Monday, 6 January 2014

Accessible Baptism?

As vicar of one of the designated experimental parishes, I have been sent the draft new options for the Church of England baptism service, which have recently caused some controversy. I've been asked to use them in baptisms here until the end of April, and submit feedback. I haven't yet used them: our next baptisms, as it happens, aren't until next month. But here are my thoughts so far.

First, lets be clear that this is NOT 'a new baptism service'. It is simply a handful of alternative texts for use at particular points in the existing service. This mix and match approach to our liturgy is a fairly fundamental feature of Common Worship. Good examples are the alternative authorised eucharistic prayers, and the seasonal provisions of the Times and Seasons volume. Even if these new baptism texts do end up being authorised, nobody will have to use them if they don't like them or don't think they fit their context.

Second, I am pleased that we have them. I was on General Synod when the diocesan motion requesting such alternative provision was debated. I voted for it. Not because I dislike the current baptism service - I don't - but because I agreed that it is not written in particularly accessible English. For some people, it is great. It works well for regular churchgoers, who find moving and resonant the layers of Biblical and liturgical references. It worked fine for the not-particularly-churchy families for whom I conducted baptisms in Durham University: academic families, or graduates of the College, who were well versed in appreciating complex texts and enjoyed grand, rolling phrases even if (or perhaps sometimes because) they didn't quite understand them. It works fine for some of the families whose baptisms I have conducted here.

But not for all of them. If the average reading age of the congregation is not high, it makes sense to use simple language. And simple syntax too. For some reason, presumably in an attempt to achieve a suitably 'religious' register, some of Common Worship uses very archaic grammatical constructions, even where the vocabulary is straightforward. I do not see any value in archaisms for archaisms sake, in religion or elsewhere.

Quite often, I have found myself having to spend as much of the service explaining the service as taking it. The best one was the service when I realised all the baptism service books were in the other church, and had to improvise much of the service, safe in the knowledge that at least the child was validly baptised as I know the right words for that bit! That service went really well, and I started looking again at the words of the service, and the alternatives....

The Durham Diocesan Liturgical Committee, of which I am a member, last year approved a baptism and confirmation service for use on ecumenical occasions, when some or all of those being baptised and/or confirmed are members of joint Anglican/Methodist churches. We used it in the Cathedral service at which two boys from my parish were baptised and confirmed at Pentecost last year, and I really liked the Methodist form of the Decision which it uses.

'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 turn away from all that denies the love and goodness of God?
By the grace of God, I do.

Do you turn to God, trusting in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and in the Holy Spirit as Helper and Guide?
By the grace of God, I do.'

 This keeps the turning from/turning to pattern of the liturgy, and in the minister's introduction keeps some traditional phraseology, but makes the questions simple and direct. I use this whenever I can, for preference.

And I must say that I am not at all keen on the alternative decision that has been proposed. However, the remainder of the texts I think are a good job. The prayer over the water is short and simple, but incorporates the 'big story' of salvation. The bullet point approach to the commission is fresh and sensible.

Many of the criticisms of the new liturgical material, it seems to me, are criticisms of the very idea of having accessible liturgy. As if baptism was meant to be a test of a family's ability to understand complex phrasing about salvation, rather than a moment at which the church welcomes and blesses their heartfelt, but perhaps only half-understood and almost entirely inarticulate desire to turn to God.

When I first came to this parish, the one stipulation I made at interview was that I could change the baptism policy. A policy had been inherited which said anyone seeking baptism for their child had to have a thanksgiving service first. This is of course actually contrary to canon law, and in practice meant many families were left baffled and indignant that their request for baptism was refused. It also takes little account of the sociological function of baptism in many families, as an occasion for celebration of the birth of a child - people were left confused as to whether they were meant to have two parties! More seriously, a great tradition of lay baptism preparation had lapsed, as the thanksgiving service had become assumed to function as preparation for baptism.

Most importantly for me, though, such a policy seems fundamentally opposed to what baptism is about theologically - welcoming adults and children alike into the body of Christ. If we baptise infants at all, it is at least partly as a sign that God's grace is freely given to all who ask for it, and does not depend on the quality of our understanding of the faith or the level of our discipleship. If it did, not only would we not baptise infants, the logical extension would be not to baptise any others unable to communicate their level of right understanding of the faith. There have been movements over the course of history to restrict baptism to 'believers' only - the most obvious contemporary example is the Baptist church. But - in no particular order - the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Calvinist and Anglican traditions have always resisted such a move, precisely because infant baptism symbolises that faith is God's gift to us, not something we achieve.

Baptism is meant to be accessible. We don't have to fully understand what is happening in the sacrament - how many of us would pass that test? But at its heart, baptism is about pouring water on someone's head and saying 'I baptise you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit'. That is all that is needed for a valid baptism. So to argue that the words surrounding that are inadequate if they don't contain every element of Christian vocabulary, or don't tick every theological box, seems mean-spirited.

This is a first draft, for experimental use. It will doubtless get better as people write in with stories of what worked and what didn't. But the aim, to have elements of the service that even those of low literacy can understand, is entirely laudable.

Remember, the early church was mocked by the literate intelligentsia of its day for having such bad literature as its Gospels....


  1. Miranda - good points re accessibility - but surely one of the points is that the Church of England being the Established Church of England needs to pursue and integrate a policy of PLAIN ENGLISH in its essential rites of passage so that there is maximised inclusion in its reach with understanding - in much the same way as all our education conduits, legal services, health services and social services need to do in their public facing work. This would then enable the church of England develop a mission focussed outreach to the general public which was not about promoting 'the Establishment' or Western Christendom highlights of Great Prose we have read - as in the King James Bible etc - but about making plain the invitation of the Church community through its various rites in this instance Baptism - but it should be a plain/ inclusive option in any other of the rites it is charged with - marriage, funeral, confirmation, - available to all no matter what level of education has been attained, purchased or accessed by those who as adults are seeking their benefit.

  2. Hello MIranda, my three parishes are also trial parishes for the experimental baptismal liturgy. Like you, I was not sure about the trial Decision words, and I completely agree that the sense of 'turn', which is beautifully managed in the words you quote above, is a serious loss There's something a bit flatly propositional about 'rejecting evil', and baptism is an event, not a spoken intention. But I wanted to say that I took my first service with the trial words this last Sunday and the effect in context is strikingly more impressive than the words on the page. Because it's all so simple it supports rather than supplanting the signing of the cross and the baptismal use of water - it makes plain the shape of the action. It felt much easier than usual to show the shape of what was happening, because speech was sparse enough to be, well, performative. Even the Decision had a gravitas - more than one person commented afterwards on the effect of hearing a group of people say they would have no truck with evil and its empty promises. It struck them as a serious thing and more than one of them recalled the BCP 'lusts of the flesh' moment there, which was a surprise. I more and more feel that baptism, being so foundational, ought to have a kind of bedrock simplicity in its rite as well. Everything else follows from it. I'd be very interested to know how it feels to you when you come to your baptisms next month - mine was a bit unusual because the family was very churched and knew what they were doing. Also the very new baptismal leaflet we have designed in our parishes for use in baptism prep had worked well with them possibly for the same reason - it traces the metaphors in word and picture of spirit, water and light using creation and Jesus's baptism as its two main scriptural fixed points for meditation, which suits the stripped-down 'Prayer over the Water' rather precisely. So my sense that it all cohered may have other sources than the experimental words of the baptismal liturgy! All the best, Jessica (Martin)

  3. Thanks for this, Miranda. Interestingly, one of the other good features of the Methodist baptism services is that the "promises" take place after the baptism itself- a clear and deliberate reminder of prevenient grace- which occupied and still occupies such an important place in Wesleyan theology.

  4. Thanks, Miranda, for your experiential account of the proposed new Baptismal Rite. It seemed me me, a member of ACANZP, that people like Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali were most disturbed about the omission of the the naming of 'The Devil' or .'Satan' in the new rite, seemingly ignoring the fact that blaming 'The Devil' for our own human sins can be a real get-out from personal responsibility for them.

    I applaud the decision to make the rite more accessible to ALL people - regardless of their intellectual appreciation of the mystery involved. This is God's action of grace towards God's children. All we need do is receive it.