Accessible Baptism? – by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes
But not for all of them. If the average reading age of the congregation is not high, it makes sense to use simple language. And simple syntax too. For some reason, presumably in an attempt to achieve a suitably ‘religious’ register, some of Common Worship uses very archaic grammatical constructions, even where the vocabulary is straightforward. I do not see any value in archaisms for archaisms sake, in religion or elsewhere.
Quite often, I have found myself having to spend as much of the service explaining the service as taking it. The best one was the service when I realised all the baptism service books were in the other church, and had to improvise much of the service, safe in the knowledge that at least the child was validly baptised as I know the right words for that bit! That service went really well, and I started looking again at the words of the service, and the alternatives….
The Durham Diocesan Liturgical Committee, of which I am a member, last year approved a baptism and confirmation service for use on ecumenical occasions, when some or all of those being baptised and/or confirmed are members of joint Anglican/Methodist churches. We used it in the Cathedral service at which two boys from my parish were baptised and confirmed at Pentecost last year, and I really liked the Methodist form of the Decision which it uses.
‘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 turn away from all that denies the love and goodness of God?
By the grace of God, I do.
Do you turn to God, trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and in the Holy Spirit as Helper and Guide?
By the grace of God, I do.’
This keeps the turning from/turning to pattern of the liturgy, and in the minister’s introduction keeps some traditional phraseology, but makes the questions simple and direct. I use this whenever I can, for preference.
And I must say that I am not at all keen on the alternative decision that has been proposed. However, the remainder of the texts I think are a good job. The prayer over the water is short and simple, but incorporates the ‘big story’ of salvation. The bullet point approach to the commission is fresh and sensible.
Many of the criticisms of the new liturgical material, it seems to me, are criticisms of the very idea of having accessible liturgy. As if baptism was meant to be a test of a family’s ability to understand complex phrasing about salvation, rather than a moment at which the church welcomes and blesses their heartfelt, but perhaps only half-understood and almost entirely inarticulate desire to turn to God.
When I first came to this parish, the one stipulation I made at interview was that I could change the baptism policy. A policy had been inherited which said anyone seeking baptism for their child had to have a thanksgiving service first. This is of course actually contrary to canon law, and in practice meant many families were left baffled and indignant that their request for baptism was refused. It also takes little account of the sociological function of baptism in many families, as an occasion for celebration of the birth of a child – people were left confused as to whether they were meant to have two parties! More seriously, a great tradition of lay baptism preparation had lapsed, as the thanksgiving service had become assumed to function as preparation for baptism.
Most importantly for me, though, such a policy seems fundamentally opposed to what baptism is about theologically – welcoming adults and children alike into the body of Christ. If we baptise infants at all, it is at least partly as a sign that God’s grace is freely given to all who ask for it, and does not depend on the quality of our understanding of the faith or the level of our discipleship. If it did, not only would we not baptise infants, the logical extension would be not to baptise any others unable to communicate their level of right understanding of the faith. There have been movements over the course of history to restrict baptism to ‘believers’ only – the most obvious contemporary example is the Baptist church. But – in no particular order – the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican traditions have always resisted such a move, precisely because infant baptism symbolises that faith is God’s gift to us, not something we achieve.
Baptism is meant to be accessible. We don’t have to fully understand what is happening in the sacrament – how many of us would pass that test? But at its heart, baptism is about pouring water on someone’s head and saying ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’. That is all that is needed for a valid baptism. So to argue that the words surrounding that are inadequate if they don’t contain every element of Christian vocabulary, or don’t tick every theological box, seems mean-spirited.
This is a first draft, for experimental use. It will doubtless get better as people write in with stories of what worked and what didn’t. But the aim, to have elements of the service that even those of low literacy can understand, is entirely laudable.
Remember, the early church was mocked by the literate intelligentsia of its day for having such bad literature as its Gospels….