Well, Prince George has already done his bit for the Church of England. Simply by getting baptised he will bolster a sacrament that pretty well defines Christianity and is, like the state church which he may yet be head of (assuming disestablishment never happens), in sharp decline.
In 1950, nearly 70 per cent of the population was baptised into the CofE, with most of the remainder christened into other denominations; in 2010 it was fewer than 20 per cent, and falling. Perhaps Kate Middleton can do for baptism what she does for Reiss dresses – bring it back into fashion. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, gave a splendid little pep talk on video about the event, saying that he hoped it would inspire others to get their babies christened; at the same time he warned against thinking that it was something just for ‘special people’ as opposed to everyone.
Nothing, really, could have summed up the decline of the CofE so much as that observation. Once getting a child christened was just what you did, just like getting married was something you just did. In Alfie, the original, brilliant film, Michael Caine observes his girlfriend getting their child christened without him – it was a rather moving moment – and it defined his distance from his baby. Now the British working class may have a sort of folk memory of the sacrament from their grandmothers but it’s a opt-in rather than an opt-out custom, not something you do by default. It’s something children learn about in the same way they learn about Diwali, as an interesting thing religious people do.
In these circumstances it may seem a bit perverse to make the whole thing less accessible, but that’s what I’m suggesting. I want godparents to be chosen from people who can believe what they’re saying at the event. And what they’re being asked to do – like Prince George’s were – is to renounce Satan (and all his works and pomps) and to declare they believe in God.
So very far from, as Janet Street Porter, suggested recently in the Mail, godparents being separable from the religious side of things, I’d like parents to select godparents who won’t actually put their hands behind their back – the way one celeb I know of did – when they’re asked to hold a candle and make promises on the baby’s behalf. I’d like the vicar/priest to ask them before they make the promises simply whether they can do so in good conscience and if they can’t, to suggest they find someone who can. I’d like to think that Prince George’s seven – including Mrs Tindall – were saying what they believe when they stood for Prince George but I think we can assume that this aspect of the thing is pretty well the last thing that the papers will be focussing on tomorrow.
It’s possible, I suppose, for the whole royal thing to work a bit of its magic on the CofE…if it’s allowed to. When I met Richard Chartres recently, the Bishop of London, I expressed scepticism about the Duchess of Cambridge’s commitment to Anglicanism. Not at all, he said reproachfully. And he told me that when they were talking things through prior to her pre-nuptial confirmation she said ‘I’m going to go away and think about all this’. And she did; fair play to her. So you could say that the Windsors have made one convert. The Queen for her part does her best to promote the church of which she is governor; in every single Christmas address she brings the thing round to the Christian significance of the event and every single time the BBC , and every other broadcaster, filters that bit out.
The Royal Family is on a bit of a roll just now; maybe the Midas touch of the Windsor/Middletons can normalise christenings. It would be nice if the Duke and Duchess went to church occasionally too – and not just those official services they have to attend – but that may be too much to hope for. Still by getting one baby baptised, they could help re-evangelise England. Someone’s got to.