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.’
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.
Follow me on Twitter @psephizo
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?