John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Christening a tradition we could restore

If nothing else religion provides rites to mark the significant events of life

When my first child was born, in Britain, an elderly gentleman whose house we were living in took me aside a few months after the birth and said he would have a word to the vicar about a christening.

"Umm," I said. "I don't think we will do that." He turned quite ashen, looked at me in alarm and I could see him thinking, the world's going to hell.

I'd make the same decision today, as might William and Catherine if the weight of social expectation did not bear so heavily on them. The prince's body language at their wedding and a wry smile they exchanged at one point in the ceremony said they did not take this stuff too seriously.

But when father and son are destined to be Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, a christening is obviously a prerequisite.

They kept it as small and private as they could this week but I'll bet they were moved when a church blessed their baby, wrapped it in its warmth and made some of their good friends its godparents for life.


I regret sometimes that the weight of expectation has disappeared in my lifetime. That elderly man in Britain was of my grandfather's generation. My father, devout Catholic that he is, knew better than to put the question to me.

Generations ago religion was not a decision for most of its adherents, it was a habit. It was not a question, it was a comfort. The change came no doubt as a consequence of tertiary education.

The baby boom was the first generation to go to university in great numbers. They were taught to take nothing for granted. Everything needed to be reasoned and reasons needed to be challenged.

The 1960s saw so much change in social and political attitudes precisely because the baby boom had reached university.

Somewhere in the 1960s religious ritual came to be considered hypocritical if you couldn't intellectualise it. Religion ceased to be an unthinking social practice for many people and became a matter of decision - of conscience. Either you had to believe in the literal truth of the stories it told and the incantations it required, or in conscience you could take no part in it.

The choice sent both sides to extremes. Believers became either mindlessly evangelical, clapping and chanting with born-again fervour, or dully and often embarrassingly political in an attempt to make their faith "relevant".

Non-believers, for some reason, felt driven to abuse religious belief with astonishing ferocity and fear and scorn. Or at least, the religion of their own culture. Others, particularly Asian and indigenous beliefs, they treated with respect.

I can't help wondering whether the anger that seethes in so many of my generation on this subject arises from the loss of something they knew to be warm and wondrous as a child.

If nothing else, religion provided rites to mark the big events of life like birth, marriage, death. Nowadays the same need is met with secular ceremonies of varying success.

Weddings happen outside in the sunshine with an exchange of sentiments that couples in a previous age would have been embarrassed to say out loud.

Funerals are vastly improved. The modern secular funeral is an unsung success. A new profession of non-clerical celebrants speak of death brilliantly well. Music and film that reflect the person's life and the tributes from friends and family, have much more meaning than the requiems that religions do.

But birth has been given nothing to replace a christening, unless you count a drink to "wet the baby's head". Old rites die hard.

New parents are doubtless too busy to notice the need. Wakeful nights and nappy changes probably don't inspire wonder at what has happened and an urge to bless it in some way. But we should.

The royal christening caused the Herald to ask how much of it is going on and the churches were vague. Jo Kelly-Moore, dean of the Auckland Anglican Cathedral, thought there had been a "gentle increase" over the years.

A Tauranga celebrant, Christine Grant, said non-religious name-giving ceremonies are becoming popular. They don't sound quite the same.

What is wrong with christening anyway? It does no more than symbolise the child's admission to its religious heritage. And, like it or not, every child has one.

No place is without a belief in a set of myths that nearly always postulate a superior power to guide, inspire and reward human goodness. For one thing, it means no government can claim comparable power for itself, thank God.

There is something to be said for giving a baby not just a name but a fine tradition, if we don't want to be religious about it.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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