Prince George christening: Can it boost decline in baptism tradition?

Prince George's christening ceremony today has the Archbishop of Canterbury hoping – as with other royally inspired social trends – it will revive the baptism tradition.

John Stillwell/Reuters/Pool
Prince George's christening Oct. 23 is sparking church hopes of a revival of the tradition of baptism. Here, Prince and Catherine arrived with their son at St. James Palace in London for the rite.

The Archbishop of Canterbury hopes the christening of little Prince George into the Church of England today might invite imitators.  

The BBC reports: “Although christenings were already in decline, one in three infants was still baptized into the Church of England in 1980. By 2011 that had fallen to just over one in 10. The overall number of baptisms – of people of all ages – witnessed a similar decline, from 266,000 baptisms in 1980 to 140,000 in 2011.

"It's a similar story in the Catholic Church, although the major drop-off in baptisms happened between 1964 and 1977, when the number halved. There's been a far gentler downward trend over the past three decades, recently stabilizing at about 60,000 baptisms a year.” 

American churches have also seen a decline in infant baptism.

The Southern Baptist Convention, for example, reports that its affiliated churches had the lowest levels in 64 years last year.  A 2006 report by USA Today says the declines accompany a lower birthrate, growing secularism in general, increasing interfaith marriage, growing popularity of non-liturgical worship, and a waning focus on sin.

In the American Episcopal Church – which, like bonnie Prince George’s Church of England, is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion – some believe that controversial liberalization within the church hastened a sharp decline in baptism during the past decade. Today's parents tend to view baptism as more a pledge of faith than as a washing away of sin, says the report.

According to the BBC, parents in the UK are happy to bend tradition, choosing multiple godparents, not just the requisite two, and often including the non-baptized in the mix as honorary witnesses. More modern clothing may replace the traditional christening gown, and warmed-up water may replace the cold shock of yore. But that doesn’t mean that the essence of baptism has been watered down.

A 2008 Georgetown University study reports that among Catholics who attend mass weekly, it remains the most meaningful of the church’s seven sacraments – whether received or lived out yourself, or witnessed in someone close to you.

Many will see Prince George’s day as much more than a pretty picture.

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