Saturday, 28 May 2016

A Centurion and a Baptism

When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, ‘I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.’ (Luke 7:9)
The young couple came to the church with their friends and extended family, to have their baby daughter baptised.

The family as a whole looked uncomfortable and a bit out of sorts. The mum was so proud, and yet a bit flustered and confused. The men were over-dressed - unused to ties, the grandfathers in suits that had fitted them well when they last wore them twenty-five years ago. A few of them didn't realise it was so hard parking outside the church, and arrived ten minutes late, having driven up and parked on the country lanes. The really keen ones - the baby's parents and the godparents - had parked in the special parking spots that "belonged" to some regular worshippers.

But as increasingly they outnumbered the regulars, they smiled and laughed and chatted as their friends and relatives came in, blinking in the unexpected darkness. They chatted through the "quiet time" before the service, through the early parts of the service. They giggled as the priest went past in his rather fetching - as they saw it - frock.

It wasn't just the car parking spaces they'd nicked. The early ones had sat in the wrong pews. The late ones, unaware of the church tradition, sat near the front. They stood up and sat down at the wrong time. Assuming this was what you did at church, some of them knelt for all the prayers.

Being a family with a lot of young adults, there were a lot of children. The smallest toddler toppled off a pew and smacked his head on the back of the one in front, screaming through the confession. The bigger ones were swiftly bored and, with nothing to do, started squabbling and fighting. When the Gospel procession went down the aisle, nobody turned to face it and the reading was directed at the back of many of their necks.

During the sermon, shocked by there being a joke, a few of them laughed embarrassingly and far too long.

When it came to the baptism, the parents and godparents stood awkwardly around and mumbled their professions and promises. The child was baptised to a storm of flashlights from endless phones - one of which had played  AC/DC's "Hell ain't a bad place to be" during the sermon, when a real latecomer had phoned up to ask where the church was.

During the second set of prayers, the children had descended to throwing hymn books at each other. Their parents had given up trying to control them. The men mostly tutted, wandering when opening time might come round.

Having no idea what a "Eucharist" meant, the baptism party assumed that the Peace was the dismissal. While the regular congregation went around shaking hands with each other, the strangers walked straight out of the door and headed for the pub. A few of them thought it wasn't very nice of the vicar not to say goodbye. But mostly they didn't worry. The job was done.

The congregation relaxed. They could enjoy the peace of the Sacrament while simultaneously filing away being able to complain that the baptism people had walked out halfway through the service. They would enjoy that, during coffee. Normally it was just the vicar they had to complain about.

The vicar relaxed as well. He wasn't going to have to deal with the people who didn't really understand what they were doing, but came up for communion anyway. He hated that. Hated confusion. They had rules to keep things ordered.

 They'd sat quietly with religious faces and holy attitudes when the baptism family come in. They'd smirked when their guests had got things wrong. They'd rolled their eyes when the kids had toppled off the outside of the font while watching the baptism. They'd not welcomed them, they'd not helped them when they were confused.They'd glared at the seats they normally sat in, while carefully not looking in the eyes of the temporary occupants.

They'd never understood about Jesus on the cross, arms held out to the whole world. Not understood about preaching the Gospel to all nations. Missed the point of the story of the centurion.

They'd never really understood God's love at all.


  1. Indeed, how best for us regulars to behave when there are strangers in da house? How to seem genuinely religious without simultaneously looking like some curtain-twitching Pharisee? I’m normally toting my missal so I probably start out looking like a complete born-again weirdo; so I try to tone down the religiosity, and to pitch my Sign of Peace at a sort of “hello, mate – nice to see yer!” kind of level. That’s assuming the lady next to you understands the Sign as a liturgical action and not you trying to chat her up - it’s a minefield.
    We had first communions yesterday. I get through these celebrations by mentally handing out awards, e.g. for most blatant use of a mobile phone (three categories: Sulky Teenager; Bemused Teenager; Pressganged Uncle Checking to see if the Playoffs Went to Penalties). Then there’s prizes for the shortest skirt and for the tightest skirt (both accolades are not infrequently scooped by the same nominee); tackiest use of bling from Argos; and of course there’s Sexiest Extended-family Member who is on Her Own. That kind of thing. As I say, I don’t want to look like a weirdo, oh no. Damn.

  2. Make sure that the offertory plate has a tenner in it at the start of course.

  3. So because the regulars resented/felt threatened and superior to the visitors, one should endanger one's immortal soul by indulging in contempt for them in turn?

    Best not to make assumptions lest we fall into that trap.

    Luke 18:11-14.

    1. Thankfully they are an imaginary congregation. And the leader also got his criticism.

  4. Wonderful little vignette about hypocracy... hipocracy... hypocrisy. Damn - always takes several attempts with that word before the red underscore disappears.

  5. The depiction of a baptism in a Eucharist is a rarity these days. Most Baptisms in our parish are carried out as a single event, and families can fill the church without any of the argie-bargie depicted here.

    I often act as Verger for these events (and funerals) and am used to people being unsure and reassuring that they're not doing anything wrong. These are occasions of mission and outreach, who knows what will follow from these contacts, even years later. A welcoming, friendly and affirming reception is so important for all - that we are not honouring God is we do anything else.

    1. Not a rarity in our neck of the woods where anyone wanting a morning baptism will have to have it in the 11am Eucharist. It's the afternoon baptisms which are stand-alone.
      I chuckled at the scenario, but still bear the scars from years of persuading congregations to share their church and services with outsiders.


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