What if we give up infant baptism as a sacrament? I don’t mean Methodism should become believer’s baptism only or should stop doing them. I imagine we could carry out many infant baptisms as we do weddings. Nowadays, weddings are simply quasi-religious ceremonies we agree to perform on behalf of the state (or, as a ‘service to the community’) for those couples who want more intimacy than a signing in the registry office, but not at the expense that many hotels/other venues charge.
Churches see weddings as a ‘reaching out’ opportunity and even if the couple has no interest in faith or will not ever come back to the church, I generally have a good time meeting the couple and it’s a fun day. All I ask is for the opportunity to share my understanding of Christian marriage (as an egalitarian!) and that they don’t ask to remove the Christological language. I believe that the couple intends to keep the vows they make to each other and love each other. But in most cases no one pretends this more than a ‘secular union’.
While infant baptism serves no state function as weddings do, many seek out having their children ‘christened’ (baptismal language rarely if ever enters in). I don’t get that many requests, as often people find their way to the Anglican church before ever getting around to the Methodists. But even some of Methodists colleagues have talked about the wonderful experiences and people truly seeking to understand what’s going on in some way.
I haven’t had those experiences. Most of mine have been done because they want to get the kid in a faith school, want to appease grandmother, or simply think it’s the done thing. As far as the vows, they of course want to love their children (I have not doubt about it!) but have no real thoughts about what it means to bring up the child in the faith and only a handful of the churches could carry out their vows to assist the child (not all churches have an active Sunday school or other children’s activities). Nor as far as I have seen are parents bothered that the churches don’t have the resources to do this.
An alternative that’s been floated is to talk about having a service of thanksgiving. What parents want is for a time to come together to celebrate the family – and why wouldn’t the church want to be a part of it? But, when I say it’s not a christening and there’s no water involved, we go right back to baptism. Because I struggle with the ‘if it moves baptise it’ understanding, I have felt the need to defend baptism in some way – even if in the end I comply.
So, why don’t we simply stop worrying about where it takes place (in church) and when (in worship)? Why don’t we focus on the parents loving the child and not really worry about what happens with the faith side of it? Why don’t we adapt the service to one that simply focuses on that love and God’s love for the child? Then we could drop the language of bringing someone into the church and drop the vows that keep them trying to live up to that language. It could provide a moment of reaching out to the family with God’s love, giving the family the service they want, but not push baptismal theology to breaking point.
Do you have any thoughts?
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.
The other day I downloaded this video as part of iTunes 12 Days of Christmas giveaway. I had never heard of the group, so I might be late for the party (my wife, when I showed it t her, said, ‘Oh, yeah! I like Kings of Leon!’). I downloaded it the same day that I read the Baptism of Christ in The Bible in One Year. The song is called ‘Radioactive’ and has great baptismal imagery.
I love the words:
It’s in the water…
It’s in the story
It’s where you came from
The sons and daughters
In all their glory
It’s gonna shape them
And when they clash
And come together
And start rising
Just drink the water
Where you came from…
Where you came from