What are the Additional Baptism texts doing?

The latest Grove Worship booklet Accessible Baptisms introduces the Additional Baptism texts which were published at the end of last year. The author, Tim Stratford, was in parish ministry for many years, for some time in an outer estate in Liverpool, before becoming Archdeacon of Leicester in 2012. Like the best of sermons, the booklet starts with an excellent joke:

After the baptism of his baby brother in church, little Johnny sobbed all the way home in the back seat of the car. His father asked him three times what was wrong. Finally the boy replied, ‘That priest said he wanted us brought up in a Christian home, but I want to stay with you guys.’

The serious point behind this is Tim’s experience of ministry in a working-class context: there is a gulf of understanding between the culture of the liturgy of Common Worship, in this case in the baptism service, and the culture of his congregation.

Considering the case for some alternative texts began with a personal encounter. I used to think I was the only priest in the Church of England who could not make himself understood during baptism services. I found some work-arounds by carefully reading the rubrics and using as much freedom as permitted. Some years ago I became a member of the Liturgical Commission and a group of colleagues in Liverpool collared me because they wanted to complain about the words they felt compelled to use when conducting baptisms. I raised this at a Commission meeting and was told the problem was not the texts but the way they were used.

Like a good Liturgical Commission member, I set to with my Liverpool colleagues to help them use the texts better. This involved learning some of the work-arounds I had already discovered and developing a sophisticated literacy about the liturgical meaning of rubrical …These were helpful conversations but they did not provide a solution altogether.

There were still stumbling blocks in the words that clergy felt required to say. Local clergy could have invented their own words where the official ones were insufficient but they could also ask, ‘Why should we? If the official words aren’t good enough, they should be changed.’ The Liverpool group looked at all the freedoms that the service offered and took full liberty of the options, but still there were problems.

I think Tim here demonstrates a good deal more patience with the texts than many will have exercised, and yet again highlights a major problem with the ethos of some key Common Worship texts. In the rest of this chapter he explores the case for providing alternative texts, without throwing away the original and starting again (though it is worth asking: why not?). In the following chapter he takes seriously the arguments against changing anything, but concludes that his former diocese were right to put forward a General Synod motion asking for the additional texts which ultimately led to the new publication.

The key chapter in the booklet is chapter 4, which looks at what the new texts actually say. Tim effectively highlights some important gains in these texts, which includes the simplification of the language and structure around the presentation of the candidates, the questions at the point of decision, and the commissioning. I think Tim is right in noting the much clearer format of the decision, with two sets of two questions, one pair relating to repentance and the other pair relating to belief, corresponding to John the Baptist’s and Jesus’s early proclamation of the kingdom in the gospels. Tim offers sympathetic support for the removal of language of ‘fighting’ as a ‘soldier’ of Christ, which some might question, and is not worried about the loss of the devil which is the thing that hit the headlines when the texts were first mooted. One of the alternative prayers over the water follows a clearly ‘receptionist’ theology—‘Now send your Spirit, that those who are washed in this water may die with Christ and rise with him’—which is more obviously in line with Anglican theology than previous formulations.

Tim’s helpful exposition still left me with some questions about the whole process.

First, in the context of Common Worship’s proliferation of texts, here we are presented with yet more additional texts and a new ‘bright green’ booklet. This comes on top of alternative collects, additional Eucharistic prayers, and the library of other texts. I cannot help wondering at what point someone is going to say ‘This was a mistake and we need a clean sweep.’ As long as this doesn’t happen, I think in practice we are pushing many congregations into a non-liturgical habit, for similar reasons to the ones Tim highlights in relation to cultural accessibility.

Secondly, I want to think further about the actual changes to the words used at key points in the service. Have essential things been lost, or is this simply a use of a ‘fresh register of language, with simplicity and directness’?

This then raises a third question at the heart of the whole debate. Tim does not quite tease this out explicitly, but the debate about language is eliding two issues. The first is the one of culture: how do we make theological language which is in a middle-class, highly literate register accessible to Christians in other subcultures. But the second sneaks in on its coat-tails: are we trying to make Christian theological language accessible to people who are not actually part of the community of faith?

Those who are suspicious that the text are making the second of these moves will be alarmed by one key premise of the new texts: that they are designed for use in a stand alone service, rather than as part of regular Christian worship. As Tim points out, ‘Whilst such separate services are not encouraged by the Canons of the Church of England (see Canon B21), they are a significant part of the reality of the Church.’ But many of us believe that this fundamentally changes what baptism is about—from the rite of admission to the community of faith to a rite of passage as a naming ceremony. This dilemma is illustrated nicely by Tim’s closing joke:

Before performing a baptism, the priest approached the young father and said solemnly, ‘Baptism is a serious step. Are you prepared for it?’ ‘I think so,’ the man replied. ‘My wife has made appetizers and we have a caterer coming to provide plenty of sandwiches and cakes for all of our guests.’

‘I don’t mean that,’ the priest responded. ‘I mean, are you prepared in spirit?’ ‘Oh, sure,’ came the reply. ‘I’ve got a keg of beer and a case of whiskey.’

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 09.20.54Tim then comments:

There is indeed a gulf between many people outside of the Church of England and those who inhabit it comfortably. In some places this gulf is wider than others. The church is culturally middle class and those who work with its liturgies are highly literate. Not every community in Britain sits easily with this. There is a tendency sometimes for a degree of superiority to creep in.

We need to engage with these questions, and anyone conducting baptisms will need to engage with these texts. Tim’s booklet provides an essential guide to doing that effectively, and can be ordered post free (in the UK) from the Grove website.

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10 thoughts on “What are the Additional Baptism texts doing?”

  1. There were two baptisms in our parish on Easter Day. Each was a glorious occasion and the new texts were extremely appropriate, for one candidate was Chinese and the other has a learning difficulty. The new texts really helped and supported each of these people.

  2. O/T here – but thanks for coming to Canterbury yesterday, I appreciated your words and even learned a couple of new things!

    We had an adult baptism service here on Easter Sunday evening with the participation of the Archbishop of Cty participating – must be a new trend nationally!

  3. Thanks so much for raising this, Ian.

    I think this is a good example of how liturgy and theology are very much intertwined – somehow any changes seem to change the overall message. Some of it is good and helpful, but I’m very concerned that removing references to the spiritual battle gravely weakens the liturgy – no matter what the good intent, in my opinion it’s been holed close to the waterline.

    You raise a very pertinent point about the missional role of liturgy. Is it there to express the views of the faithful, or to reach out to those outside the community of faith? I think there’ll always be a tension, but the Anglican norm has been to lean towards the former..

    Incidentally, has anyone done any major research into spiritual beliefs among people on outer estates and especially whether the reference to spiritual battles is a particular stumbling block – that is, more of a stumbling block than for people of any other social strata? I was a curate in a parish with a sizeable working class estate and can’t remember meeting any baptism prep couples who had a particular problem with the IDEA of forces of darkness – in fact it was a different challenge, thinking of the number of mums in particular who were into crystals, tarot cards etc. I can, however, think of people who had been deeply impacted when clergy had carried out house blessings, cleared out poltergeists etc.

  4. Joining the Christian community is the issue for me. A few years ago, I took a couple through the Common Worship Baptism and Thanksgiving liturgy and implications. They chose Thanksgiving because they couldn’t keep the Baptismal Promises, in their view. BUT they joined a START course and then continued in a weekly home group, every week for well over a year. They were still going when I moved on. Their work prevented them from attending on Sundays.

    In my view, they were keeping the promises more than most who did come most Sundays.

  5. We battered our heads against these texts and indeed, baptism policy in general, during our active ministry (now retired and still battering!). I raised the issue in the 90s, when Colin Buchanan was a member of the Liturgical Commission, explaining that we worked with a non-book culture where people had no idea that the words they were required to read actually meant something. No matter how carefully we explained them – and we had a thorough and consistent baptism policy – they never seemed to reach the heart of the parents and godparents and did not help to bring about a discernible change in spiritual outlook and growth in faith. It’s easy to conclude that baptism of infants when parents appear to have no Christian faith and express no interest in it, is putting the cart before the horse. I have long advocated a much wider use of T and B. This can be offered to all comers, can be personalised, is biblical, and can be used as a stepping stone to a more in-depth exploration of the Christian faith.

    • Dear Gill
      I am a product of Infant baptism back in the 1950’s. Totally unchurched God began to call me at age 13. It took till age 35 to actually give my life to Christ, but He never gave up on me. God always keeps His promises. The life of that child baptised is a journey which none of us can fully understand.

      • Tricia. Whatever you may have thought regarding your Baprism in infancy, you need to know that you were gifted with the Holy Spirit at that time – whether you ‘felt’ or understood it or not. Baptism really is more asbout what God does than what we do. Later opportunity is given ion Confirmation (for Anglicans) to personally accept the given gift.

        However, I affirm with our host here, this statement in his report:

        “Tim offers sympathetic support for the removal of language of ‘fighting’ as a ‘soldier’ of Christ, which some might question, and is not worried about the loss of the devil”

        Although I do wonder how he (Ian Paul) and other consrvative Evangelicals feel about this. After all, fear of the devil is part and parcel of con/evo mission, is it not?

        • Dear Father Ron
          As I was a baby I did not have any thoughts about my baptism! And as I came from a non church going family I only learned anything about religion in RE at school. But my original point was exactly as you say “Baptism is more about what God does than what we do”. From that time I was His and he began to call me. I was confirmed in the Church of England at the age of 35 following my baptism of the Spirit at Billy Graham Sheffield in 1985. I was making the point of the value of infant baptism.
          I have been in church today where an infant Baptism was performed, this being the Churchwarden’s grandchild she will no doubt gain an earlier understanding then me! However it did strike me that the most important part of the liturgy is:
          Do you turn to Christ
          Do you repent of your sins
          Do you renounce evil
          The ancient cry of the church is Jesus is Lord! And I think these three questions require a heart response (of course given by the adults, but as in my case accepted by God). With the necessity for there to be a response in adulthood.

  6. Oddly enough it is where here is a major gulf between words and understanding that I have the most productive baptism prep conversations. “Who do you want to be in control of your child’s life as the grow up” what is going to influence their decisions when they are teenager?
    Prep ends withe qestion “and what are you gong to do next?”
    Much harder are the socially smooth

  7. “There is a tendency sometimes for a degree of superiority to creep in.”

    This is a fatuous comment, and indicative of a naivety in how standards and norms work that is endemic in our culture but the church must resist if it is to avoid a wholesale slide into a nihilistic anything goes attitude.

    Look, if you have any kind of standard or norm of ‘how things should be done’ or ‘how things should be’ then you will necessarily create a superiority relationship between those who do it that way and those who don’t. The more so the more that you raise the standard and try to inject any kind of quality into it. Obviously middle class people will tend to conform more to the standards, that’s a large part of what makes them middle class. Accessibility is all well and good, but at some point you have to accept that to have a standard or norm is to divide people into those who do it well and those who don’t do it so well (but might do it better with help), and stop lowering the standards and destroying the practices in a hopeless bid to become universally inclusive. Raise people up, don’t bring standards down – provided of course the standard is worth upholding (which it surely is with baptism). Don’t reflect reality, make reality.

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