The Baptism of Prince George, Senator Paul Simon, and Me

I’ve never been the pastor for a head of state or someone destined to become a head of state when they grow up, but I have had various state government officials as my parishioners, and the late US Senator Paul Simon attended my home church from time to time as he was in town. As I watched some of the reporting on the baptism (or christening) of Prince George, I thought of Paul (that’s what he wanted me to call him) and a conversation we had years ago.

It took place in 1987, when I had been asked to lead worship at my home parish in Carbondale, Illinois while the local pastor was away. The service that day began as usual, and as the entrance procession made its way up the main aisle and I turned around at the chancel to face the congregation, I noticed Paul slip in the door. The usher handed him a bulletin, and he quietly took a place in one of the back rows as I greeted the assembly and we sang the Kyrie. At the end of the service, as we all sang the final hymn and I followed the crucifer to the back of the church, I was a bit surprised when Paul stepped out of his row and joined in the procession behind me. The congregation was still singing as we reached the door to the narthex, and Paul reached out, shook my hand, and leaned in closely. “Thank you for your words today,” he said just loud enough to be heard over the singing, “but I have to leave now.”

“I understand,” I told him, and off he went. But as it turned out, I didn’t really understand at all.

Later that week, I happened to run into Paul around town. He was running for the Democratic presidential nomination at the time, and appeared to be between events. He greeted me, then added “Sorry to have been so abrupt on Sunday as I left church.”

I replied “Not a problem — trying to juggle your senate duties along with running for president has got to really stretch your schedule thin.”

He smiled. “It’s not that,” he said. “There are times when I attend churches around the state (and now the nation) where I am a guest — and regardless of my intentions, they become political events. That goes with the territory for a US senator or presidential candidate. But when I come home and attend here, I simply want it to be worship. I realized that the best way for that to happen is for me to arrive a little late, and leave at the earliest opportunity. So that’s what I do — but it comes with a cost. I miss the ordinary fellowship with ordinary folks.” Then Paul looked past me over my shoulder, smiled a tired smile, and shrugged. I was puzzled for a moment, but then one of his staffers came up behind me and said “Senator, we’ve got to be going to get to your next event . . .”

I smiled back at Paul, shook his hand, and said “It does indeed have a cost. Peace be with you, wherever you go.”

His smile took on more energy, and he replied “And also with you. Thanks.”

That conversation is why I understand the decision to have a private baptismal ceremony for young Prince George. In a small service in the Chapel Royal of St. James Palace, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby baptized George, son of William and Kate, and great-grandson of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. In attendance were various members of George’s royal family, as well as his seven godparents and their spouses. Various news outlets made much of the choice of sponsors — they were friends of the parents, rather than chosen from among the older members of the royal family. The font was silver, and had been crafted for the baptism of an earlier royal baby, and the water in the font came from the Jordan River. Lessons were read, hymns and anthems sung, and George was baptized (more liturgical details on the service here).

I understand why it was done this way. I really do. But there’s a part of me that wishes Archbishop Welby or someone else had suggested they do things differently.

There are two ways that security officers work to protect those in their care. One is to carefully restrict access, and the other is to move around without giving advance notice of where you are going and what you are doing. From a security standpoint, much of the protection of the royal family uses the former approach. Even with grand public events, like the wedding of William and Kate, access is heavily controlled and the general area is cordoned off from the general public. It is inconvenient for many people, but for the sake of the event and royal protection, everyone goes along with it. But imagine what it would have been like, had William, Kate, and Archbishop Justin taken the second approach. Imagine what it would have been like, if George was baptized in a public service, in an ordinary parish church . . .

In my imagination, I can see the archbishop having a few quiet words with one of the local vicars: “In three weeks, you’re going to have some extra guests in worship, but you can’t say anything about it in advance. Tell your altar guild that there will be a baptism and extra people at the Lord’s Supper, but nothing more.”

I can see a few extra security people show up at the parish doors on that Sunday, to give the place a good check before the organist or anyone else arrives. A few pews near the front are roped off, and as the time for the beginning of worship approaches, the vicar welcomes the community as usual, and says “we’ll be having a baptism today, but the family is running a bit late.” Then, as the opening hymn is sung, George, his parents, his family, and his sponsors arrive and slide into place. Some were no doubt able to arrive openly, like the sponsors, and may have been waiting in a side room. Others, like the lesser royals, might have joined them in that side room having traveled with some kind of subterfuge to avoid the eyes of the press. But Elizabeth and Philip, Charles and Camilla, William and Kate, and George himself would likely have to arrive in a motorcade at the last minute. The ushers would need a little extra help, I suppose, to keep the cameras at bay. “You can attend the service, but photography is not permitted. You can leave your equipment in your vehicles or check it here with an usher, but they cannot be brought into the service, to keep the distractions to a minimum.”

And then — in an ordinary parish, with ordinary water in an ordinary font, surrounded by ordinary folks at an ordinary Sunday service — George would be baptized.

I thought of this alternate vision of what George’s baptism might have been like when I watched a video meditation put out on Tuesday by Archbishop Welby in advance of the royal christening, in which he said this:

We celebrate, first of all, the joy of the parents. It’s a wonderful thing — having a baby. All babies are unbelievably special, not only royal babies.

As a nation, we’re celebrating the birth of someone who in due course will be the head of state. That’s extraordinary. It gives you this sense of forward-looking, of the forwardness of history as well as the backwardness of history, and what a gift to have this new life, and to look forward.

But most of all, we’re celebrating baptism, and baptism is at its heart about the gift of God, about God’s gift of life, not just ordinary physical life but the offer of spiritual life to all of us, of life forever. All through Christian history, for 2000 years, being baptized meant you joined the family of the church, and that’s what it means today.

What a family! Almost two thousand million people around the world. That’s an extraordinary thing. It means that as a Christian, you go almost anywhere in the world and you will find those to whom, through baptism, you are related.

Fine words — indeed, wonderful words. But imagine how much more powerful they would have been, had they been uttered in an ordinary pulpit of an ordinary parish, where George would have been surrounded by some of the two thousand million ordinary brothers and sisters to whom he is now extraordinarily related.

And those words from Luke that were read by George’s Aunt Pippa would have sounded very different as well, had they been spoken not behind closed doors in a private royal chapel but in an ordinary Anglican parish:

People were bringing even infants to Jesus that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.

Countermanding well-intentioned barriers, Jesus issued an invitation: Let the little children come.

As I said above, I understand why George’s baptism was done in private, but as the late Senator Simon taught me, it 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.

Peace be with you, George, wherever you go.

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2 comments

  1. I was baptized on the morning of my birth. The priest came to the hospital to administer the last rites to my mother who almost died. I was in no real danger of death. The “ceremonies” were supplied a few weeks later. It all might be seen as the typical ultra-cautious bureaucratic efficiency of the pre-Vatican II American Church but there is more to the story.

    My mother had had a very difficult time getting pregnant; and so I had been prayed into existence over the course of several years. During that period Mom had promised me to God. So it seemed rather fitting that God would claim me on the morning of my birth, and allow me to celebrate my birthday as my baptismal day.

    Even before the Vatican Council when I first began praying the Divine Office in late childhood, I applied the Christological Psalm to my baptism Royal dignity has been yours from the day of your birth, sacred honor from the womb, from the dawn of your youth. (Psa 110:3 NJB) Yours is princely power from the day of your birth. In holy splendor before the daystar, like the dew I begot you.” (Psa 110:3 NAB) Gosh, I needed two translations to unpack all the meaning in that verse!

    I think too much is being made in these posts about baptism as a local congregation event, and that is influenced too much by the clergy’s (and other ministers) vested interest in promoting congregations as the locus of their work.

    I have always seen my family as the primary Christian community which effectively prayed me into existence, and nurtured my faith development. My virtues are largely the virtues of my parents, except expressed in a different key.

    I have also experienced baptism as a unique personal relationship both to God and to the Christian community that cannot be reduced to being a member of a parish or just another number in the flock or defined by the ministers of the Church. The Divine Office in my life has made me very conscious of that. We are all royal priests not just a flock. I can understand the desire to level the royal playing field but it actually goes in the opposite direction.

    Thanks, Peter, for a great post appreciative of the complexities of life.

  2. And the cynic in me thinks that it might have been awkward to put all those people up front in reserved pews where everyone could see if they knew when to sit and stand during the liturgy…

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