Forty-eight years ago or so, I was marked with the sign of a condemned criminal. When I was old enough to choose for myself, like many baptised as infants, at my confirmation I repeated a pledge that meant I could never give unquestioning obedience to any nation, party or company.
New wording for baptism services
The Church of England General Synod’s decision on 9 February 2011 to prepare a more simple form of wording which could be used at baptisms raises major issues. In most churches, though baptism may take different forms, it is of crucial importance. Indeed, it may be the most significant event in someone’s life. It is indeed helpful to make services accessible to relatives and friends of those being baptised who seldom go to church and may have had only a basic education. At the same time, it is vital to make it clear that what is taking place is more than a comforting ritual.
Infant baptism remains controversial – some churches only baptise those old enough to profess their faith for themselves. If a young child is to be baptised, it is especially important to offer support to parents and godparents so that a positive environment for spiritual growth can be provided. The love, example and teaching of my parents, godparents and other Christians older than me have been very important in my journey of faith.
God’s love is indeed wonderfully inclusive and welcoming, and we do not have to understand fully how it works to benefit from it, otherwise all of us would be hopelessly lost! Yet at the same time, it is hugely challenging to try to be open to receiving and reflecting this love, and travelling on a journey of faith that involves loss as well as gain.
The motion which Synod agreed was based on the experience of clergy in some of the poorest parts of Liverpool. They explained that, where parents and godparents did not usually go to church, “The pictures and metaphors of the service don’t resonate with their knowledge and experience; the metaphors from scripture and history are unfamiliar to most (e.g. ‘slavery in Egypt’ or ‘brought to birth by water and the Spirit’). It was a common experience of clergy to feel they were losing touch with congregations at important moments in the service unnecessarily.”
Interestingly, however, Liverpool’s growth as a city was largely on the basis of the slave trade, and since then many of its people have experienced exploitation of some kind. Freedom from all that holds people back from experiencing fullness of life, including economic and social oppression, is important in today’s world.
Perhaps, as well as looking at what happens during baptism services, it might be useful to consider producing more resources such as DVDs which could explore the meaning, using visual images and music as well as words. When parents talk to clergy about having a small child baptised, they could perhaps be given such materials to pass on to other family members and friends who might be interested.
Baptism can and should be a deeply joyful occasion, but there is a cost too. As St Paul wrote, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6.3-4).
Those who are baptised are called on to seek to die to selfishness, to be willing to lose what is familiar to us, if necessary risk our reputations and even our lives in the quest for God’s realm of peace and justice, and in the end face our own deaths, so that we may experience the joy of life in its fullness.
Worship should not gloss over the more uncomfortable aspects of reality, or the strangeness of the living God who is at the same time closer than the air which surrounds us.
Baptism – a wider church perspective
In 1982, the World Council of Churches agreed an important document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. This described some of the rich symbolism:
Baptism is participation in Christ's death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5; Col. 2:12); a washing away of sin (I Cor. 6:11); a new birth (John3:5); an enlightenment by Christ (Eph. 5:14); a re-clothing in Christ (Gal. 3:27); a renewal by the Spirit(Titus 3:5); the experience of salvation from the flood (I Peter 3:20-21); an exodus from bondage (I Cor. 10:1-2) and a liberation into a new humanity in which barriers of division whether of sex or race or social status are transcended (Gal. 3:27-28; I Cor. 12:13). The images are many but the reality is one...
Baptism is both God's gift and our human response to that gift. It looks towards a growth into the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph. 4:13)...
The life of the Christian is necessarily one of continuing struggle yet also of continuing experience of grace...
As they grow in the Christian life of faith, baptised believers demonstrate that humanity can be re-generated and liberated. They have a common responsibility, here and now, to bear witness together to the Gospel of Christ, the Liberator of all human beings... baptism, as a baptism into Christ's death, has ethical implications which not only call for personal sanctification, but also motivate Christians to strive for the realisation of the will of God in all realms of life (Rom. 6:9ff; Gal. 3:27-28; I Peter 2:21-4:6).
It is to be hoped that those developing new forms of wording for baptism services in the Church of England will build on the insights developed in the wider church. While simplicity can be valuable, those taking part should if possible get a sense of the beauty, wonder and challenge of new life in Christ.
© Savitri Hensman is an Ekklesia Associate. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK, and is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice.