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.
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.'
'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.'
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!