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I gave a talk about baptism this weekend at a retreat, and by sheer coincidence/providence I happened to visit – for the first time ever as an adult – the church of my own baptism in west London. I knew it was there; I’d just never made the time to go and find it.

The talk was part of the wonderful Expression 2012 – a retreat for young people in Salisbury, now in its third year. The topic I had been asked to speak about was ‘living your faith in the world’. So instead of making up my own list of ‘spiritual resources’ that could be helpful for any young Catholic trying to live their faith, I spoke about the ‘resources’ that the Church herself gives to each one of us at our baptism: a set of godparents (representing the support of the whole Church), a creed (representing the richness of the whole Catholic faith), a baptismal robe (representing our new-found dignity as a children of God and the purity of heart that we hope to preserve), and a baptismal candle (representing the light and love of Christ).

I know we are given many other things as well, but these very concrete and visual gifts gave me an opportunity to talk about some of the habits that make living one’s faith easier and more joyful than it might be, and make it less likely that we will lose it: trying to find Catholic friends and groups that will support you; reading the bible and learning about your faith; trying to live by your Catholic values and be a person of kindness and charity; and coming to know the love of Christ in a personal and intimate way through prayer and the sacraments.

So baptism was on my mind this weekend, but not particularly in a personal way. Then I got a lift back to London with a friend, who dropped me off at Gunnersbury station. Then I find that the tube is closed for the weekend, and there is the dreaded bus replacement service in its place. I try to ‘relax into’ the ordeal, as I’m in no rush to get back. The bus comes, and it drops everyone off at Turnham Green station to pick up the District Line. And there, directly opposite the station, is the Anglican church where I was baptised 45 years ago! St Michael and All Saints, Bedford Park.

It was incredibly moving to step inside for the first time in all these years, especially after the reflection at the weekend, and after being very touched by the adult baptisms in  Westminster Cathedral at the Easter Vigil. This is the place where my Christian faith began – where I was clothed in Christ all those years ago, cleansed from original sin, adopted as a child of God, incorporated into Christ’s body the Church, and made a sharer in the life of the Most Holy Trinity. I had a good look at the font – I assume it was the one in use back in the ’60s – and said a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving for the grace of baptism, and for the faith of my parents and godparents that brought me there.

It’s a beautiful and highly distinctive church – see the image above. The font is at the back, with an enormous ‘lid/cap’ (technical term please?) hanging from the ceiling. I pushed it aside a couple of inches to see inside, but then became terrified that the whole contraption would collapse around me.

The church seems to be very Anglo-Catholic, but I’m not very good at telling these things: the seven windows in the east wall depict the seven sacraments; there are votive candles and Stations of the Cross; a tabernacle above the high altar in the sanctuary; and even a statue of St Joan of Arc!

In case anyone is confused – my parents were both Anglican when I was born, hence my baptism here at the Anglican parish church in Turnham Green (off Chiswick High Road).

I’m always telling parents to celebrate the anniversary of their children’s baptisms each year, with as much festivity as they would their birthdays. It was good to remember my own baptism this weekend.

[Update: I just found a photo of the baptismal font on Flickr! Here it is:]

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You might be sick to death of media discussions about same-sex marriage, but just in case you need a bit more background and food for thought, here is the latest briefing paper from Catholic Voices. (There is a link to the paper in the 5th paragraph here.) Despite the ‘Catholic Voices’ label, it doesn’t try to argue against redefining marriage from a religious point of view; instead it appeals to a vision of how marriage as presently understood serves the common good of society – for people of no faith as much as for people of faith; and it argues that redefining marriage will harm the whole of society and not just the religious groups that might be promised some kind of ‘exemption’.

Here are a few choice paragraphs. First, on the implications of the redefinition for society as a whole:

It is also inadequate to assert, as does the gay rights lobby Stonewall, that “if Roman Catholics don’t approve of same-sex marriage, they should make sure they don’t get married to someone of the same sex.”  The question of whether marriage should be redefined such that its meaning and nature cease to be conjugal is a one which affects the whole of society; and a matter on which all people – whether gay or straight, married or unmarried, religious or unreligious – are entitled to express a view.  Marriage has an intrinsic cultural and social meaning – a conjugal meaning – which is not specific to religious understandings of marriage, although religion gives it extra meaning. Whether entered by the religious or the civil route, marriage is marriage; its intrinsic conjugal meaning will need to be rejected in order to allow same-sex marriage.

Second, on the impoverished vision of marriage being presented in the re-definition:

When the Prime Minister, David Cameron, last year addressed his party’s conference, his justification for legalising gay marriage differed from that of his Equalities Minister. “Yes, it’s about equality,” he said, “but it’s also about something else: commitment. Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.” This frame allowed him to claim that he did not support gay marriage “despite” but “because of” being a Conservative.

Similarly, the liberal-conservative Economist asserted that “the real nature of marriage … is a binding commitment, at once legal, social and personal, between two people to take on special obligations to one another.” The magazine went on to ask: “If homosexuals want to make such marital commitments to one another, and to society, then why should they be prevented from doing so while other adults, equivalent in all other ways, are allowed to do so?”

This same truncated thinking underlies the Government’s consultation paper, which gives as one of its “principles for change” the following statement: “The Government recognises that the commitment made between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman, in a civil partnership is as significant as the commitment between a man and a woman in a civil marriage.”

These definitions of marriage as merely an expression of commitment between two individuals are severely truncated: as Archbishop Vincent Nichols has pointed out, “equality and commitment do not amount to marriage”. The quotes above make no reference to the key element in the conjugal understanding of marriage which has permeated our culture and history and which – as our poll shows – remains widespread. Unlike the Prime Minister, most people see marriage as a union of a man and a woman for the sake of the bearing and nurturing of children (even if children do not always result). This conjugal understanding of marriage is not just marriage’s real meaning; it is also the reason it is respected and promoted by the state.

Then a passage about the importance of marriage for the common good:

Marriage’s importance to society rests on three premises:

  1. The family is the founding unit of civil society
  2. At the heart of the family is the sexual union of a man and a woman given to each other for their sake and for the good of their children;
  3. Marriage provides the ideal, irreplaceable environment for the raising of children, who benefit psychologically, emotionally, and in countless other ways by being brought up by their mother and father.

Marriage has many “goods” – emotional commitment and stability among them. But the reason the state promotes marriage is because of its link to, and benefits for, children. These benefits are inextricably bound up with the conjugal union of man and a woman, who become mother and father to the children they generate. Other arrangements for bringing up children are not promoted and legitimised by the state because, however loving the carers, they are far less beneficial. Children brought up by divorced or single parents, by adopted parents or by relatives, by same-sex couples or in foster homes, are all missing something essential to their well-being; and that is why society (and the state) do not promote and institutionalise such arrangements. For while there are bad marriages and bad families, and sad cases where children are abused by their parents, the overwhelming, unchanging norm is that a child raised by his or her mother and father stands the best chance in life. It is not simply the presence of two parents of opposite genders, but the presence of two biological parents, that best supports children’s development – and this is something recognised, as our survey shows, by 84 per cent of British people.

Although marriage is indissolubly linked to children, it is not simply a means for procreation. Couples who cannot for some reason reproduce can still be married: both Church and state accept that a marriage exists as long as it can be consummated – that is, as long as the behavioural conditions for procreation can be fulfilled.

Marriage is singled out and promoted by state, religion, and civil society, because it serves a far-reaching social good – the welfare of children. No compelling case exists for the state recognising same-sex (or other, non-marital) relationships in the same way as it supports marriage.

And finally, on how a redefinition would impact on everyone, and not just on the gay couples who would choose to ‘marry’ in this way:

One thing is clear: the redefinition which the Government proposes would require the state renouncing the conjugal understanding of marriage. Because society takes its cue from laws and the state, that redefinition will send a clear message that the state no longer holds to that conjugal understanding. The implication will be that the union of husband and wife is not, after all, a privileged context for the upbringing of a child. No kind of arrangement for the rearing of children can any longer be proposed by the state (and therefore society) as an ideal.

To suggest otherwise will in time be considered narrow-minded and intolerant. The very terms “husband and wife”, “mother and father”, would need to disappear from public and educational literature to avoid “exclusive” or “intolerant” language. The redefinition of marriage will require the cultural dethroning of the conjugal ideal. This is not a smaller matter for future generations of children, whose interests risk being sacrificed on the altar of an ideological view that same-sex relationships are as worthy as heterosexual ones of being upheld by the state. “Redefining marriage will have huge implications for what is taught in our schools, and for wider society. It will redefine society since the institution of marriage is one of the fundamental building blocks of society. The repercussions of enacting same-sex marriage into law will be immense” [Cardinal Keith O’Brien].

Losing the idea of gender complementarity as necessary for children will also have consequences. “Having two opposite-sex parents provides the child with the capacity to relate intimately to both males and females, and to adopt an engendered role from both influences … It is not in any child’s best interests to choose, through a redefinition of marriage, deliberately to deny these facts and then to institutionalise this denial” [Archbishop Peter Smith]. As the columnist Matthew Parris, who is gay, writes: “I am glad I had both a mother and a father, and that as after childhood I was to spend my life among both men and women, and as men and women are not the same, I would have missed something if I had not learned first about the world from, and with, both a woman and a man, and in the love of both.”

Do read the whole text, which partly deals with some of the objections that you might be raising as you read these summary paragraphs. There is a link to the paper in this report.

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