Infant Baptism: An Anglican Model for Same Sex Blessings?
|No babies were harmed in the making of this blogpost|
As I looked out over the crowded church, something struck me.
I was saying, to a 100 non-churchgoers who had gathered to celebrate little baby X, that in the Church of England we baptise tiny babies because it shows that our acceptability to God doesn’t depend on anything we achieve.
What struck me anew on Sunday, was that it might be able to help us through our current debates about same sex blessings. Why?
Baptising infants has long been a contested practice. Indeed, my own church here in Durham before I arrived had a policy of only baptising the children of churchgoers. Those denominations which believe in only baptising adults or those old enough to answer for themselves – ‘believer’s baptism’ – have a great deal of sense on their side. Baptism makes you a member of the Church, so doesn’t it make sense to wait until someone can say whether that’s what they want? But the main churches of the Reformation – Calvinists, Lutherans, Anglicans – have always held fast to the principle that babies can indeed be baptised. Partly this is because these ‘magisterial’ denominations have always been partially concerned about civic cohesion as well as right belief, but partly it is due to the fundamental theological principle that we are saved by God’s grace, not by our own ‘works’.
That’s a theological principle that was the bedrock of the Reformation – but it predates it by a long way. It was core to Augustine’s understanding of Christianity, for example. The idea that we could, by working hard enough at being a good Christian, contribute to our own salvation was condemned as the Pelagian heresy by the early church councils.
So infant baptism quickly becomes a test case, almost a thought experiment, in whether we actually believe this or not. Do we actually believe that God’s grace is enough, or do we think that we have to do something towards our own salvation? For the early reformers such as Luther, that was anathema. Infant baptism became a cause celebre because it was seen as proof that a church really believed, or didn’t really believe, that God’s grace was all-sufficient for our salvation.
I think this is still the case. Baptising babies in a church full of non-churchgoers, however much preparation you have done with the parents and godparents in advance, always feels like an act of pure faith in God’s power to do something amazing with the tiny resources we offer.
Not doing so – insisting on the ability to make a coherent statement of faith, or insisting on a show of commitment from parents and family first – in many ways is more obvious. It is common sense. It is logical. Baptising a baby with none of this, just the bare minimum of parents and godparents being prepared to come to church and say or mumble some simple words of faith, feels risky. It feels transgressive. It is a powerful symbol of the Church’s trust in God’s power to save, regardless of how good or bad the individuals’ faith or practice might be or seem.
So I wonder whether this Anglican heritage of infant baptism provides a fresh lens through which to examine the question of blessing same sex partnerships?
The problem we have come up against repeatedly in our debates so far is the seemingly intractable one of whether same sex (sexually active) relationships are inherently sinful or not. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I can’t see our different views on that particularly fraught question being resolved anytime soon. And at the moment, our debates have been stuck there, with one side wanting blessings to prove that they aren’t sinful, and the other side determined not to be seen to be blessing sin.
But what if we take the infant baptism approach, and ask instead whether our practice in this matter reveals a theology of salvation by works, or by grace? Hard cases make bad law, we are told: yet in the case of infant baptism, that is exactly the approach that we have taken. Baptising babies is a ‘hard case’ in testing out whether we really believe that God can save regardless of any effort on our part.
At the risk of offending same sex couples who may feel hurt at being described as a hard case (I know I hated women being discussed as a problem, so I’m sorry), I suggest that a fruitful way forward in our current impasse may be to take this approach to blessing same sex relationships. That is, you might not think they are a good idea. You might think that they are sinful. You might think that they are not God’s plan. In which case, blessing them or not is a good test of whether you really believe that our salvation depends on God’s grace alone.
Personally, you see, I really think it does. I really think, and preach, that our salvation comes from what Jesus has done for us, not on what we earn for ourselves.
Believing that, it seems to me that baptising babies and blessing relationships that many in the church think are dodgy are both great ways of demonstrating that our belief as a Church is that God’s blessing doesn’t depend on our works-righteousness but on His grace alone.
Our statement that we were prepared to do these blessings as a Church could say explicitly that people remain divided about whether same sex relationships are sinful, but that we are taking this opportunity to make the point that it doesn’t matter whether they are or not. Every one of us is complicit in sin, some we recognise, some we don’t even see as sin, some we are ashamed of, some we are perversely proud of. We preach as a Church that God is greater than all this, and that what Jesus has done for us is sufficient for our salvation. Do we really believe that?