London - The moment is solemn, yet often punctuated by laughter. The minister reaches out to hold the baby, who sometimes peers up at this too-friendly stranger in weird clothes - and wails. Or just looks faintly puzzled, as if to ask: ‘What’s going on?’
The parents usually smile, perhaps through tears; the grandparents look anxious, wanting no tantrums; the godparents stand tall, proud to be chosen - and the wider group of family and friends just look happy.
Then, with a gentle hand, the minister carefully ladles holy water on the little head, saying: “I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
The sign of the Cross comes next, and that’s it - the baby has been received into the Christian church. In that special, sacred moment the child takes his or her place within a great tradition.
The ceremony invokes timeless spiritual values which are to be a source of strength for the child as he or she grows to face the challenges of life.
But serious as the moment is, congregations nowadays usually burst into applause - in a lovely sharing of happiness.
On Wednesday, it delighted me to imagine that ceremony in the ancient Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace. As a monarchist and a Christian, it had deep meaning for me.
I revere religious ceremony at a time when Christianity feels marginalised, and I respect and value the continuity of our great British institutions.
What’s more, as someone who’s passionate about family values and traditions, I loved the double importance of what was happening.
Yes, it was a sacramental moment of solemn importance - when Prince George was initiated into the family of the Church of England, which he will one day lead. But it was a personal, family occasion, too - a fact which was reflected in the intimacy of the gathering.
When I watched the guests arrive, it occurred to me how universal and egalitarian the whole occasion was.
For the joyful ceremony of baptism is not a privilege for the royal or the rich or anybody else remote from everyday experience. No - one of the most important ceremonies in a human life is readily available to everyone, in every single church in this land.
A few weeks ago, we had a christening in our own family - probably four times as large as Prince George’s gathering. My daughter and her husband marked their daughter’s first birthday with a christening in front of the whole congregation of the church in Bath where they married in 2009.
Chloe - who had four godparents - wore a christening gown made from her other grandmother’s white wedding dress. Already a seasoned performer, she didn’t shed a tear, but waved her arms merrily at the font.
And to make the occasion extra special, my daughter Kitty (who had never been baptised) chose to join her child and bend her own head to the holy water, too.
Parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends all beamed - and so did the members of the congregation who have nothing to do with our family. The very jolly vicar ensured it was anything but stuffy - quite the opposite. And afterwards we all went back to our place for plenty of sparkling wine.
And why not? Because, for all its solemn ceremonial, a christening is a celebration.
Even if you are not devout, having your child baptised takes trouble and effort - and is therefore the polar opposite of the lazy attitudes to tradition and the family which blight modern life.
A baby has been born and the parents have chosen to bring him or her up in a certain way, witnessed by friends and family who have the same values. Every time this happens, something of incalculable significance is occurring, too - people are taking their part within a cultural tradition which makes them part of a whole, larger than themselves.
No matter how sophisticated - or cynical - we become, great moments in life still fill us with awe. Birth, marriage, death... these are the most significant punctuation marks in an individual’s lifetime, giving meaning to every culture.
We could add christening, coming-of-age, betrothal, big birthdays, retirement... moments marked by the pop of a cork, affectionate speeches, gifts. Such rites of passage speak of the eternal human need for ritual.
They link us with our first ancestors, who raised their arms in unison to the sky.
The Nigerian Yoruba (to name but one tribe) have naming ceremonies with traditional poetry, drums and a feast, just like the Native American peoples. The Hindu ceremony involves blessed water, as does the Sikh version; Latvians, Jews and the Chinese bring gifts and wear their finest clothes; Muslims share food with relatives and friends and also distribute it to the needy, and so on. These are universal emotions.
The sharing of food, the giving of gifts, and the ceremonial uttering of the name of the child are all magical elements which people enjoy all around the world. Such naming ceremonies make a profound statement -social, as well as religious. They say: “Welcome! You are now a real, whole person and can take your rightful place within our community. We will take care of you, and later you will return to provide support for us.”
The need for ritual, I believe, does not diminish in a sceptical age, and as a churchgoer myself, I’m happy that - though church attendances are dwindling - the number of baptisms is holding up.
It’s interesting to speculate why. Do non-churchgoers find within themselves an ancient need to bow the knee (metaphorically) within a holy place? To acknowledge the great mystery of life for the sake of their child? The answer must be yes.
Yet I’m also pleased that non-religious naming ceremonies are popular. For some people, it can be more honest to mark the joy of the formal welcome with a civil ceremony or a ritual of your own devising.
I’ve been to a self-organised, secular wedding and a similar funeral, and both were truly wonderful because of the creative love that went into them.
About one third of UK families fail to celebrate their new babies in any formal way, and I really do think they are missing out.
Because whether it’s a traditional baptism or a naming ceremony, an actual event acknowledges the importance of the new arrival in front of family and friends who bear witness. This is crucial, because private joy is given communal dignity.
All those present - whether in church or chapel or in a field or a flower-bedecked living room - know instinctively that they are taking part in something that is both deeply personal and profoundly important for the good of society.
And what happened in the chapel at St James’s Palace was an acknowledgement of that. - Daily Mail