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To open up is the idea, not to dumb down

17 January 2014

Infant-baptism services should reach out to families rather than set up barriers, argues Angela Tilby


THE baptism texts that are causing all the trouble have their origins in a motion put forward by the diocese of Liverpool to the General Synod, which was carried in February 2011. It called for some alternative texts to be provided for baptism "in accessible language".

The background was widespread discontent from members of the clergy using the Common Worship service, especially at babies' christenings. Many had come to dread the typical Sunday-afternoon baptism, when families were often completely at sea with the earnest inquisitiveness of the Common Worship rite.

The long and theologically dense Prayer over the Water was a stumbling block for some (cue congregational shuffling and outbreaks of chatter). For others, the worst part was struggling through the Decision, that part of the service where parents and godparents promise on behalf of the baby to turn away from evil and turn to Christ.

This is the focus of the present row. Common Worship makes rather a meal of the Decision, requiring rejection of the devil and all rebellion against God, renunciation of the deceit and corruption of evil, and repentance of sins that separate us from God and neighbour. Parents and godparents are then required to turn to Christ as Saviour, to submit to him as Lord, and to come to Christ, the way, the truth, and the life.

When I was a vicar in Cambridge, I found all this overloaded andeven intrusive. It all too clearlybore the marks of unresolved theological differences, and produced glazed looks from those for whom the baptism of their baby was essentially about thanksgiving and blessing.

CURIOUSLY, the Decision section in Common Worship never sounded quite so artificial in the context of adult baptism, when the person being baptised would be likely tobe conscious of a personal conversion, and able to "own" a sense of sin. Even so, I came across adult candidates who struggled with rejecting a personal devil; some even found the notion risible (the little guy with the horns and tail?).

The distinction between infant and adult baptism is important in understanding the current problem. Common Worship had taken the unprecedented decision that adult baptism should be regarded as the normative rite, and that services for babies should be derived fromit rather than other way round, which had always been the case in the past.

THE argument that broke out recently was between clergy who feel passionately that the Decision needs to be in language that people on the fringes of church life can use sincerely, and those who feel that the "adult" language is appropriate for all. The latter group believe that doctrinal issues are at stake, which should not be compromised by avoiding words such as sin and concepts such as the devil.

The drafting group struggled to find a formula that expressed a genuine turning away from evil and towards the living Christ, without overloading the moment. We looked at the Roman Catholic rite,and at the forms used in other Churches, and found that they were generally simpler and easier tosay.

On reflection, it seems to me that the Decision should not be made to function as a litmus test of the parents' and godparents' faith. Baptism is not a reward for correct belief, but an entry-point to the Christian life, and parents and godparents should not be expected to carry the fall-out of our theological anxieties.

IT IS worth remembering that there is no Decision at an emergency baptism. What makes baptism valid is water and the invocation of the Trinity. Moreover, recent research on behalf of the Archbishops' Council suggests that most parents bringing their babies to baptism do not remember much about the words at all; what has a lasting effect on them is water administered by a priest, and the naming of the baby.

The research also suggests that, whereas some parents struggle to link the notion of sin to a recently born baby, they are very much aware of the evil present in the world, and the dangers and trials that are likely to confront their children. This is why the alternative form of the Decision asks for a rejection of evil. In our increasingly automated and virtual world, impersonal evil is arguably a much greater threat to the integrity of the self than the problematic notion of a personal devil.

As for sin, well, we shall see. There is certainly reference to sin and the need for cleansing elsewhere in the service. The texts offered are only being trialled at this stage, and if parishes feel that repentance of sin is an integral part of the Decision, they will make that clear. And, of course, these texts are not intended to replace what we already have. They are alternatives, and no one has to use them.

To me, the question is how we reach out to families who are not regular churchgoers, but still want to feel that they are part of Christendom through the baptism of their children. Are we interested in them enough to take their aspirations for their children seriously, or do we require them to pass a doctrinal test first?

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

She is a member of the Liturgical Commission, and chairs its Christian Initiation: Additional Texts in Accessible Language Drafting Group.


Current Common Worship service:

The Decision

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 reject the devil and all rebellion against God?
I reject them.

Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?
I renounce them.

Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?
I repent of them.

Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?
I turn to Christ.

Do you submit to Christ as Lord?
I submit to Christ.

Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?
I come to Christ.

Where there are strong pastoral reasons, the alternative form of the Decision (CWIS, p.168) may be used.


Proposed alternative text:

The Decision
In baptism God calls us to new life.
We die with Christ to all that destroys, and rise to live with him for ever.

Therefore I ask: Do you reject evil?
I reject evil.

And all its many forms?
And all its many forms.

And all its empty promises?
And all its empty promises.

The candidates, together with their parents, godparents and sponsors, may now turn to face the font, a cross, or the large candle.

Do you turn to Christ?
I turn to Christ.

And put your trust in him?
And put my trust in him.

And promise to follow him for ever?
And promise to follow him   for ever.

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