Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Baptism - getting down with the Kids ...

... And out there with the people is causing some controversy amongst some, who prefer not to be named, and others who do - the most notable being Michael Nazir Ali, former bishop of Rochester.

Many years ago when the earth was and I was younger I attended a training session on occasional offices during which we were asked to describe how we liked, and did, ours. Having complied, the person leading the weekend took us to task for setting aside the solemnity and import of the service for some shallow popularist entertainment. Where some saw energy and dialogue, the making accessible of the service and the clergy being one with the people before us the leader saw something shallow and almost meaningless.

One of those present, feeling themselves to be under attack, defended themselves vigorously by saying that this was the way forward and that 'If we wanted them to come we needed to do it in ways that made them feel safe, comfortable and 'entertained'!' And that was where the touch paper was lit!!!  And the firework show continues ...

There is in this baptism issue a collision of posturing, misrepresentation, misunderstanding and extremely clever people (they know who they are) and this, fuelled by an ever-friendly press, makes for some great reading and - I was going to say 'a storm in a tea cup'  but let's be positive and say instead- an opportunity for clarifying what baptism is all about.

What is Baptism?
Is it the beginning of the Christian journey - the initiation we claim it to be - or something else? Does our paedobaptist (we baptise babies) position add to the challenges or merely make the issues for all who present themselves more apparent?

Is it an invitation to embrace, and takes the first teetering steps of, faith or an invitation for some to make promises they have no real intention of keeping as payment for a nice service, a piece of paper conferring entry to a church school, an opportunity for a party and have conferred on some the honour of being a 'godparent'.

We baptise because Jesus' earthly ministry began with baptism and we take up our oil, water and candle to emulate Him (I favour the Eastern rite which adds communion to the equation, but that's for another day). Baptism involves the indwelling of God's Holy Spirit (Chrism), a ritual washing away of sin (water) and a passing from darkness to light (candle) - with the call to walk in that light (God's word being a lamp to guide our feet and a light for our path). This defines our 'mechanical actions' but we have the words to contend with too.

The Words
Because, quite often, we baptise those who are unable to answer for themselves (babies) we involve third parties (sponsors or godparents) to speak for them and they, in doing so are making promises to God, but do they intend to keep them? Ecclesiastes 5 tells us that it is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfil it.

Now some tell me that what others say is up to them but I wonder how my being complicit in encouraging, permitting and abetting others to make a vow there's no intention of keeping goes down with God; I wonder how a God feels about them that make it too!

Ever experienced the joy of the half-hearted baptism party? The mumbled, often inaudible responses, some on their mobiles ('No it ain't finished yet, put the water on in about five minutes....') and others  obviously disengaged. Would 'more accessible' words change all this?

This is the root of the present debate: Are we turning the baptism service into something that is so 'watered down' that it is no longer fit for service or making the service it real for those that come (the few that do - I understand we 'do' no more than 10% of the sprogs on offer these days)?

I have to be honest and, nailing my colours to the font, say that I think that there is a great danger that we are looking to overcome something that has less to do with the IMD (Index of Multiple Deprivation) position that those coming to church for baptism occupy (which is, by the way, a really nice and polite way of saying that they're 'thick, chavvy or ignorant') and perhaps more about the way the clergy understand, instruct and deliver the service.

The words of the service in the common Worship volume are, as I understand it, totally accessible (and open to our own adaptation should it be needed) and having brought the candidate into play, the first element- the Decision - is not at all bad. It goes like this:

'In baptism, God calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light.
To follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him. Therefore I ask:
Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?
I reject them.
Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?
I renounce them.
Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?
I repent of them.
Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?
I turn to Christ.
Do you submit to Christ as Lord?
I submit to Christ.
Do you come to Christ,
I come to Christ.'

The published format  of the new 'accessible' service gives us:
'In baptism, God calls us to a new live. We die with Christ to all that destroys and rise to live with him for ever. Therefore I ask: 
Do you reject evil?
I reject evil.
And its many forms?
And all its many forms.
And all its empty promises?
And all its empty promises.

Do you turn to Christ?
I turn to Christ.
And put your trust in him?
And put my trust in him?
And promise to follow him for ever?
And promise to follow him for ever.
Do you believe in God the father, source of all being and life, the one for whom we exist
I believe and trust in him.'

So we've lost any reference to the devil (which should stop the sniggering!) and rebellion against God (isn't that religion?) and dumbed down 'evil'  and the effects of sin and even though I can understand the views of both camps in this element of the service alone - I have to say that  the 'promise to follow him for ever' is perhaps best enacted with 'fingers crossed' in the rubric!

I personally find nothing in the baptism service that cannot be dealt with by good preparation and explanation during that preparation and during the service for those who come to the service on the day.

I think the opportunity presented it the 'over the water' bit as it stands:

'We thank you, almighty God, for the gift of water to sustain, refresh and cleanse all life.'
How hard is this to understand?
 'Over water the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.'
Genesis one - God is Creator - God is Trinity, three-in-one

'Through water you led the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.'
Excellent  - 
redemption, Pascal lamb, Passover - all found here

"In water your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us from the death of sin to newness of life.'
Wow - what's so hard here - Incarnacy, obedience, baptism, repentance, new life in Christ!

'We thank you, Father, for the water of baptism.
In it we are buried with Christ in his death. Dying to sin, rising to new lie, identification with Christ
By it we share in his resurrection.  Take the ticket and get on the ride - no universalist stuff here
Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit. Nicodemus would be proud of you guys

Therefore, in joyful obedience to your Son,we baptise into his fellowship those who come to him in faith. Obedience - ooh, a naughty word like submission

Now sanctify this water that, by the power of your Holy Spirit, they may be cleansed from sin and born again. Renewed in your image, may they walk by the light of faith and continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Lord; to whom with you and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, now and for ever.

Sorry  - think we might be trying to fix that which isn't broken and in doing so rather than make baptism accessible probably render it quite limited and perhaps non-efficacious. The intentions are great but the reality is . . .

If we take into account the fact that we no longer have a proper creed in the baptism, preferring to have an 'affirmation' (easier to agree than to make a statement for ourselves isn't it?), and now want to remove the potential for telling the stories of our faith and the history that leads to do as we do (or perhaps did in the light of the changes we keep making) I do find myself in the 'conservative' camp here (but then seeing some who bill themselves as progressive of late I really would want to be associated as being one, with them, or of them!).

A long post for me (27 minutes of splurge) - I hope others find it of value - at least I understand where I am on this issue now :-)


ps. Just to reiterate (because I have deleted the comment that this relates to) this is not 'new' liturgy - take a look at  GS1816A it is merely an invitation to consider making changes - as we can anyway - in the baptism service. It's not being 'enforced' - Justin is not what you called him (but you might just be) - liturgy has to be consistent and yet remain contextually accessible (I hate the use of 'contemporary' here). So now you know!


Anonymous said...

The reality is that those who come have no knowledge of church and don't want it

The new service is a great piece of keeping the customer satisfied and opens the door to future relationship and eventual coming to faith

I think you are wrong and shortsighted here

Nick Sharp said...

This is good stuff, and I find myself agreeing with a great deal of it. However, I struggle with using s liturgy as a vehicle for teaching, preferring to use the sermon for that purpose.
For me, the prayer over the water is the least helpful part - sounding like mumbo jumbo, full of unexplained references, taking forever.
Don't tell anyone this, but I never say it anyway...

Graham Criddle said...

Hi Vic
Fascinating article - and I wasn't aware that this was being discussed in the Anglican community.

Looking at both forms it strikes me that they both use words and concepts which are fairly alien to those who are not regularly in church.

From the common worship volume:
"being called out of darkness"
"dying to sin and rising to new life"
"turning to Christ as Saviour"

From the accessible service:
"being called to a new life"
"die with Christ"
"put your trust in Him"

These all mean a lot to me and I believe them and preach them and talk about them. But they do use "Christian language" and assume some knowledge and engagement.

You are right in that preparation beforehand can cover a lot of this but that wouldn't help those who are just there for the service so you either end up explaining everything there, which may divert from what you are there to do, or leave people confused or disengaged.

I have it easier as most of the children we dedicate (I know its not the same!) are from church families and so I can normally assume and rely on some context and background.

All a symptom of the majority of people in this country no longer having any Christian context which is something we will need to continue to grapple with.

Thanks for helping me reflect on some of this again.

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Wow! Two early hits on the replies.

Nick: In the 3:30pm service I grew up with there was no sermon and so the didactic element of explanation of elements and words as we went provided space for this. That said, surely all liturgy is a component of the sermon as it leads into and away from it and underpins it too?

I think to deliver water bit, and the rest, without explanation present potential for disengagement and if

Anon: We don't inform or instruct because the customer doesn't want it and hope for a future relationship I think we sell god short, miss an opportunity and leave people with false expectations and realities.

Great points and thought - thank you for making me think whilst waiting for visitor.


Anonymous said...

I think you're just a bit of a stuck in the past idiot!

You want a rigid faith and to do church the way it has always been done because you cant see that we need to reinvent ourselves or die.

Bob M said...

Condemned by your own words - mind you it's good to be trendy and out there isn't it? Sad thing being Anon probably believes what they say and yet the ministry to those outside our doors, folk religion aside, is to instruct and inform. Not be one of them or be liked.

Popular is not always right - clapping oneself if the province of monkets

SoupD said...

There are, without doubt, many idiots in the church (CofE has no monopoly!), but - knowing Vic's work as a Missioner, his enthusiasm for Fresh Expressions, his engagement with those of a non- church background (mainly but by no means exclusively in the military setting) and having sat through baptisms he has performed - I have to say the term does not apply here.

Unfortunately, throwing an insult like that on the basis that you simply disagree with his point of view has a definite boomerang effect and says more about the one using it than the one at whom it is aimed. Grown up debate does not descend into ad hominem.

Moving on, I'm all for clarity in language and have moved around in several circles where a local vocabulary is used (e.g. local government and Social Services); it is understood fully by those in the circle, but needs some explanation to those outside... reminds me of the Series of Unfortunate Events books where the author uses a word then writes 'a word which in this instance means...'
We have to be aware that we are in a communication industry and the words and meanings we use have to be clear and - yes - accessible. However, we are also in the redemption business, and so any changes to language must not weaken or change the meaning of what we say.

My issue with the 'we have to make it accessible' is summed up in the first comment: [it's about] keeping the customer satisfied. I'm afraid that, too often, what is designated as accessible actually means 'popular'. The church today is so afraid of being 'unpopular'. Why?!

John 6:66 'From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.' Even Jesus was deserted because 'this teaching is too hard.'(v 60)

And what of his interaction with Peter in Matthew 16:23 (Mark 8.33)? When we remove disagreeable or uncomfortable words from our liturgy, are we thinking the things of God or merely considering human concerns?

SoupD said...

This is worth reading and explains a lot. She has the same disquiet over the decision, but provides a very good apologetic for the alternative texts.


Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Soupie - you're a star!

Graham - thanks for comments (and Bob too).


underground pewster said...

I had a priest (TEC) who would deny the existence of Satan in his sermon and then perform a baptism and ask the person or sponsor to renounce that very same Satan. The words in our BCP are, "Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?" I suspect the move to remove references to the Devil in the CofE are more driven by revisionist teaching in seminary than by desires to become more culturally sensitive and to improve accessibility to the language.

And then of course, darker powers could be at work...

Vic Van Den Bergh said...

Strangely enough - I think I might just agree with you on that - I find so many modern views and attitudes actually deny the credibility of the Christian faith - sadly I also find them in the very people who one might have thought would be opposing them.

thanks for comment,

Happy New Year,