Changing the Language of the Baptism Service

News from the Anglican Synod tells us that the Church of England have voted to change the language of the Baptism service. According to the Guardian, the CofE will ‘offer shorter, snappier baptisms in “BBC1 language”‘. I’m not sure what they mean by ‘BBC1 language’, but BBC1 is the main television station for the BBC. It offers the most mainstream programming. So I assume it means ‘everyday’.

I am ambivalent and cautious about this. First, I have felt that the Methodist’s baptismal service (close in language to the Anglican version) is rather long and could use an update. But I’m not interested in making it ‘snazzier’, whatever that means. I would ask the question of what experience do they want to relate with lapsed Anglicans by taking out the metaphors in there (water/spirit birth, slaves in Egypt). I think that many churches (and I will hold up my hand here and admit fault) do not take the time to teach the meaning of what we are saying (either before the baptism or during).

Second, I think that we (at least the Methodists) baptise too casually. I am in the minority on this, and Methodists tend to be a ‘baptise all who ask’ people. We want it to be easier for people and call it ‘grace’. I have some sympathy for this, especially for children who I know are born into awful situations and I want to show them grace. But, I once heard Dr. Geoffrey Wainwright say that if we are going to base this understanding baptism in prevenient grace, then why not take a hosepipe into the streets and ‘baptise’ all we can? I think we can offer grace with other means, and also allow a family to give thanks to God for a child without having them make vows that baptism requires. So if we attempt to offer grace by the usual baptism service I think it loses the context of what that grace means.

I mention this because I see the Guardian article quote figures of decreasing baptisms. Obviously, in this the Anglicans see this as an issue that needs remedy. I don’t. I’m not bothered by the fewer numbers that are seeking baptism for their children. Rather, I would see us look at how we might increase our adult baptism numbers.

Paul tells us that baptism is a call to die with Christ. This isn’t language that is mean to be attractive. While I would like to see an update, I do hope that it won’t be at the expense of the theology behind it. In some sense, the experience of baptism doesn’t relate to us, but calls us to a new experience that doesn’t always fit into what our life has been to up to now. I hope to see it in language people understand, but can’t help but think that what is behind this is a way to make it more attractive.

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6 thoughts on “Changing the Language of the Baptism Service

  1. There are many problems and issues with baptism. For the CofE it is grounded in the fact that they are legally tied into serving their parishes; and so they have to baptise, marry, etc., anyone who approaches them. They do not have the ‘get out’ clauses that other denominations would use. Another issue is that many other churches have sought to follow them in their practice of widespread paedo-baptism, as you allude to in your post.

    I have an issue with this practice. I am not a Baptist by denomination, but am certainly one who advocates believer’s baptism – which does not necessarily mean adult baptism – in practice. The problem I have is that the Biblical imperative for baptism comes from both John and Jesus who both begin their ministries with the call for people to, “Repent and be baptised.”

    This act of repentance by definition implies some sort of understanding and coming to faith. Of course, there is room for debate on what understanding, etc. means, but it does not, to me anyway, include babes in arms. I understand that there are passages in Scripture that speak of households being baptised, which are then used as a basis for those who advocate paedo-baptism, but I think this is based upon interpretation, or even reading between the lines, rather than clear textual ‘proof’ as it were.

    In my mind, baptism was never meant to be an evangelistic tool. It was never set out as a sacrament by which we would draw, encourage, and/or entice people into faith. Rather, it was a sacrament that people came to after they had entered into faith in some way. I feel that the church would benefit from teaching the sacrament of baptism as being a step an individual takes at a point in their own faith journey that they feel to be right, rather than as something the church imposes on infants, or simply does in acceding to the demands of outsiders who are ignorant of the true meaning behind it.

    We would also do well to draw people away from the foolish and misguided belief that is still deep within societal memory that baptism is some sort of magical, or superstitionary, act that works to save a child from hellfire and damnation. Baptism in and of itself does nothing, it is a response to God’s love and grace, and that is why I believe it is best that it is given for believers as opposed to all and sundry.

  2. Martyn, thanks for the perspective on the CofE. I do forget those regulations. But, I do hear from a number of people coming to us after they have been told the requirements of the CofE. Maybe I heard (wrongly) in this proposal a desire to reduce those restrictions.

    With regard to what you say in the rest, I have a lot of sympathy for that. Much more than I would have had 7 years ago. I had always wondered why Geoffrey Wainwright thought the way he did on baptism (he won’t say he’s against infant baptism, but he would want us to think hard about it) until I came over here and understand the situation. I did baptise my children, but I will raise them as Christians until that time if they choose to reject it.

    And, the situation in Methodism is that we are paedobaptists, so that’s the situation I have to work with. But, there is a part of me that wishes we could move on to a believer’s baptism as well, for many of the reasons you name.

  3. Than you for this, Will; I find myself resonating with your thoughts. I find it particularly interesting that much of the C of E (and even my own Anglican Church of Canada) seems to think that you can evangelise as a result of baptism, rather than baptising as a result of evangelism.

  4. I guess what I meant by that (clarity is not always my strong suit!) is that nowadays people come for baptism and we try to evangelise them, whereas in the early church people were evangelised, asked ‘What must we do?’ and this led to baptism.

    Thus the emphasis was on baptism as the door to the gospel and the riches of the (common) Christian life, rather than the presentation of the gospel being a hoop people had to jump through on the way to their real goal – getting the baby baptised.

  5. No, the clarity problem was mine! I re-read my comment and see where I was wrong. I meant the ‘we’ being the church, and it is the church that misunderstands the difference. I hope ‘we’ (the church) can relearn the distinction you just laid out.

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