Contested christenings

The font in Santa Maria Formosa, Venice
The font in Santa Maria Formosa, Venice

People give very different meanings to baptism. There are those Christians, historically in the Baptist tradition, but increasingly within the Church of England, who stress the human act of faith. For them baptism is appropriate only for those old enough to make a meaningful decision, and it is little more than a public affirmation of individual faith. (Incidentally, can a person with severe learning difficulties be baptized in a so-called believer’s baptism church? I don’t know the answer to this one.)

At the other end of the spectrum, there is that decreasing number of what we might call cultural Christians. (In 2014, those requesting baptism for their children represented 16% of all live births.) For many of them, asking for christening (as they almost invariably call it) for their children may be important, but the reasons are hard to pin down. It seems to be a variable mix of indefinable belief and gratitude, family tradition, superstition, and increasingly a celebration of the new family as substitute for a wedding where the parents for various reasons – including saving money for the kind of wedding that they’ve seen in the brochures – are not yet married.

The twenty-seventh of the Anglican articles was written for a different age.

XXVII. Of Baptism
Baptism is not only a sign of profession, and mark of difference, whereby Christian men are discerned from others that be not christened, but it is also a sign of Regeneration or new Birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive Baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be sons of God by the Holy Ghost, are visibly signed and sealed; Faith is confirmed, and Grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. The Baptism of young Children is in any wise to be retained in the Church, as most agreeable with the institution of Christ.

This points to baptism as an effective sign, that truly conveys what it signifies, and so puts more emphasis on what God does through his Spirit. Baptismal liturgies speak in terms of this effectiveness without qualification. Immediately after the baptism and signing with the cross, the BCP introduces the Lord’s Prayer like this:

Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this Child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits; and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this Child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning.

The words of the rite, I think, properly reflect New Testament language about baptism generally, which always speaks about the sign of water as accomplishing the work of the Spirit which it signifies. In the language they are indivisible. Clearly they are not quite so indivisible in practice.

Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8:14-17)

Here the sign has been given, but does not seem to effected what it signified. Peter and John are dispatched to put this anomaly right. The opposite also occurs.

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:45-47)

Here the gift is given, and immediately followed by the giving of the visible sign of that gift. Peter’s response to seeing the gift of the Spirit come on the unbaptised is to get the water quickly. They may happen separately, but Peter’s reaction shows the sense that they belong together.

In both cases, however, there is a sense in which Luke is narrating exceptional events, the conversions respectively of the Samaritans and the Gentiles. Nonetheless the exceptions stand as evidence both of the separation of sign and signified and the fact that such a separation is anomalous. The church’s language and use of baptism needs to reflect this intimate nexus of the sign with the effect it signifies.

Many arguments over the baptism of children have roiled the waters of the font. One of the lesser used arguments in favour, but which I regard as one of the more significant, is that Christian parents would from the first share with their child their relationship with God, and central to that is the expression of that relationship in prayer. But the means and mode by which we relate to God, and address him as Abba, our Father, is the gift of the Spirit. Yes, prayer is also a human activity, but it is first a divine relationship into which we are invited and initiated. Baptism as the effectual sign of the Spirit’s gift should be administered to anyone who will be brought up learning to pray.

But that leaves just one little word in the article which points to all our many problems: “rightly”. “They that receive Baptism rightly” says the article, without in any way spelling out what “rightly” means. The context of the prayer book’s liturgy indicates that it includes the administration of water, either by immersion or pouring, with the Trinitarian formula accompanying it. Incidentally the BCP has a lovely rubric for immersion: “(if they shall certify him that the Child may well endure it) he shall dip it in the Water discreetly and warily.” Immersion is the first option, pouring the alternative.

It would seem from the whole rite, and the mediaeval background, that this is also about intending to do what the church does. And in that lies the problem for today. There is, to put it charitably, some considerable room for doubt about whether many parents and godparents intend to do what the church does when they bring their children for baptism. Of course, their intention is not the only one that counts, but it is somewhat significant for the living out of the rite as the child grows up. At the same time, we have to acknowledge as a very vivid reality the effect that refusing baptism has, both on people’s image of the church, and on the image of God as rejecting them and their child.

Currently, most Anglican churches and clergy find themselves in a no-win situation: the orogeny of cultural mutation has displaced all the old familiar landmarks. We do not yet have good maps for this terrain.

Unlike some of those I have heard talk about the christening project, I do not think the answer lies (as one market researcher put it while that project was in its infancy) “increasing the Church of England’s share of the baby market.” The decreasing number of parents seeking baptism offers an opportunity to begin to restore its practice as a sacrament of initiation, not a celebration of birth. By all means use enquiries as an opportunity, but an opportunity to share God’s story, not to improve the baptism statistics.

In the long-term, I think, we must work with a twofold approach. The first strand resists the creeping “Baptistization” of the Church of England. We need to uphold and renew the essential affirmation that, in order to bring their children up as Christians, parents should have them baptized. I don’t really understand why we have so readily if tacitly accepted the growth of Baptist theology in the Church of England.

But I think we must equally work towards the position that parents who are not themselves praying and worshipping members of the Church must either themselves become so, or instead receive a rite of dedication and blessing for their child. However, that is a long-term goal, and in many (most?) places in this country with its long history of urging baptism, that time is probably not yet here.

All parishes can do, I think, unless they want to run the risk of harming the Church’s mission, is seek to maximize opportunities for preparation and evangelization of the parents, both before and after the baptism, and leave all else with God, whose sacraments in any case they ultimately are.