Church of England re-looks at baptism in the modern age

By staff writers
2 Oct 2007

The place of baptism in the Established Church, and consequently wider society, has changed greatly in the last century, a new book from the Church of England acknowledges. It offers assistance with developing the rite but does not explore post-Christendom in any depth.

In 'Connecting with Baptism, experienced Church' people involved in the theory and practice of the Church of England's pastoral and liturgical ministry explore the most recent statistics and research into the use of the rite.

Following their alliance with governing authorities, many state churches turned baptism (the receiving of a person by God's grace into the active Body of Christ) into a civic ritual which, in England, moved from being a compulsory rite sanctioned by the state as a sign of uniformity into what has become for many a naming ceremony used by people with little regular connection to the faith.

'Free churches' historically objected to the imposition of baptism. There is no compulsion these days, but the Church of England has long relied on 'infant baptism' as a recruiting tool and a way of building links with families who "want their child done".

In Catholic circles, baptism was also linked to a fear that an unbaptised child might die outside God's grace, but much recent theology has rejected such ideas as unbiblical and superstitious.

Baptists and others see baptism as a conversion ceremony which should be practiced by believers rather than administered to children too young to decided for themselves.

Those who favour infant baptism say it is about the grace of God rather than the intention of the person toward belief.

The Church of England and the Catholic Church practice 'confirmation' as a way of addressing this division, but this too has been done at an early age.

Some non-believers have come to resent the fact that they were baptised without choice as young children, and the National Secular Society has issued an internet 'de-baptism certificate' which sneers at the rite and encourages people to publicly disown it.

However the new C of E book does not directly explore these issues or examine the transition to a post-Christendom context in any depth, though it recognises the huge changes of outlook in both church and society.

It suggests that more civic 'infant baptisms', as a proportion of births, take place in rural dioceses such as Carlisle, Hereford and Lincoln than in urban areas.

Fewer than 20 per cent of infants under one year old are baptised today compared to 65 per cent in 1900, while the numbers of older children and adults getting baptised has risen from 11,000 in 1900 to 46,200 in 2004.

"The families bringing their children for baptism today represent a significant section of society with a past Church connection, open to the Church’s message and the idea of getting involved again – and churches are developing effective ways of capturing and nurturing this interest," said a Church of England spokesperson.

Defending the practice of infant baptism, the Church argues that for some families today, the baptism of a child represents an opportunity for the first public acknowledgement of the parents’ relationship, and says thechurches can use this as an opportunity to promote marriage.

'Connecting with Baptism' unpacks the Church’s policy on baptism and the theology underpinning it. It also looks at the details of preparation, planning, choreographing and following-up of baptisms for infants, children and adults.

It covers topics including the role of godparents; helping those who are baptised to grow in faith; and Christian initiation in fresh expressions of Church.

The book - edited by the Venerable Trevor Lloyd, former Archdeacon of Barnstaple, the Rev Mark Earey, Liturgy Tutor at Queen's College Birmingham, and Canon Ian Tarrant, Senior Anglican Chaplain at the University of Nottingham – argues that baptism is about "starting as you mean to go on" within the Christian faith.

It also argues that baptism should lie at the heart of all that the Church does, a critical “integrity between sacrament and life” which should constantly be demonstrated by the Church.

The Rt Rev Michael Perham, Bishop of Gloucester, says: “Baptism is recovering its place at the heart of Christian life and liturgy. But there is a huge gap between some of our baptismal practice and the rich possibilities Common Worship envisages. Connecting with Baptism is a comprehensive tool for bridging that gap. Every parish should use it.”

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