Some Reflections on The Proposed Changes to the Baptism Promises in the Church of England

The Church of England is having a debate over some new forms of wording in the baptism service. The change has been initiated by a group of people who describe an experience that many of you might recognise. A spokesman says words to the effect of ‘I am there, baptizing perhaps three or four babies, and each family brings perhaps twenty friends. As soon as we get to the promises, I see the blinds of incomprehension fall down and their eyes glaze over. I want to have some words in the service that the people can understand when I say them.” So the suggestion for the new words is, that instead of saying in the original version, “Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?”, prompting the reply: “I reject them.” Then: “Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?” with the answer: “I repent of them.”, no mention of the devil or sin is made and parents and godparents are asked to “reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises.”

The opponents of this change see it as a dumbing down of Christianity. One representative of this view is Bishop Nazir-Ali who wrote in ‘The Mail on Sunday’ “Rather than the constant ‘dumbing down’ of Christian teaching, whether for baptism, marriage or death, we should be spending time preparing people for these great rites of passage. “When it comes to the service itself, the need is not to eliminate crucial areas of teaching but to explain them. “It is best to call a halt to this perhaps well-meant effort before it further reduces the fullness of the church’s faith to easily-swallowed sound-bites.”

Nearly everyone has experienced this tension. I remember once being amazed to see a baptism at a ski resort in Austria which I was visiting. The priest performed the baptism before the Eucharist for Epiphany. As soon as the ceremony was finished, the family and friends, who had just seen a new member initiated into he Church, all left and did not participate in the second most important thing that the Church can do…the Eucharist!

Here is my  suggestion about what to do. First of all, not everyone needs a baptism.  That there are no alternatives, is for me  the unspoken common assumption of both the proponents of the change, and those who  oppose it. There are indeed ‘rites of passage’ as bishop Ali-Nazir describes them, and some rites of passage are those that everyone has to have by virtue of being alive. They are dying, and perhaps getting married, and being born. We can have rites that mark these occasions. The Church has developed them, but what we do is essentially pastoral. That is, we offer some meaning making and we frame life events in a way which offers God’s blessing on what people are already doing: being born, getting married and dying.

But that is not baptism. We can have lots of services for the welcome and blessing and naming of a new life, that’s fine. But we don’t need to baptise anyone unless they want to be ‘born again’. So the first confusion I want to tease out is the confusion between rites of ‘welcome’ and the blessing of the natural order, which confirm what we already are, and rites of ‘initiation’ (like baptism) which are designed to change what we are. This is the difference between rites of welcome, and rites of initiation.

Then, when families come with new babies, we can welcome them, and even let them express their own hopes and dreams for this new life in ways that they do understand, while at the same time setting forth the Christian understanding of life.
This is what we already do reasonably successfully in funerals and marriages. The problem comes when we try to be ‘pastoral’ about an action that is essentially not pastoral in nature, but initiatory.

But we are under pressure. People who have experienced some of the ‘background radiation’ of Christendom know the word ‘baptism’ in connection with ‘birth’ and want the best for their new baby. They come to the Church ‘shop’ saying ‘This is what I want’. We feel uneasy about not giving them what they want, or trying to change their minds about what they want, and so we baptise the baby, with everyone’s fingers crossed behind their backs.

So in the first place, the problem is not the words. The problem is that the Church is made up of people who have never been initiated themselves, and who have as much a consumer mentality of Church life as everyone else. The problem is that the Church does not know how to initiate members into its life, or does not think that this is necessary. Anyone who ‘comes’ can be a member. Listen to what Ralph Keifer in ‘Made Not Born’ says back in 1976 ‘There is the pastoral difficulty. The conception of the church as the local community of faith, as vehicle of the experience of the risen Lord as eschatological sign, exists only in official text and clerical rhetoric, not as something perceived by the great majority of churchgoers. Our operative model is still that of established church: a bastion of conservation, convention and respectability. For most of us the church is not a dynamic and communal reality but a static institution which ministers to the needs of individuals. The standard by which church life is measured is not conversion but conformity…That conversion should be a matter of any kind of experience is not expected and not really desired.’ (Keifer, Ralph A. in ‘Made Not Born ‘ Notre Dame Press 1976. London. U.K. p.141.)

What he says I think is true. The liturgy is not about the words themselves, but the actions that get people to the point of saying the words. Once that process is sorted out it makes no difference if people say I ‘repent of my sins and reject the devil’ or say I ‘reject evil in all its forms’ if they not only understand what they are saying (following Bishop Ali-Nazir), but more importantly, if they have had some experience of what how evil is rejected, and what it looks like when it comes. It is more important that they know what it is to sin, and to repent, than to say one thing or the other.

My suggestion is that people be asked to give their testimonies at a baptism. This is what we did with our two adult candidates last Easter. This is what each person who undergoes a Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah has to do. This is what each person ordained in the Baptist Church has to do. This is what we will be asking people in this congregation to do next Easter season!).

Again, the question is not ‘Do the people understand what they are saying’ The Question is ‘Have these people who are answering for this Child any conception of what it is to be born again?’ and second, have any members of the congregation into which they are being baptized any idea about this either? If the answer is no, then we are better off either accepting the hypocrisy of our situation and just shutting up, or doing something different (like promoting officially ‘Namings and Blessings’ for most babies as a pastoral service, and promoting genuine conversion and Christian initiation as the criterion for membership of the Church. 

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About frpaulsblog

Paul Dalzell isnow a semi-retired priest living in Alexandra, Australia
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