Is baptism being watered down?

Former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali has criticised a proposed alternative baptism service. This is being piloted in a number of churches before the Church of England decides whether to let it be used more widely. While the church should try to make worship widely accessible, changes that make getting baptised seem less meaningful should be avoided.

“Instead of explaining what baptism means and what the various parts of the service signify, its solution is to do away with key elements of the service altogether!” he wrote in the Mail on Sunday. The draft service, “almost entirely, does away with sin and the need to repent from its personal and social manifestations and consequences.” While he is often alarmist, his concerns on this issue should not be lightly dismissed.

According to an accompanying article by Jonathan Petre, parents and godparents would no longer be asked to “reject the devil and all rebellion against God” and “repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour”. Instead they would be asked to “‘reject evil”, and “all its many forms” and “all its empty promises”.

At present, when the sign of the cross is made on the foreheads of those being baptised, the minister says, “Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified,” and the congregation adds, “Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.” Reportedly, in the new version, this would be replaced with, “Do not be ashamed of Christ. You are his for ever,” to which the congregation would add, “Stand bravely with him. Oppose the power of evil, and remain his faithful disciple to the end of your life.”

Churches in the Anglican Communion allow infant baptism. I and many others were baptised as infants, learnt more about Christianity while growing up and gave informed consent to our baptismal vows when being confirmed.

Those in charge of developing liturgy are rightly concerned about the reaction of parents and godparents who seldom go to church, and who may struggle to follow difficult language. But they should also bear in mind the risk that young people and adults with searching questions about their baptism, and older people looking back at what should have been a pivotal moment in their lives, might feel short-changed.

Much of the wording of the seventeenth-century Book of Common Prayer baptism service may be hard to make sense of for many today, as well as lending itself to misunderstanding. For instance some people used to think of infant baptism as a kind of insurance to make sure that children got to heaven if they died young. God was also often portrayed as harshly judgmental, though the church’s closeness to the powerful and rich meant that some sins tended to go unchallenged.

In recent decades the Church of England (along with other churches, Anglican and otherwise) has made some changes to the baptismal liturgy. There is more emphasis today on God’s wonderful love, though death to sin and new life in Christ are still highlighted. However some aspects are vaguer.

For instance, candidates for baptism were previously asked, through their godparents, to “renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow nor be led by them”. As I understand it, we were being invited to reject hatred, cruelty and all evil, and not put worldly status and reputation, pleasure and urges above love of God and neighbour.

There is a risk that further changes will leave families, friends and, in time, those being baptised even less clear about what they are signing up to, and the potential cost as well as joy of following Christ, who witnessed to a new commonwealth of justice and mercy, was put to death by the powers-to-be and, Christians believe, rose again. To submit to Christ frees one from absolute obedience to any worldly authority or ideology. The path of discipleship involves struggle, against one’s own tendency to behave unlovingly and social forces that are oppressive and destructive.

At times the world is bleak and, if one is realistic, one is brought face to face with one’s own failings and need for forgiveness. All will, in the end, die. Baptism is an occasion of joy but also a key stage of a journey, in the company of a community of faith.

Church of England decision-makers should carefully assess and proposals for change, not just on the basis of how popular they prove with families wanting their children blessed and hard-pressed parish clergy, but also on how they prepare and equip people to be part of the body of Christ, with all this implies.

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© Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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