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.
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!