The word baptism comes from a Greek word which means washing, and this idea of washing or cleaning has been an essential part of many religions right back into the dim and distant past. For a thousand years before the birth of Jesus, the Jews would regularly wash themselves as part of their religious duties. Sometimes they would wash their whole body, and sometimes just their head, their hands, or their feet. This was not just done so that they would be physically clean; it also expressed their intention to be spiritually clean. The Old Testament contains various laws that explain why, when and how the Jews were to clean themselves in this way.
Around two thousand years ago, John the Baptist taught the Jews that instead of frequently washing themselves in order to keep spiritually clean, it was more important to make a life-changing decision to turn away from a life of sin. This decision – which we call repentance – was marked by a one-off immersion in the flowing waters of the River Jordan.
Jesus himself underwent this baptism in order to identify with sinful humanity and set an example for all of us. However, Jesus took this one-off baptism even further, by commanding his disciples to baptise all who believe in him “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit”.
Being baptised is a public declaration both of a person’s faith in the triune God (God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit), and their decision to follow the way of life taught by Jesus. Baptism is also a sacrament – meaning “an outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible grace” – through which the person being baptised is effectively changed spiritually by God. Baptism is also recognised as the moment when a person joins spiritually with the Body of Christ.
Initially, adults were baptised by being immersed fully in flowing water. Although this can still be arranged, it has become the custom to pour or sprinkle water over the person’s head. This is usually administered in a font, which really just a large ornate sink.
Within the Church of Ireland today, most baptisms involve children or babies. As infants cannot make a public declaration of faith, the Church relies upon their sponsors (parents and god-parents) to make promises to raise each baptised child within a Christian environment. In practice, this means a commitment to attend church regularly, to send the child to Sunday School, to involve them in church youth organisations, and to read the Bible and pray together at home.
Baptism is therefore very important, and must not be taken lightly. It is much more than a rite-of-passage for new-born babies; it must be entered into only on the basis of a genuine faith in Jesus Christ, and it places significant responsibilities upon the parents and god-parents relating to the child’s spiritual growth.
Arranging a Baptism
As baptism is an expression of Christian faith, it is naturally to be expected that those who wish to arrange a baptism will be regular members of one of our three Churches: St Patrick’s (Castle Street), St Columba’s (Doury Road) and St Patrick’s (Moorfields Road). This includes having a lifestyle compatible with the way of life advocated by Jesus, frequent attendance at services, subscribing financially to the parish, and volunteering your time and energy to assist with parish activities as much as you are able to. This is not in any way a test to see who is fit for baptism and who is not; rather, it should simply be understood that a request for baptism must flow from an existing faith that is already expressed through a Christian lifestyle and Church involvement. In some instances, however, someone who is not a regular member of our three churches requests a baptism either for themselves or a child. In such cases the Rector may, at his discretion, permit the baptism.
If you are an adult who wishes to arrange a baptism for yourself, or if you are a parent who wishes to arrange a baptism for your child, then the first person to contact is the Rector. During an informal meeting, he will discuss both the reasons behind why you wish the baptism to be arranged, and also the serious responsibilities that are involved during and following the baptism. This conversation will require an honest appraisal of your understanding of, and commitment to, the Christian faith. If you and the Rector are content to proceed, then a date, time and venue may be determined. It is customary for a baptism to be held during a regular Church service, which – depending on the particular Church – might be in the morning or the evening, with either a formal or a relaxed style, using either traditional or modern language. Within a week or two prior to the date of the baptism, you will be asked to meet with the member of clergy who will be officiating at the service in order to discuss any practicalities. If you are arranging an infant baptism, then the god-parents are also expected to be present at this meeting.
A sponsor is a baptised adult who agrees to make promises on behalf of a child relating to their Christian faith. Adults arranging a baptism for themselves do not need sponsors. For infants, however, it is customary for there to be at least three sponsors. At least two sponsors should be the same sex as the child, and at least one should be of the other sex. Please note that parents who are baptised are considered to be sponsors. This means in practice, that if a man and a woman wish for their son to be baptised, then they need only ask one other man to act as god-parent, meaning that there will be two god-fathers and one god-mother for the boy. Of course other additional god-parents of either sex may be appointed at the discretion of the parents. It is vital that all god-parents are themselves baptised. At least two of the sponsors (from either parents or god-parents) should also be regular members of a Church of Ireland parish.
During the Service
Every baptism will follow a similar format. The person being baptised (or the sponsors in the case of a child) will be asked a series of questions concerning their beliefs and intentions. These questions are found within the Book of Common Prayer and have set responses to them. There will then be a series of prayers to sanctify the water, and then all present will say aloud the Apostles’ Creed, following which the person will be baptised. The minister will make the sign of the Cross on the person’s forehead, and at the end of the service a lit candle will be presented to them. Each of these actions have their own significance which will be examined during your conversations with the clergy. If the baptism takes place during a regular service, then there will of course be hymns, Bible readings, and an appropriate sermon.