A Practical Assessment of the proposed new Baptismal Rite

Accessible Baptism? – by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes

As vicar of one of the designated experimental parishes, I have been sent the draft new options for the Church of England baptism service, which have recently caused some controversy. I’ve been asked to use them in baptisms here until the end of April, and submit feedback. I haven’t yet used them: our next baptisms, as it happens, aren’t until next month. But here are my thoughts so far.First, lets be clear that this is NOT ‘a new baptism service’. It is simply a handful of alternative texts for use at particular points in the existing service. This mix and match approach to our liturgy is a fairly fundamental feature of Common Worship. Good examples are the alternative authorised eucharistic prayers, and the seasonal provisions of the Times and Seasons volume. Even if these new baptism texts do end up being authorised, nobody will have to use them if they don’t like them or don’t think they fit their context.Second, I am pleased that we have them. I was on General Synod when the diocesan motion requesting such alternative provision was debated. I voted for it. Not because I dislike the current baptism service – I don’t – but because I agreed that it is not written in particularly accessible English. For some people, it is great. It works well for regular churchgoers, who find moving and resonant the layers of Biblical and liturgical references. It worked fine for the not-particularly-churchy families for whom I conducted baptisms in Durham University: academic families, or graduates of the College, who were well versed in appreciating complex texts and enjoyed grand, rolling phrases even if (or perhaps sometimes because) they didn’t quite understand them. It works fine for some of the families whose baptisms I have conducted here.

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….

            Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, a parish priest in the English Diocese of Durham, author, academic and former Member of the Church of England General Synod, here writes of her experience of conducting Baptisms in the Church of England, and the fact that she considers the newly-proposed Rite of Baptism, which will be an option for use in the Church of England, has many redeeming features. Not the least of these will be the fact that it avoids the sort of archaic language that might put-off people who may not understand references, for instance, to the renunciation of ‘the devil’ – as being a relic of another age.
            In my own experience, the ordinary person’s understanding of evil is attached to the fact of our common human capacity to accept its presence in the world as part of our fallen human nature – and not just at the discretion of the activity of a horned and cloven-footed entity over whom we have no control.
            Baptism is a gift of grace from God, accessed by those who agree to its benefits. And if those benefits are carefully and properly enunciated before they are accessed (after careful teaching by the baptising priest or deacon of parents and god-parents) then the Holy Spirit can be trusted to impart God’s wonderful gift.
            Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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1 Response to A Practical Assessment of the proposed new Baptismal Rite

  1. I understand the call for accessibility of language in Liturgy, in this case of the baptismal Rite.
    I did chuckle to myself when the phrase the language of “Eastenders”.When Eastenders as a word had a different connotation for Anglicans;those who practised ” ad orientem” in the celebration of the Eucharist in the CofE and beyond.Forgive the “very in” humour.

    As a keen observer of liturgy,especially Anglican liturgy,I do sound one warning call,and it relates to the fact that it could be said that for Anglicans so much of what we believe is enshrined in our liturgies-lex orandi lex credendi.So recognising and respecting the intent behind revision,I say “take care” not so much in terms of language, but rather as to doctrine;because what we believe is also a gift of grace from God.
    A certain Archbishop did his very best to muddy the waters in Eucharistic doctrine viz.The mass of 1552;sufficient but deficient on clarity.It was Bishop Gardiner who commented that the Mass of 1549 was patient with Catholic doctrine;so let any baptismal revisions be also patient with catholic doctrine.The liturgy for baptism was the least muddied by T. Cranmer of all the reformed liturgies.
    We have in the Anglican Communion owing to the peculiar nature of our ecclesiology,a habit of fiddling with liturgy along “party” lines.a party does not make a Church as J.H.Newman reminded us.
    So let us fill our churches with new baptisms as it all starts with Baptism.Personally i have felt for many years that apart from all the ills that society is beset with;a lack of Baptism( dwindling adherence) is not helpful.
    Pray that revisers also pray for the grace of wisdom..
    Jesus pray. Mary pray

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