Friday, January 02, 1998

A Very British Coup

Hitherto, the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted, and indeed, when we read them--how Plato would have every infant "a bastard nursed in a bureau", and Elyot would have the boy see no man before the age of seven, and after that, no women, and how Locke wants children to have leaky shoes and no turn for poetry--we may well thank the beneficent obstinancy of real mothers, real nurses and above all real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses.
C.S Lewis
Mr Tony Blair's latest bright idea is that there should be secular Christenings at registry offices, on the model of civil weddings. Instead of just filling out a birth certificate, the registrar will give you the opportunity to make a series of promises about how you are going to raise your child. You'll even be able to appoint somewhat oxymoronic secular god-parents.
Speaking a fully immersed Baptist, I think that the idea of separating 'baby-naming' from 'Christening' in the mind of Joe Public is a thoroughly good thing. Baptism, whether it involves dunking squalling infants in fonts or throwing fully clothed adults into paddling pools, is a ceremony of initiation into the Christian Church. You get baptised to show that you have become a Christian, or to show that your parents want you to become a Christian, or to actually make you a Christian, depending on your viewpoint. In the Olden Days 'Christendom' meant 'the whole world' or at any rate 'the whole world apart from those nasty Turks', and 'Christian' came to mean 'any civilised human being'. So, naturally, the Christian-making ceremony was done to new-borns, and 'Christening' came to mean 'the act of giving someone a name', as in 'he is known as Bloodaxe Deathbringer, but he was christened Kevin.' Moslems get very annoyed if you ask them what their Christian name is.
The Church has always been stuck with two incompatible roles. Its clergy see themselves as part of the Apostolic Succession, continuing the work begun by Jesus and His disciples, dispensing the Holy Spirit and other technical terms to the Faithful, acting as the interface between the Supernatural world and the here-and-now. But the rest of the world see them as part of the oil which lubricates the cogs of Society; marking and dignifying important events like birth, marriage and death with solemn ceremonies, crowning queens, burying princesses, running midwinter festivals and coffee mornings. We don't care about, or even believe in, Heaven, Hell, the Holy Spirit or being Born Again, but we do think that a Church which does impressive rituals at important times of your life is necessary for providing national identity or social cohesiveness. Or maybe we just sometimes feel like a jolly good ceremony. The Archbishop of Canterbury was barking up completely the wrong tree when he said that the public interest in Princess Di's funeral service showed that they retained some measure of belief in Anglican Christianity. What it showed was a desire to have a serious, solemn, elevated ceremony; the Church just happened to be the group most able to provide it. In the past, people who wanted a serious, solemn, elevated ceremony to mark the birth of their baby often opted for a church Christening. This tended to produce a ceremony hopelessly at crossed purposes with itself; the clergyman talking about dying to sin and being raised to the new life in Christ when all the parents wanted was for him to splash some water over the kid's head to make sure his name stuck properly.
I remember, sometime around the age of eight, being utterly astounded to discover that my two thoroughly modern cousins did not go to church or Sunday school, and had, indeed NEVER been to church or Sunday School. What never? quoth I. No, never, they replied. Not at Christmas? Not at Harvest Festival? They assured me that they had never been inside a church. What about when you were Christened? They paused. All right, they conceded, we must have been to church when we were christened. But not since then.
Increasingly, clergymen have become unwilling to baptise infants of families who are not entering into the service in a sufficiently serious spirit. It is still (I think) technically illegal for a Vicar to refuse to Christen someone who asks for it; but it is not illegal for him to require the parents to come to long boring talks about the true significance of baptism. In any case, fewer and fewer non- or semi-religious families seem to want to put their children through a ceremony which they don't really believe in. While this is a good thing both in terms of the understanding of Christianity and in terms of personal integrity, it means that there is no ritual way of marking your babies coming-into-world.
Now, we may not have the admirable separation of church and state enjoyed by our colonial cousins, but the English have always known where church stops and government begins. A Church wedding has a religious component and a secular component because marriage has a religious and legal aspect to it, but there is a clear demarcation between the two areas. There are the legal vows (marked with stars in the prayer book) that you have to say in order for it to be a legal wedding; there's the signing of the register. Then there are then specifically religious bits about the marriage at Cana and the mystic union 'twixt Christ and His church, which the state has no interest in. From the state's points of view, you can talk any mumbo jumbo you like, and it's still a legal marriage. If you opt for a registry officer ceremony, you get the legal bit without the religious bit. Similarly, when Aunty Hilda kicks the bucket, the state has absolutely no interest in what prayers or rituals you may say over her body. You can read from the prayer book; you can wheel on the duty atheist to read passage from Bertrand Russell; you can play Bohemian Rhapsody or put up a Totem Pole. The state's interest in the matter finishes once you have filled out the paperwork and got permission from the environmental health officer to dispose of the corpse. When people produce an infant, dribbling and mewling at its mother's breast the only legal requirement is that they should register the birth. They can sprinkle it with water, pass it through a Yew Tree or chop parts of its naughty bits off; that is of no interest to the state. Until today.
The state, in the person of Jack Straw, thinks that the Christening ceremony was a good thing irrespective of whether or not you believed in it, and since most people have stopped bothering with it, has decided to set up a secular alternative; a state-sanctioned rite-of-passage. Where once Registrars were interested only in filling out legal paperwork, they will now become minimalist shamans, presiding over rituals with no legal significance. This represents a blurring of the religious and the secular, and re-definition of the relationship between government and citizen with which I am deeply uncomfortable.
Of course, the proposed ceremony is entirely without content--how could a New Labour confection be otherwise:
'We promise to try to be patient with our baby, neither demanding too little nor expecting too much. We will try to offer him unconditional love regardless of his success or failure.'
What does this mean? A promise implies a conscious decision; an act of will. I might have told a lie on my tax form or revealed the secret password of the I-Spy club, but I had promised not to do so, so I didn't. How can you promise to love someone? Have you ever met a parent who says, 'We used to love little Johnny, but then he got his ear pierced, and we decided we wouldn't bother any more'? Is it remotely conceivable that the mother of a serial killer could say 'When I found out that little Johnny had eaten fourteen people, I was going to stop loving him, but then I remembered that I promised Jack Straw that I'd carry on, so I did.' In any case, we aren't promising to love little Johnny unconditionally, only to 'try' to 'offer him' unconditional love--whatever that means. We are also going to 'try' to be patient, as opposed, presumably, to actually being patient. How long must I be patient when Andrew leaves his bedroom in a mess? Unto seven times? One could imagine much more moderate, un-ambitious promises which, entered into sincerely, might actually do some good. Esther Rantzam may at this moment be drafting a pledge which says 'I promise that I will never smack my child, never shout at it, never smoke in front of it and feed it on a low fat diet'; but this would involve making some actual decisions about where you stood. New Labour prefers to endorse greeting-cards bollocks so vague that everyone can sign up to it and everyone can, with perfect sincerity, think they have stuck to it. 'I promise to make a vague commitment to have the same feelings about my children that even the very worst parents do in any case.' That's bound to save the family, Jack.
Vague, content free: but not, unfortunately, entirely meaningless. If you had asked me to write 30 words of high sounding waffle to be used when not-Christening a baby, I might have come up with the following:
'We promise to be kind to our baby; to give him the space to grow into the sort of person he wants to be, and never to put our aspirations before his happiness.'
In terms of knowing whether you have kept the pledge or broken it, my version is as vacuous as that of the Straw Man. But its attitude is very different. Mine is focused on the happiness of the child; on the concept of the child as an independent person. Straw's is focused on concepts of 'success' and 'failure'; a bad parent, note, 'expects too little' of their child; and, without this promise, a bad parent might stop loving his baby if it was not a success. What does 'success' mean? Success at school, success in his career, successfully shading in his Tellytubbies colouring book? I fear that Straw's focus is bringing people up to be good, well-behaved, 'successful' citizens. But then the stated purpose of this enterprise is to stabilise the family for the good of society. Broken homes and a bad parenting is a bad thing, not in itself, but because badly brought up children of broken homes tend to become criminals.
I do not think that making stupid promises in town halls will do the slightest bit of harm; nor, of course, will it do the slightest bit of good. But I think that the whole idea of the Government creating a state-sanctioned rite-of-passage to replace the religious one is rather ridiculous, and slightly sinister. What Blair appears to want to do is to endow a purely civil, legal action (registering a birth) with a quasi-religious significance (making promises about your future moral conduct.) Can we expect to see the state creating an official secular form of words for funerals; say, a registrar listing the things which the deceased has contributed to the Community? Can we expect to see registrars giving moral homilies to the couple at a registry office marriage?
C. S. Lewis said that the essence of religion was 'the finite self's desire for, or acquiescence in, and self-rejection in favour of, an object wholly good and wholly good for it.' If you are going to set up a secular religion you are going to have to define what the 'wholly good thing' is--the Flag, or Communism, or Freedom, or Democracy, or Society, or the Species. If that secular religion is created by the state, then it is very likely that the state is what will be defined as the ultimate good; and what you end up with is fascism. If it is created by particular political party in a democracy, then the ultimate good will be defined as the particular ideological hang-ups of that political party. If Mrs Thatcher had set up secular churches, they would have held up 'Britain' or 'the Monarchy' or 'the markets' or 'prosperity' or 'families' or 'choices' as the Wholly Good. For Blair it will be 'modernity' or 'society' or 'the community' or 'access to information technology' or perhaps New Labour itself.
The government cannot take unto itself the responsibility for telling us what is good; in fact, the whole concept of a democracy implies that we know, and they don't. The collapse of the national church may be a bad thing, but it is no part of the remit of the prime minister to set things right. When people cease to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in everything. But perhaps, with a little gentle pushing, they can be induced to start believing in Tony.