, because we’ve got the EXCLUSIVE pics!” If the royals let it be known that images of the baptism would be immediately provided to all media outlets, the exclusivity factor goes out the window and the crush of the media would go down.

      But imagine the impact on the parishioners. For years they’ll be telling one another “Do you remember the day Prince George was baptized here? Right here! And the Queen sat right there — right over there.” Imagine the stream of visitors who would be there the next Sunday. Imagine being the next mom or dad to have their child baptized at that church. Imagine being that child, and hearing your sponsors tell you years later “George may be the heir to the throne of England and you are not, but you share the same baptism. You are both royal heirs in the family of God.”

      Worship would indeed have been different, but I wouldn’t at all say “ruined.”

      1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #9:
        OK, I agree — “ruined” was too strong. I am thinking about crowds outside the church, intrusive behaviour by the media, etc. As you say, Peter, that has to be balanced against the shared experience and the memories.

      2. @Jonathan Day – comment #11:
        For two years, I served a Lutheran church in Topeka KS, and on more than one occasion, Fred Phelps and his homophobic followers showed up to picket. They were careful to abide by the legal restrictions — stay on the sidewalk, don’t interrupt the service itself, etc. — but made their presence known.

        As intrusive and disruptive as that was, it was more than compensated for by the witness of my parish to God’s love. One hot August day, some of those preparing the post-worship fellowship treats made up a batch of lemonade and carried it out to the protesters. Ushers did not wait in the narthex for people to arrive, but went out to the street parking to escort little old ladies through the lines of picketers. Parents engaged in very interesting conversations with their young children about what God’s welcome really entails (hint: hate is not part of it). I didn’t know anything about any of these things until later, as I was busy inside preparing for the service, but once I heard people talking, I was thrilled at how they handled the intrusive, disruptive behavior.

      3. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #9:

        and I could just hear them saying “and what did you think of Elton John’s piece composed for the prince’s christening”? No thank you.

        This private event is in keeping with a firmly established tradition. So, best to keep it just as it is. What’s more, I don’t think the Duke and Duchess, or Queen Elizabeth could care less about “the Liturgical Movement”.

      4. @Brian Palmer – comment #21:
        But the issue here is “What is Christianity?” and “What do Christians believe about baptism?”. That a “private event” is an established tradition is no argument – since “private event” is at odds with what Christians believe about communion, community, Body of Christ, and so forth. As to whether the royalty care about the Liturgical Movement – same response: whether they care about it or not, the issue here is what the Liturgical Movement said and still has to say about the renewal of Christianity according to its own true nature.

        I speak as one who follows the Popes of the twentieth century who have strongly affirmed the Liturgical Movement.

        awr

      5. @Brian Palmer – comment #21:
        The liturgy as done at St. James Palace had nothing like that, and there’s no reason why making a private service public would mean a change in the readings or music. I was intentional in speaking only about the effect of a change in the venue and by extension the community that gathers around George at his baptism.

  4. “One could hardly connect birth, marriage, and death in a more poignant way.”

    Indeed.

    Thank you for this insight, which is by far the most interesting thing I’ve read about Prince George’s baptism.

  5. The “Mystagogical Catechesis” of St. Cyril of Jerusalem (ca 313-386) speaks of group baptisms at the Easter Vigil as well as at other times during the year. From the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers:

    § 1. Renunciation. We have seen that Cyril’s last Catechetical Lecture was delivered in the early dawn of the Great Sabbath, Easter Eve. The additional instructions then promised concerning the behaviour of the Candidates were given on the same day, probably in the evening, when they were all assembled immediately before the administration of Baptism. The most important parts of the Baptismal ceremony are described by Cyril in the first Mystagogic Lecture, delivered on the Monday of Easter week. Thus in § 1 he says, Let us now teach you these things exactly, that ye may know the significance of the things done to you on that evening of your Baptism.” . . .

    § 4. Baptism. After this anointing the Candidates were “led by the hand to the sacred pool of Holy Baptism.” This pool (κολυμβήθρα) was supplied with water raised from the reservoirs, of which, as we shall see, the Bordeaux Pilgrim speaks in his description of the Basilica.

    As great multitudes both of men and women were baptized at the special seasons, the Baptisteries were large buildings outside the Church, such as the Baptistery of the Lateran, said to have been originally built by Constantine. The font itself also was large enough for several persons to be baptized at the same time. In some places the men were baptized first, and then the women: in others different parts of the Baptistery were assigned to them, and curtains were hung across the Font itself.”

    (Footnotes omitted, but available at the link above)

  6. quasi-state event, held in St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, with full, live media coverage

    I suspect that their sensitivity in not doing this might have a lot in common with the sensitivity shown by Francis when he respectfully “blessed” the media by praying for them in his heart.

    Everyone has weddings and funerals and we can expect them to take place publicly and according to the rites of their religion if they have one. However Baptism is a unique Christian ritual, to include it among quasi-state events might have been insensitive to people of other religions and no religion. This is especially so since baptism places the person in a relationship to a “people” that does not include everyone in the Empire, but only a portion of them, and relates the prince to many people who are not part of the Empire. Perhaps the royal family is being far more sophisticated than we give them credit for.

    This same critque might apply to Peter’s parish suggestion. What would people who are not Christian’s think of that? The family chapel definitely says its a family matter and important to the Empire largely because it is the royal family. It does not imply that other people might be second class citizens because they do not share the same religion.

  7. A full-on pomp and circumstance Abbey “do” with cameras and lights etc might not be the kindest thing for a very young baby.

  8. Royal christenings in this era are incapable of being exemplars of good parochial praxis, if they ever were much in any other era.

    The queen attends weekly liturgy devotedly, mostly at St George’s Chapel in Windsor. The Chapel Royal at St James’s is modest by comparison. In the summer, when she’s at Balmoral, the royal family attends the local kirk that the royal family helped enlarge in the Victorian era. At Christmastide, when the royal family is at Sandringham, they attend St Mary Magdalene.

    So, that’s The Queen. What are the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge’s churchgoing habits? I don’t understand that they are regular members of any local parochial community. So expecting them to pretend they are for the baptism of their child for the sake of example is putting the cart well before the horse, as it were.

    The first millennium practice of deferring infant baptism to Easter is not going to make a comeback in the Roman rite and hoping it will is a big old waste of time. It will strike parents who can choose whether or not to bother baptising their children as a terribly precious artificial barrier smacking of a society of creative anachronism.

    That doesn’t mean we might not profitably review other aspects of the timing of the sacraments of initiation.

  9. But, Fr. Anthony, without being argumentative, yet at the same time being argumentative, Why do you get to pronounce what is Chrstian? Why is it ‘manifest’ that a private event is inferior? It certainly isn’t self-evident to me. Is it self-evident to you and yours? Are we, to whom it isn’t self evident, ever stupid? We somehow lack your enlightenment?

    You “speak as one who follows the Popes.” Is that the final word?

    1. @Christopher Douglas – comment #23:
      I don’t mean to be argumentative. I’ll simply state what I believe. In believe in the primary goals of the Liturgical Movement. My read of history is that the popes supports those goals, more cautiously at first but still supportive, until Vatican II affirmed all those goals very strongly and made them the program of the Catholic Church. It is these goals that pervade all the reformed rites, including the introductions to each reformed rite.

      Whether you or anyone else accepts any of that is really up to you.

      awr

    2. @Christopher Douglas – comment #23:
      I’ll speak as one who doesn’t follow the Popes — or at least, doesn’t follow them out of obedience but follows them when I’m in agreement with their conclusions — and also as one who agrees wholeheartedly with Anthony on this.

      Baptism has been seen through the long history of the church as being personal, but not private. Baptism is an act of God, who claims the one being baptized as part of God’s family and makes that one an heir with Christ of the dominion of God. Belief in this promise is what leads the individual who is baptized to make a public profession of their faith to the community (or in the case of an infant, the profession is made on their behalf by sponsors). Finally, baptism is also an act of the community to welcome their new brother or sister.

      When I wrote in my earlier post about this, I noted that a private baptism “is a decision that comes with a cost. In this case, a cost to George, a cost to his royal family, and a cost to the rest of the family of God.” It’s not that a baptism apart from a larger community isn’t valid, but it minimizes or robs the community of the opportunity to celebrate with the one being baptized.

      1. @Peter Rehwaldt – comment #25:
        Thank you for your response. While there is much in your argument to admire, I think that its weakness is the ephemeral “community” Forgive my generalizing: Many people who share your perspective (straw man, I know) seem to take it as a given that “community” is such a foregone conclusion as to need no definition. But of what community are you speaking? Some utopian ideal? (Forgive me, again.)

        Shift in argument: I have a good friend who is a long-time member of AA. As you probably know, one of the founders of AA was greatly influenced by a pre-Vatican II sister in devising the twelve steps (confession, et al.) AAers have a definition of “fellowship” which I find more convincing than the greatly-lauded ‘community’ of the idealists; to wit: being “in fellowship” means having shared a common experience, not necessarily being in the same physical place at the same time. Baptism is the same, to my mind.

        P. S. St. Paul essentially makes the same point.

  10. I recently went on a tour of Buckingham Palace – apparently by recent tradition, newly born royals have been christened in the Music Room of Buckingham Palace with water from The Jordan. I don’t know if there was any solemnity or music from a few choristers. Maybe the current chapel venue was an intentional move away from the home setting as a middle way (which the Church of England is very good at). As to having a public ceremony, I think it would be very impractical and I’m not sure the English public would be too happy about the additional ceremonial, security/police or tourist costs involved at this time of economic austerity! At least this ceremony was in a church related building. Interestingly there were also seven godparents (some of whom weren’t Anglican so were technically called something very PC).

    I always feel slightly conflicted about christenings during sunday mass, I think it needs a lot of liturgical pragmatics to make it feel natural in order not to overly prolong it on a regular basis so the congregation become resentful or fatigued by the experience. To be honest, we used to leave out bits of the ceremony/mass rite to keep the pace swift. If you’re going to do it, you need to be able to rotate it across most of the sunday masses and that means having a welcoming sung/reasonably solemn liturgy for most of your weekend services. Not many parishes can do baptisms during mass well so it feels a natural and normal part of the parishes life.

    1. @Andrew rex – comment #28:
      Baptisms during Sunday Mass bear the greatest symbolic weight if they occur in a community that has only one Sunday Mass – a gathering of the entire community.

    2. @Andrew rex – comment #28:

      I think it needs a lot of liturgical pragmatics to make it feel natural in order not to overly prolong it on a regular basis so the congregation become resentful or fatigued by the experience. To be honest, we used to leave out bits of the ceremony/mass rite to keep the pace swift.

      Is this your approach to the Eucharist as well? Seriously, and with no criticism intended, I am interested in how the two sacraments are seen. Liturgical pragmatics is a great term, something everyone should practice. I just wonder how you decide what is essential (Eucharist) and what is not (Baptism) for you community.

  11. I would agree that one sunday mass is the ideal but with a church building which is too small to hold everyone in the parish, modern working/living arrangements that mean the congregation can’t attend at the same time, plus various other pastoral needs mean this ideal is no longer practical at least at the current time.

    Our parish used to successfully hold baptisms monthly alternating across 3 of the 4 sunday masses – nobody was very keen for their child to be christened at the said 8.30am mass. The other 3 sunday masses were all sung to some extent. We used to have only one reading, a short homily, EP2 plus a few other pastoral adaptions. The parish priest was quite adapt at keeping the pace moving so to keep the service within an hour time-slot, even when there were multiple baptisms taking place so the congregation didn’t seem to mind. Then we had a change of parish priest. The new (more traditional minded priest) didn’t make these pastoral adaptations and the liturgy became stilted and overly long – often with one mass over-running so one congregation was leaving as the other was trying to arrive – we only have 1.5 hours between the sunday morning masses. People became weary complaining ‘not another christening again’, the extra time it took and numbers started to dwindle when it became known that baptisms were scheduled. The new PP used the opportunity to stop the practice (which was perhaps more in line with his thinking and theology from the outset) so now we have reverted to the more ‘traditional’ practice of private ceremonies on Saturday morning or sunday afternoons. I think it’s a shame but I mentioned it only to highlight that incorporating christenings during mass requires pastoral adaptation if it is to be successful in the long-term.

    1. @Andrew rex – comment #31:
      “I would agree that one sunday mass is the ideal but with a church building which is too small to hold everyone in the parish, modern working/living arrangements that mean the congregation can’t attend at the same time, plus various other pastoral needs mean this ideal is no longer practical at least at the current time.”

      Which is what I would expect, but we should realize that most parishes that operate that way are often not one community but several co-existing communities, and trying to shoe-horn baptism into that pattern may be more an act of denial about that reality than an aspiration to transcend it.

      I would say it helps to publicize in advance when baptisms will be celebrated during Sunday Mass, so that congregants can make an informed decision about whether to attend that Mass.

    2. @Andrew rex – comment #31:
      Are the baptisms now held at an unscheduled time on Saturday or Sunday? If not, then they are still “public” events – they just aren’t held at a time when people have no choice but to attend.

      While I think people can rightly argue for the symbolic value of having baptism and marriage at Sunday Masses in some cases, in most instances those that take place outside Mass are not “private.” I can attend all the baptisms I want at my parish because they always have them at the same time. Ditto with 90% of the weddings held there, which are almost always at the same time on a given Saturday and advertised in the bulletin. In most instances people are not gathering as a community to specifically celebrate a child’s baptism at Sunday Mass – they just happened to be there at the time.

  12. In all this discussion of families and congregations, we need to keep in mind that the fundamental religious social networks of a congregation are “families, close friends and small groups” according to the research behind American Grace. All the abundant health and other benefits of going to church regularly (estimated to be worth about $100,000 in annual income!) accrue only to people who have these religious networks, not to people who just come to church alone.

    Father Fichter at the foundation of congregational study plainly stated that despite all the rhetoric about primary groups (parish as family and community) basically parishes are secondary associations (like businesses) in which people meet each other around the topic of religion but don’t really encounter one another as total persons (which happens in families and communities). The community in congregations consists of the religious networks of families, friends, and small groups.

    As a social scientist I think the best translation of ecclesia in the NT is network, e.g. the network at X’s house, the network in the city of Y, the network in the region of Z and the network throughout the whole world. We are baptized into a network of networks. We need to respect the important place of all those networks from households, family, friends, and small groups etc. through parishes, associations, schools, non-profits, etc. to deaneries, dioceses, archdiocese, religious orders, national, patriarchal. Attempts to overemphasize anything (family, parish, diocese, nationality, patriarchal) results in a distortion of Church as a network of networks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *