Experimental Baptism

KIPPA MATTHEWS - COPYRIGHT NOTICEThe Church of England has just published ‘additional’ texts in accessible language as an alternative to the current text of Common Worship Initiation Services. These have been produced in response to a motion brought by Liverpool Diocesan Synod to General Synod in 2011.

But the new texts have not, so far, gone down very well. ‘CofE removes sin and the devil from new christening rite: Rewrite of centuries old passage casts out ‘sin’ from ceremonies’ screams the Daily Mail.

Among other phrases abandoned in the experimental new christening rite are those referring to ‘the deceit and corruption of evil’, ‘the sins that separate us from God and neighbour’, and a promise to ‘fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil.’ 

Former bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali of course had something to say:

There has been a fashion in the Church of England to minimise depth and mystery in its worship because of the alleged need to make its services accessible. The new alternative service for baptism continues this trend. Instead of explaining what the baptism means and what the various parts of the service signify, its solution is to do away with key elements of the service altogether.

The current bishop of Willesden, Pete Broadbent, was rather more to the point:

This is crass. It’s baptism lite. It will not do.

and he used a tweet to point out that the new version had yet to be approved by Synod, adding: “And I’m rather hoping that it won’t! It’s only out for ‘experiment’. Or killing off.” Archbishop Cranmer blogger goes into some more depth, and concludes:

These ‘experimental’ texts are inadequate. The postmodern age is relativist and syncretist, and is becoming increasingly secular in order to propagate a conception of ‘neutrality’. But that is no reason for the Church to obscure the gospel: it is no reason to eradicate ‘Christ crucified’ in order to make church experience somehow more palatable to the un-churched, uninitiated and ignorant.

So what is going on, and what is the fuss all about? Well, the document presenting the additional text rather helpfully sets out the changes, with the CW text in parallel with the additional, alternative texts. It is worth reading through—but when I did, I have to say I was really shocked.

The opening statement drops the mention of ‘faith’, of God’s calling, and the phrase (from Acts 2.47) ‘adding to our number.’ None of this lost language was particularly ‘inaccessible’. The questions to the parents and godparents then appear to strip out mention of joining the community of faith. And it is really striking that the response to the questions (to congregation, parents and godparents) drops the phrase ‘With the help of God…’.

The introduction to the decision drops the biblical phrase ‘God calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light’ (from 1 Peter 2.9) and replaces it with ‘new life’, but drops here is the mention of sin. I have always thought the six-fold decision (replacing the three-fold one in the ASB) felt unnecessarily repetitious, and struggling for things to say, but the ‘additional’ text six-fold decision feels worse.

At the signing of the cross, ‘fighting valiantly’ (suggesting the biblical idea of spiritual warfare) has been replaced by ‘standing bravely’ (suggesting the idea of Power Rangers), and ‘sin, the world and the devil’ have been replaced by ‘the power of evil’, removing any suggestion that following Christ is counter-cultural.

XB365265The range of biblical images in the prayer over the water are largely lost. (This includes what someone called on Facebook the ‘obscure’ reference to Moses. Yes, it is obscure, unless at some point you want people to notice that the Exodus motif is one of the major theological ideas in the New Testament about the ministry of Jesus.) The second option for the prayer contains the ludicrous phrase ‘send your Spirit upon this water’; I think we are in Lord of the Rings territory here.

On the profession of faith, I don’t agree with Pete Broadbent’s complaint that the Apostle’s Creed has been omitted. I think that the question and answer form is fine—but here it is worth comparing the proposed one with the one included in ASB Baptism. God is the ‘source of life’ rather than the ‘one who made the world’, and Jesus is the (unnamed) God the Son ‘who died for us and rose again’ rather than the one who ‘redeemed [hu]mankind’. Interestingly, in the world of pawn shops, I think the idea of ‘redemption’ is now fairly accessible. The Spirit ‘makes Christ known in the world’, which is a good job, since most references to the idea of the baptised being involved in ‘witness’ have been dropped.

There is more that could be said—I found the closing comments to be existential rather than rooted in corporate discipleship, reminding me a little of the revised Girl Guide’s promise to be ‘true to yourself’. But these are the things that stood out for me.

All these issue highlight some real problems. Firstly, they highlight some problems with our understanding of baptism. Baptism is a public act—not to be done in private, as a family occasion, but something done in public, as the picture at the top demonstrates. It is an act of ‘repentance for forgiveness of sins’ from the beginning (see Mark 1.4). It is about initiation into Jesus’ resurrection life (Romans 6.3–4), and incorporation into the fellowship of the church (the body of Christ, not the institution, 1 Cor 12.13). These are not particularly difficult ideas conceptually; in Scripture, they are often expressed in vivid, accessible metaphors. What is difficult is generating interest in these ideas amongst people who want a folk-religion baby-naming ceremony. (There is nothing wrong with wanting this; but baptism is not it.) The new additional words appear to be most concerned with accommodating this. The introduction to the new wording comments:

There is still a widespread demand for ‘christenings’ whether ‘stand-alone’ or integrated into the main service.

Or, as Andrew Brown expresses it:

Most comfortable westerners would find it absurd and insulting to be told that their children are in need of redemption from sin. What, then, can churches do? One answer is to move away from infant baptism altogether…Another is to maintain the ritual and de-emphasise the doctrine. That seems to be what the proposed changes in the Church of England were meant to do.

So let’s get rid of everything with any theological significance to make it easy for people to come and go and not be disturbed by the good news of Jesus! Michael Nazir-Ali points out what we actually should be doing:

Rather than the constant dumbing down of Christian teaching, whether for baptism, marriage or death, we should be spending time preparing people for these great rites of passage.

But this whole debate also highlights a problem with the C of E’s current position on liturgy. Was the issue highlighted by the Liverpool Diocesan motion really one about theology? Or was there another problem with the Common Worship baptism service? The introduction to the additional texts puts it like this:

Most of the objections to the Common Worship Initiation texts in their present authorised form are that they are not accessible to those who are unused to attending church. Clergy frequently find themselves conducting baptisms for families who have little contact with the Church, and sometimes on occasions separate from the main Sunday morning act of worship [Note: contrary to canon, and against the assumption of the liturgy.] In some instances there are few people present who have any real understanding of the Church’s language and symbolism. For the majority of those attending on such occasions, the existing provision can seem complex and inaccessible.

But it is not just outsiders who found the liturgy ‘complex and inaccessible’. There were some really good and important things in the thinking behind CW Baptism, in particular that adult baptism is the (theological) norm, and infant baptism derivative from it, and that baptism should normally take place in the main Sunday service. But the resulting text was pompous and cumbersome, in part due to the complicated structure of the vows, and idea of a ‘staged rite’ through the service, and the general pomposity of language CW has suffered in other places.

We seem to be making the mistake of thinking that ‘richness’ in liturgy comes from a cultured or classical register of language, rather than through the faithful appropriation of biblical metaphors—which are often fresh and arresting in their simplicity.

The second mistake is the strategy of addressing diverse cultural pressures—and diverse practice in the Church—by providing a wide diversity of texts, one of which must, of course, be rigidly adhered to. As the good old Daily Mail points out,

Since the original Book of Common prayer remains available to churches, there are currently six versions of the Church of England baptism service circulating in prayer books and internet liturgy which have been approved for use at different dates.

If the Church’s doctrine lies in its liturgy (which it does), and if public liturgy is both a key educator in discipleship, and a key expression of shared faith, then this is a bit of a disaster. CW Baptism does need change, but this change should be to a single, accessible text, rooted in biblical understanding of baptism, in continuity with the doctrine of the BCP, but with a simpler structure.

Here’s a great suggestion: if you want an accessible, clear, direct (i.e. brief) but theologically strong and biblically rooted baptism liturgy, there is one available for use: the ASB. In case you are interested in using it…er, I mean, seeing it for yourself as an historical example, I have set the whole text out in a blog post here.

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37 thoughts on “Experimental Baptism”

  1. Thanks Ian, an interesting summary. As someone who has never used the ASB (before my time, sorry!), I can only trust you on what is in it. However, I think this whole issue highlights the wider issue running behind it, and that is what you call the desire for the “folk-religion baby-naming ceremony”. I always offer the Thanksgiving service first, but only once has it been taken up, by a Christian who didn’t think her godparents could make the promises and mean them. The irony. Non-Christians always take the baptism.

    Nobody is quite sure what infant baptism is and what it does; in sacramental churches it ‘means’ something, but defining what that is is virtually impossible. In less sacramental churches it is a welcome into the Christian community and a parental pledge to live within it, both of which are reduced to nonsense by the separate service and the never coming to church before or after. I don’t like doing a separate service but our congregation is about 25, and baptism parties are usually 60-100 people, which practically just doesn’t mix.

    I don’t know what to do. So why would the Daily Mail?!

  2. My practice has been to explain to parents that I differentiate between ‘Christening’ and ‘Christian Baptism’, and offer then the choice. I emphasise the solemn promises they will have to make at Baptism, and the fact that most parents have absolutely no intention of keeping them. I then invent a service of Christening which has no promises but some water, making sure that I explain that Christian Baptism might be a future possibility if they want to take faith seriously. Most families have been happy with this glorious fudge. After all, as Humpty Dumpty said, when I use a word it means exactly what I choose it to mean!

      • I think the invetion of a “Christening” is problematic because it – shall I say – “muddies the waters”.

        Would an adult, or the growing child, know whether their “Christening” was or wasn’t acceptable as a baptism if at some point in the future they actually come to faith?

        The truth of the matter is that we need a more solid understanding of baptism within our churches: Too few people have a clue what baptism is about.

        Baptism theology was already being- shall I say – “diluted” because of disagreement about infant/believers’ baptism. Few have taught, hence few have learnt, a solid basis for beliefs about baptism. Consequently, you get the sort of proposals the C of E are entertaining with this – shall I say- “damp” liturgy!

  3. Kevin, thanks for the comment. I will post up ASB liturgy for you specially on another post!

    I think the NT knows what baptism is, and in theory that is what we are supposed to be doing…

  4. John, that is not dissimilar to people offering a Thanksgiving first, though without water. Some people say ‘If I offer this, it is not what people want’. A fairly straightforward solution is to say ‘Well, that is the church policy.’

  5. Ian, I generally agree with your criticisms, but then of course I am neither Anglican nor paedobaptist 🙂

    The one criticism I don’t get it the one of the calling down of the Holy Spirit on the water; if it is o.k. to have an epiclesis in the Eucharist, calling down the Holy Spirit on the “matter” of the sacrament, why would it be “ridiculous” to do the same thing in Baptism? Isn’t that just an acknowledgment that the effect of a sacrament is due to the work of the Holy Spirit, and that without that work the bread and wine in the one sacrament, and the water in the other, are totally without effect?

  6. Yes, I get the ‘church policy’ part; but these days we are so loathed to turn people away, or for them to think we have turned them away, because we wouldn’t do what ‘they want’. The internal head-debate is this: is it more important to welcome people with a service they think they understand but don’t and hope for the best God forgives us and them for not being Pharisaical about it all; or better to turn them away and have them grow years of bitterness against the church because they couldn’t ‘get their child done’. I go for the former, though it pains me. But pains me less than the latter.

  7. Yes, you are right that there is pain either way. But it seems to me that there is increasing research to support the idea that being distinctive actually is more effective in the long term…

  8. Wolf, in Anglican eucharistic theology you are not calling down the Spirit on the ‘matter’ of the sacrament. In some Eucharistic Prayers the wording is somewhat ambiguous (as a nod to the more instrumentalists) but formally speaking the C of E has a ‘receptionist’ theology—it is only if the elements are received with understanding are they of any theological significance. The invocation of the Spirit is therefore on the people, that ‘they receiving’ might know all the benefits of Christ’s passion.

  9. I most certainly think that the “service” of Child Baptism should be made accessible to all, The linguistical problems which arise from The ASB service format of course needed to be addressed. However whilst I believe that children are not born “sinners” and therefore can not be addressed as such, I also believe that those who are responsible for their spiritual care will be sinners and so therefore there should always be a part in the service where the appointed spiritual carers should renounce their sins and preferably before the child is baptised so that all approach God in a pure state.

    This is in much the same way as when we take communion at the point of repentance we are forgiven and therefore pure before God (it does not last long I know)! but never the less there is a point in time that we are free of all worldly contamination and we are “new” before God.

    As with all things in the Church there is space for traditional and modern language side by side there is value in actually linguistically splitting a service so that the language can be applied correctly to Age if a child is able to be baptized and receive Gods blessing then the church has a duty to record that in childrens language so it can be recorded and heard by a child as they grow and discover more of the faith. Casting out sin from children is not really appropriate language because the responsibility for spiritual guidance does not rest with the Child but with the childs mentors.

  10. Why does the C of E not just admit that the real issue is that baptism in the New Testament and early church understanding is inappropriate for most of the people asking for it in 21st century England and try and come to a united view on how to deal with that? I suspect that’s what you’re meaning, Ian, in your comment about church policy. I have been to a Thanksgiving service that fitted beautifully for friends where the husband is not a Christian but the wife is. It forces nobody to say anything they can’t, and yet recognises the spiritual significance of the gift of a child. I do not envy you clergy in this sort of area!

  11. Greg I think the lack of resolution actually arises from a diversity of belief. Some clergy are relatively ‘universalist’ and take the line ‘Well, who am I to judge whether or not people have faith? I will baptise all comers and let God sort it out’ whereas others want to look for evidence of faith as you suggest.

    I think the adverse reactions to this new text represent the response of group B to something written by people from or aiming at group A.

  12. Ian

    What is Baptism for exactly? The Church? the individual? or God?

    The church? If we are Baptising just for the Church then we may as well not bother at all.

    The individual? Maybe. A public rebuttal of the “old life” may be helpful as long as they realise that they most likely will not be able to hold to impossible standards and when they cannot meet their self imposed standards, they have not failed God. Also self imposed standards makes one feel pride, superiority and that God “owes them” and/or miserable when they fail to meet these standards.

    God? The Church cannot save you by putting water on your head or immersing you in a bath. You need to get to the point of loving the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. God does not love you because you had a bath, had a blob of water on your head by the church, or recited some promises. He loves you because he loves you. Not because of what you do or what the Church does or doesn’t do for you. If God loved you only because of what you did it would not be love at all. Pagans do this after all every single day.


  13. “Pompous and cumbersome” is the best description I’ve seen of the CW problem… and thanks for the great truth that you don’t make a liturgy more powerful by flowering up the language, but by capturing the Biblical image (Which is powerful enough to have flourished over centuries and calls for no tarting up). One highly esteemed colleague, a great parish priest, has suggested the answer would just be to reauthorise the ASB rite…

  14. Thanks Alan. You might be interested to see that I have offered the text of the ASB rite in my next post—which I think is the only electronic version available online. Do pass it on!

  15. We’ve created a hybrid liturgy from CW and the ASB, which seems to work well.

    The work of helping people to understand the liturgy happens in baptism preparation, not by removing reference to key aspects of discipleship and theology. Our use of baptism in the CofE is a messy compromise, we excuse our lack of rigour in preparation and admission on the grounds that it keeps open a pastoral/mission door with the family. Well, that’s what I do anyway.

  16. David, I think your point about preparation is very important, and the offering of additional words appears to assume that no preparation has happened—which people who have an ‘open’ baptism policy appear to confirm.

    Is your hybrid liturgy available online? Did you see I have posted the ASB text?

  17. CW allows for an alternative decision where there are strong pastoral reasons – one could just dispense with the qualification, although I myself consider the sixfold decision in Common Worship more powerful.

    Unless I am mistaken, the presentation of candidates in CW is optional. The words of ASB’s introduction to the decision could be used without need for authorisation at the beginning of the service where CW allows “otherwords” and presumably between sermon and decision.

    ASB’s “prayer over the water” could be authorised on its own as an alternative alongside already existing seasonal provisions.

    There is thus little need to re-authorise ASB itself. Its only advantage, from my point of view, is that it would again allow the use of traditional words with the signing with the cross in its traditional (BCP) place, after the baptism.

  18. Thomas, thanks for commenting–and I like your analysis of the different elements on your blog.

    On the CW decision, I still don’t know why it needed to be sixfold. I think the language of ‘coming’ is weak, and the phrase ‘[proud] rebellion’ itself sounds archaic, and isn’t a particularly strong feature of biblical language. So it all seems rather forced.

    Yes, we could authorise various other bits and bobs—but this is the whole problem. CW was supposed to be the definitive conclusion of liturgical development since the 1960s, but because it has proved so unsatisfactory, despite its good points, a million extras have been added.

    I look for the day where we can stand back, take stock, and return to a single, ASB-style (in format) single text in a single book that we stay with. The strategy of having a multiplicity of texts is a big mistake in our postmodern world.

  19. Well, it is interesting to reflect on the responses to the two sets of texts. People did not like the accessible language of ASB—and now they are requesting more accessible language than CW.

    And they thought ASB was too simple—now they are complaining that CW is too complex…!

  20. Ian – it’s not online no, just something we produced in-house. When I arrived here we had 3 different baptism services in the cupboard, the old ASB cards, the CW official one, and I used a filletted CW version that we’d come up with in my previous parish. That didn’t really make a lot of sense, so we developed our own, trying to bring in the best of CW and the ASB. Fitting the liturgy to the building is important too: a neighbouring parish has much more space than we do for movement and procession, and has shaped the liturgy in terms of a journey around the building. Their liturgy wouldn’t work in our church, and vice versa.

  21. Thanks for putting the ASB version up, Ian. It would appear to address the need for a simpler text without losing core aspects of the meaning of baptism.

  22. I couldn’t agree with you more, Ian – the ASB was too quickly disposed of without recognizing its (occasional) genius. The wordy CW collects quickly had to have a ‘lite’ alternative version created which went too far the other way. Now it’s baptism. In both cases the ASB versions were contemporary and seemly with some inherent literary merit and perfectly comprehensible to both regular and occasional churchgoers. We shot ourselves in the foot by not allowing their continued use. Thankfully ASB Morning and Evening Prayer is still available for use under the ‘Service of the Word’ provision.

  23. Savi–Yes it would!!

    John, thanks—really glad to hear I am not alone in thinking that the ASB achieved much more than it was given credit for at the time. I was introduced to liturgy through Series 3, and felt quite at home with the ASB. And like you, I think that whatever its other merits, CW has major failings.

    It is interesting to discover how widespread this view is…

  24. I strongly dislike the CW liturgy, the signing with the cross is in the wrong place, the language is inaccessible, lacks authority and is pompous. Whereas I like the ASB and would go back to it, not that I ever used it, I’m far too young.

    As for thanksgiving yet to have the offer of taken up but even Christians see it as second best.

    The seems again to be a division between the Catholic and Evangelical wings in the descussion of pedobaptisim v adult or is that a misguided thought.

    • Well, if you want to ‘experiment’ with the ASB liturgy, it is available on the next blog post!

      No, I don’t think it is as simple as evangelical v catholic. According to Simon Butler’s comment on the Facebook discussion, the dynamics in the Synod vote were quite different.

  25. As a minister in an LEP we get to use the best(or worst) of both worlds, and I’m less stressed about the actual liturgy than ensuring that parents and Godparents have a full understanding of what is going on. We will therefore offer a four week introduction course, after which we will talk about booking a service. If folks quibble I do stress that for regular members of the church family we will do a service without preparation but if you don’t come to church this is the only way. I have trialled the new texts, and for me I feel it is about the understanding of the guests more than the participants, who should have all been properly prepared. `

    • ‘I’m less stressed about the actual liturgy than ensuring that parents and Godparents have a full understanding of what is going on’. A good approach Mark—and it appears the exact opposite of what is going on here.

  26. It seems to me that all this confusion about what is the most appropriate rite makes nonsense of the current catchphrase, “the ministry of all the baptised”. If churches do not prepare for baptism, but simply expect families to turn up with no preparation; if they offer a rite which downplays the theological significance of what they are doing, then how can we talk about “the ministry of all the baptised”? Or have I missed something?

  27. For some years (although not most recently) everyone was offered only a Thanksgiving as part of the main morning service. If after that the parents still wanted a baptism we were happy to do that. For the most part those who wanted a “folk religion” naming did not come back to request baptism. This meant that there was less need to compromise the meaning of baptism. As I understand things the theology of the church of England is defined by the liturgy OF THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER and the 39 Articles of Religion, which is uncompromisingly Reformed. Original sin and the total depravity of man -redemption. Salvation by faith alone through grace alone.

  28. What troubles me most about this is the largely unremarked nihilistic drift throughout. Words and actions, sacrament and theology, becoming more and more diffuse, until as at Babel, no-one understands anyone else . . .

  29. ” there are few people present who have any real understanding of the Church’s language and symbolism. For the majority of those attending on such occasions, the existing provision can seem complex and inaccessible”
    This was often my experience when conducting baptisms. What I yearned for (but never got round to producing) was not fewer/easier words, but a set of images to accompany the words, in order to illustrate them and open up their meaning.

    • Simon, I produced a service card which we used with a reduced ASB text, and included Annie Valloton images from the old Good News Bible from the relevant passages. It worked really well.


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