Joanna Bogle is Visiting Research Fellow at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London. She is the author of some twenty books, including several historical biographies and A Book of Seasons and Celebrations with information on traditions and customs marking the Church year. Her most recent book is John Paul II - Man of Prayer with colleague Clare Anderson, exploring the spiritual life of St. John Paul the Great. She broadcasts regularly with EWTN and has recently initiated popular Catholic History Walks around London. She blogs at “Auntie Joanna Writes” and EWTN’s “Catholic Journalist in London”.
A well-known American soap-opera star has become a Christian. She was baptized in a private ceremony that was much publicized.
Sounds rather good, doesn’t it? And indeed there is something good about the story: a baptism, a soul made new in Christ, and in a nation rapidly becoming secular and deeply in need of a New Evangelization.
But it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Meghan Markle’s baptism, by Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, is a necessary precondition for her marriage to HRH Prince Harry, younger son of the Prince of Wales and currently fourth in line to the throne of the United Kingdom. Her May marriage will bring her into the Royal Family, and attendance at Church of England services from time to time will be part of her public life — from Christmas Day in a village church in Norfolk to formal gatherings marking national events in Westminster Abbey. Hence the baptism.
There is no question the baptism is valid. While it is true that some in the Anglican Communion like to use “nonsexist” semi-pagan language such as “I baptize you in the name of the Creator, the Redeemer and the Sanctifier” in place of “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” this was certainly not be the case here.
Royal events involve traditional Anglican use — echoes of the Book of Common Prayer together with current formal language. No political correctness and no jargon: just the traditional Christian formula as instructed by Christ in Matthew 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Strictly speaking, no one is actually baptized into the Church of England. Baptism simply makes the person a Christian, washing away sin and forming a bond with Christ. It involves pouring water over the head — or full immersion in water — while saying the words Christ gave. No one can be “rebaptized”; it is a once-only event, imposing a character on the soul forever. It is an absolute precondition for receiving other sacraments: only a baptized person may receive Communion or be confirmed.
The Church of England officially holds to this understanding. Miss Markle, who was raised Protestant but attended a private Catholic high school in Los Angeles, was confirmed immediately after her baptism as part of the same ceremony in the chapel at St. James Palace in London. And, should she wish, she will now be able to take part fully in a C of E Communion service in any Anglican church.
The Catholic Church has at times been dubious about Anglican baptisms. In the late 18th century and into the 19th century, it was not unknown for a Church of England clergyman, lax in his duties, to scatter water over a batch of babies, speaking hurriedly and failing to ensure that water was poured individually over each one. Was this valid? The Catholic Church thought not: Anyone who later sought to be received into the Catholic Church would be “conditionally baptized,” the priest saying “If you have not been baptized, I baptize you…”
But following the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Church and, later, increasing ecumenical contact, the Catholic Church has recognized well-attested Anglican baptisms as valid.
It is not necessary for baptism to be done by a priest — a layperson can do it in an emergency — so the validity of Anglican orders is not an issue here. Over the centuries, many people have been baptized by, for example, a nurse or midwife in hospital as a small baby in danger of death.
Meghan Markle was not baptized as a baby, and her family — her parents divorced while she was a child — had a mixed religious heritage. Church attendance does not seem to have played much part in her life at any point. She had a lavish beach party stretching over three days when she married a longtime boyfriend in a civil ceremony. They divorced two years later.
What does the baptism mean to Miss Markle? Probably it was quite a moving experience. The past weeks must have been a whirlwind of excitement, with glaring media attention, the thrill of sudden inclusion in the inner circle of the world’s most famous family, and massive amounts of praise from every quarter.
The words of baptism are formal and solemn, and the rite brings a sense of age-old tradition and heritage — heady stuff for a woman whose main adult experience has been the California lifestyle and the world of TV soap operas. And, meanwhile, God will be at work in her soul.
The Church of England may at present be somewhat uncertain about its commitment to many Christian moral teachings — its synod recently affirmed church blessings for same-sex unions and a ceremony for celebrating someone announcing a sex change. And, other than baptism and holy matrimony, it lacks valid sacraments. But it can offer dignified ceremonial in beautiful surroundings.
And there is no reason to think that either Miss Markle or the clergyman who officiated was otherwise than sincere in their desire to do something that is good and is somehow connected with Jesus Christ. Beyond that — who knows?
And then the wedding. A ceremony in St. George’s chapel, Windsor, amid massive public excitement. Was that earlier beach ceremony valid?
The Church of England has no procedure for discussing nullity, so we just don’t know. Pageantry will be on display at Windsor: TV, cheering crowds, a tour of the riverside town with thousands of hands waving flags.
Not so long ago — in the Britain of Agatha Christie’s famed literary sleuth Miss Marple — most of that crowd would have been baptized, and a good number would have been regular churchgoers, familiar with the formularies of the Church of England.
But 2018 is the era not of Miss Marple but of Miss Markle. Today churchgoing is minimal, ignorance of Christianity widespread. Some 3 million (from a population of 57 million) attend church weekly.
What will Miss Markle’s baptism mean to most people in Britain today? Can it play a part in reviving interest in Christianity? I’m not holding my breath. But God only knows.