Ministers need to be sensitive if they have to refuse child baptism
One of the areas of church life which causes controversy, hurt and ill-feeling concerns the baptism of children. I often hear about parents and grand-parents who are offended by and alienated from their church because of a refusal to give a full baptism to their child or grandchild.
Recently I received an letter on this subject from a reader who was deeply hurt by the experience when a request for the baptism of a grandchild was turn down, even though the family in general had strong church connections.
In this case the parents were unmarried, which no doubt was a crucial factor.
One point to bear in mind is that the decision about a baptism in a Presbyterian Church is taken by the Kirk Session and not by the minister alone, though a strong minister can make his views very clear to a Session.
According to a leaflet produced by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland: "Infant baptism is given on the basis of the qualifications of the parent, not the qualifications of the child. It is the parents' relationship with God which is important. No minister or elder can see into the heart of another human being. They can only look at what is visible.
"What is required of parents is a credible profession of faith, that is, a profession accompanied by some understanding of the Christian faith, a lifestyle in accordance with Christian values, and public commitment to the worshipping Christian community."
The Presbyterian Church asks parents to consider the following questions: "Are you committed to your church? Do you attend Sunday worship regularly? Are you prepared to accept the preparation the minister provides?
"Can you wholeheartedly and faithfully profess faith in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord? Will you, with your children, be regularly involved in the life of your local congregation?"
These are challenging questions, and are not for the faint-hearted.
They underline that infant baptism is not just a nice family ceremony "for the look of the thing", but rather a serious commitment by parents to bring up their children in the Christian faith.
As many of my readers know, I like to think that I have broad and generally liberal views on church affairs, but I think it entirely reasonable that parents who want their child baptised are asked to be prepared to follow through and to try as far as possible to give their children a Christian education.
Some people find it difficult to understand why a church would refuse to baptise a child because their parents are not married, even if they are in a long-term, stable and loving relationship.
It seems obvious, however, that a minister or Kirk Session would insist on this because the church backs marriage and the togetherness of the family unit.
Certainly, the conditions as set out by the Presbyterian Church are clear, but what is most important is the way in which these rules are applied.
A hard-line attitude can be very off-putting, and very often a caring response can go a long way, even if the answer to a request for baptism is refused.
On many occasions a minister and Session may agree to give a blessing to the child and its parents, and a number of churches will carry out a service of thanksgiving, but this is not the same as full baptism.
One of the general issues here is the way in which all the churches deal with the very human issues which they encounter regularly.
Baptism apart, there are too many examples of churches which are at loggerheads because of a dispute in the congregation about something which could be settled if people on both sides showed a little more common sense and the kind of Christian charity which people expect from a church body.
The essence of Christ's ministry was compassion and understanding, especially concerning little children.
There are no easy answers, and people will naturally be hurt if their requests for infant baptism are refused, but the churches also have their rules.
The hope is that more ministers and Kirk Sessions can show understanding and human sensitivity, rather than taking a harsh, judgmental line which helps nobody.