The task of the Christian Church in ever-more secular western societies is murky. What is it that we’re doing? I suspect that lots of us ask that. Without the Christian consensus -however murky, inconsistent, and poorly formed – that pervaded Western culture until after World War II – it’s becoming increasingly hard to speak to a non-Christian culture, even before taking into consideration the various fractures and faction within Christianity. *bigsigh*
There are a lot of theories about what the Church may be, some of them rather grand if not grandiose. I find most useful St. Paul’s almost throwaway image that we are Christ’s ambassadors (II Cor 5). He tosses that out after a complex and deep discussion about our real home, our real place, and the image gains more depth the more you look at it. But it’s also one of Paul’s handy rules of thumb, I think. And I would like to refer to that while considering the Church of England’s now notorious “revision” of the Baptismal rite for children.
It’s first of all notable that the public discussion (and screaming and finger pointing) has largely been shaped by the British press, the first piranhas in the water, and that there is a context to the trial rite that should be considered. And maybe tossed overboard.
I wish I could say something like, “the baptism of children should mean the baptism of children of Christian parents, with Christian sponsors who will undertake to superintend the child’s Christian education, and who are members of the local community.” That would be nice. Happens less and less, I suppose, and maybe all the less often in the CofE. The motivation for the trial service is, according the its preface, to find more “accessible language” to explain baptism to an audience – scarcely a congregation – that is unfamiliar with Christian thought. Or so the preface states.
“Accessible language.” There’s a term that has so often been a Trojan horse for theological change that you would think that the revisionists would find another, one that was not such a klaxon. When I see “Accessible language” I sit back, fold my arms, and say “let’s see what you’re trying to get away with.”
The preface to the alternative rites has it that the impetus came from some clergy who have to deal with the situation of strangers who wander in demanding “christening” for their child, and who present as “godparents” folks who have even less connection to the Christian community. “In some instances there are few people present who have any real understanding of the Church’s language and symbolism. For the majority of those attending on such occasions, the existing provision can seem complex and inaccessible.” And this is of course one of the hard questions of pastoral ministry. Should one deny the benefits of baptism to a helpless child who may not have the opportunity again for many years (and one does think of Charles Williams’ novel in which a secret baptism of an infant helps to frustrate an evil man’s long plan many years later). In baptism we put a child into the hands of God; we may, collectively and individually, be privileged to be His agents, but, chiefly, we put the child into His hands.
So, puzzling over this situation and, maybe (or maybe not) hoping to make some sort of hay out of having in the church building some people who are not in the Church spiritually, one of those very English committees put together some language that, they say, is more “accessible” than that in Common Worship. Now so far this is very reasonable. Let’s see what is so incomprehensible about the baptismal rite in Common Worship, shall we?
The controversial bit seems to be as follows:
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, the way, the truth and the life?
I come to Christ.
This is certainly simple language. It’s simple, clear, and “accessible,” without posh language or ambiguity. It’s hard to see what is “inaccessible” if the audience speaks English at all.
Oops. Three little words, maybe. “Devil,” “sin,” and “submit.” Ah. Words that some folks might consider – fuddy duddy. Old fashioned. Unfashionable. Its hard to choose the word that is most repellant to the modern progressive. In fact, I wonder if the Baptismal vows have been even slightly incomprehensible since 1549, when they began (modernized) “Do you forsake the devil and all his works?” That was pretty clear.
Back to the trial rite.
The questions above are changed to this:
In baptism God calls us to new life.
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 all its many forms?
And all its many forms.
And all its empty promises?
And all its empty promises.
The candidates, together with their parents,
godparents and sponsors, may now turn to face the
font, a cross, or the large candle.
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.
So we don’t have “the devil,” we don’t have “sin,” and we don’t have “submit.” “Do you reject evil” has gotten all the attention and hand-wringing, but I think that the change from “Do you submit to Christ as Lord” to “And put your trust in him?” is sort of bigger, and the absence of “sin” is bigger still. “Sin,” however one understands it, clearly refers to our own actions. “Evil,” well, not so much. “Sin” is at least sort of defined from some sense of God’s law, some sense of His Kingdom. “Evil” can be almost anything.
One form of traditional Christian narrative (metanarrative? Do we still speak of metanarratives? I am so behind. If we do, can I has a metanarrative?) might be, “We are born into the kingdom of Satan and sin. Sin arises from listening to and acting upon the lies of the Father of Lies. To be freed of that grim kingdom and that heavy bondage, we must be born again in Jesus Christ, and the first step and first signifier of that rebirth, that change in allegiance, is baptism.”
So then I ask, what do we want to say to a bunch of people who only rarely come within range of a Christian voice? How do we, as His ambassadors, represent Jesus to them? Surely we find a way to tell the truth to them that does not set their teeth on edge. But remains true to the Truth. And the very first truth to bring home is that we are in pretty desperate straits, for which the only remedy is a new life in Jesus. Does the trial baptismal rite do this? I don’t think so. Is it better in any way than the rite in Common Worship? I doubt it. Is it more socially acceptable? Well, maybe by a little. Is being more socially acceptable a good thing? Probably not, in this case. The point should be to wake people up, not lull them. Is the uproar justified? Maybe. The alternative rite is only slightly more dilute than that in Common Worship.