Meghan Markle’s decision to be baptised has made a splash in magazines all over the world. The glamourous (former) star of the hit TV show Suits, who is engaged to Prince Harry, made the decision as part of her entry into the royal family; her gran-to-be, Her Royal Highness, Queen Elizabeth II, is not just the head of the Commonwealth, but of the Church of England. It’s not often that the subject of baptism is thrust into the public consciousness, or conversation, and there’s lots about this situation that raises questions for us; especially ‘what actually is baptism?’, ‘how do we feel about this?’ and ‘how is this different from what lots of Aussies do in order to get their kids into good Christian schools?’
Baptism isn’t just a thing we do because it suits us…
But it is a thing that marks us out as part of the royal family – the family of King Jesus. It declares that we have been adopted by God and
A cynical take on these events (when I’m feeling cynical) would be to see this as indicative of the fundamental problems with having a royal from a worldly kingdom as the head of the church of King Jesus. While our current queen, who loves Jesus (seriously, check out her Christmas addresses), is on the throne it’s fantastic, but you don’t have to go far back into human history to see monarchs using the church for their own gain, or to prop up their position (Henry VIII is an obvious example). Human rulers have had an interesting relationship with Jesus, not just Herod, Pilate, and the Caesar – who executed him – but subsequent emperors who persecuted the early church on and off until Constantine converted the empire to Christianity by royal decree. Even Constantine’s conversion is the subject of a bunch of cynicism about how politically expedient it seemed… a cynic might point out that it’s much worse for the church for us to attach ourselves to power than it is for powerful people to attach themselves to Jesus… but let’s do something refreshingly free from cynicism. Let’s take the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welsby, who conducted the baptism and will preside over the wedding on good faith when he said of the baptism:
“It was very special, it was beautiful and sincere.”
Let’s assume that the timing of the Queen’s official writ blessing the wedding (March 14th) being released after the Baptism (March 6th) means this isn’t just a procedural box to check on the path to entry into the royal family, but that the Queen’s faith is rubbing off on her family; that it marks a commitment to entry into the family of God.
A book released on the occasion of the Queen’s 90th birthday, with a foreword by Her Majesty, was titled The Servant Queen and the King She Serves, an appropriate title given her emphasis on servant leadership revealed in her Christmas addresses over the years (and the Netflix docudrama The Crown).
It finishes with a quote from her 2002 Christmas address:
“I know just how much I rely on my faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning… “Each day is a new beginning. I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God. … I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.”
Her 2015 Christmas message included a mention of the baptism of her grandson, George, son of Prince William…
“As with all who are christened, George was baptised into a joyful faith of Christian duty and service.”
If Meghan Markle is joining this tradition; and her grandmother’s faith, then that’s to be celebrated
(there’s at least one Biblical precedent with Timothy learning the Gospel from his grandmother).
The alternative – the one we might approach with some cynicism – is thoroughly at odds with what baptism is all about… and we need to be careful not to point the finger too judgmentally at Meghan Markle or a culture that still has some remaining traces of ‘Christendom’ lingering around.
If Meghan Markle was baptised simply to ‘become a princess’ in the English royal family to fulfil a dream, or to become ‘royalty’ – the real deal of baptism is much greater.
If she was baptised to tick some formal boxes in order to marry into a family that is part of the ‘traditional’ institution of the church – an almost legal requirement (baptism isn’t required, but royal approval of the wedding is), then the offer of welcome into ‘the church’ behind any invitation to be baptised is something much greater.
If she was baptised because of some view that this somehow marks her out as a good person, then the reality of baptism is much greater.
If she was baptised because it suited her to be baptised as part of a pre-wedding to do list, an expedient step, then the reality of baptism is much greater.
It’d be easy to sit in judgment on any of these reasons for baptism from all the way over here in secular Australia; but I know heaps of people who’ve had their kids baptised so they can ‘pursue the dream’ of getting them into a good church school, and plenty of people who’ve wanted to baptise their kids to please ‘traditional’ relatives, or to tick some sort of ‘religious’ box as a cosmic safety net.
Baptism is a bigger deal than we think if we make it just about becoming members of some sort of human institution or tradition, if we make it a box we have to tick, or, if we make it about us at all.
Baptism isn’t about a ‘human institution’ – it’s not about becoming part of a church.
Baptism is about Jesus.
It’s a declaration that we are committed to the good news of Jesus; the hope that his death and his resurrection are real events that we share in by faith, it’s about us being made ‘one’ with him, becoming part of the ‘body of Christ’, that we become part of God’s family – heirs to the kingdom – royalty – it’s about being accepted and made clean by his death on our behalf… We’re expressing all these things through the symbol of baptism; and when we baptise kids of Christian parents we’re expressing that we’re going to raise them as though this is the truth that shapes their world as it shapes ours; that they do belong to Jesus (even if they might one day say otherwise), that they are children of the king. Just like us. Royalty. That there doesn’t have to be an act of parliament to declare us children of God, that Jesus has made that declaration on our behalf.
When we baptise people we are celebrating their entry into the church, into the family of God, but that’s an entry that has already happened at the point that God poured his Spirit into us (baptising us with the Spirit – which is what the most famous human baptiser, John the Baptist, said Jesus came to do) and made us alive in Jesus, at the point at which we decide to live with Jesus as our king. When we’re baptised into God’s family we become royals. Heirs.
Queen Elizabeth II is as much an example of this as the humblest and least famous member of the smallest church community in the world – baptism does mark us out for service, but only because it claims we’re going to share in the dying and rising life of Jesus. It’ll be great if Meghan Markle’s future biography is titled ‘An American Royal and the King she Serves’, but greater still if our lives shared in that same story – the story of King Jesus, ‘The royal Nathan and the King he Serves’ or your name in the blanks, ‘The royal ___ and the King ___ serves’. The Gospel sounds like a fairy tale. It sounds too good to be true. But this is what baptism is all about – a picture of being adopted into God’s royal family, a declaration that Jesus, not Elizabeth, is your supreme ruler.
Campus Pastor – South Bank Campus