Synod: Plainer words for use at christenings

by
18 July 2014

Alternative baptism

Sam Atkins

The sun shines on a coffee break in York

The sun shines on a coffee break in York

FOR many people, "the devil has been turned into a cartoon-like character of no particular malevolence," the Bishop of Sodor & Man, the Rt Revd Robert Paterson, said as he introduced the first consideration debate on the Additional Texts for Holy Baptism.

The texts had been produced after a motion, originating in the diocese of Liverpool, called for an "accessible" baptism liturgy; and they were trialled before Easter.

"It will come as no surprise to learn that the texts of the Decision proved most challenging to the drafting group," Bishop Paterson said, as he admitted that early drafts had been commented on by the House of Bishops.

"The absence of the devil from the text attracted particular attention. . . We have no quarrel with standing up to the devil: the problem is helping people with little doctrinal appreciation to understand what we mean by affirming that the devil is a defeated power."

He said that the new Decision section of the liturgy "is now introduced with words that encapsulate what we mean by a broken and restored relationship with God, his searching love, and where this fits with baptism in our journey of faith and discipleship."

The new wording was: "We all wander from God and lose our way:

Christ comes to find us and welcomes us home. In baptism we respond to his call."

The texts would not replace the texts in Common Worship, but would be alternatives available to churches that wanted to use them. This was not "baptism lite".

The Revd Anne Hollinghurst (St Albans) conducted 60 baptisms every year: the liturgy was in use about three Sundays a month. In a typical afternoon service, there would be more than 100 people in church, many unchurched. The new text offered "more meaningful and effective resonances . . . echoes of the scriptures, as well as resonating with the lived experience".

The Revd John Cook (Oxford) quoted David Beckham, who had said he wanted to have his son Brooklyn christened but "I don't know into what religion yet." Mr Cook suggested that the text would help to explain baptism to him, but it required improvement.

He questioned whether "grace really shines out" of the draft text. He suggested that the liturgy needed to use three metaphors: that of death and resurrection, that of rebirth, and that of washing. Finally, a better word than "blessing" was required for the prayer over the water.

Canon Michael Parsons (Gloucester) had taken part in the trial. He administered up to 40 baptisms a year. He suggested that Common Worship and the Prayer Book were "far too prescriptive", with "too heavy an expectation on the understanding of families". These families "want to be known as Christians. They want to acknowledge that, as humans and families, they fail, and do not live up to their standards or God's, and want to acknowledge they need help to bring their child up. Words like 'sin' and 'devil' do not help, as they give the wrong context or wrong ideas, or they don't know quite what it means."

Alison Ruoff (London) said that news reports of the devil's omission had saddened her, and that people needed to know from what they were being saved. "Don't patronise people: they are not stupid," she said. "They see evil well and truly, and we have to tell them that it emanates from the devil."

The Revd Jennifer Tomlinson (Chelmsford) welcomed the new texts, but said that she would rather they emphasised God's active role more strongly than just the godparents' and parents' role."

The Revd Karen Hutchinson (Guildford) said that her parish was one of those testing the trial texts earlier this year, and that she was pleased the changes suggested had been adopted. But she still questioned the phrase "Do you give your life to him?" She said: "I tried it with some [unchurched] people, who said it made them think of suicide bombers or child sacrifice."

The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, said that he wanted to use the moment to think critically about liturgy and worship more generally. He argued that priests needed to consider not just the text used, but also the environment of the church and how people experienced the whole service. "Our worship ought also to be in the category of primary evangelism, particularly in these initiation rites. They are often moments when we encounter people in church who might never have been there before."

A member of the drafting group, the Revd Philip North (London), said that it was important for the Synod to remember that "this is your idea and something that we have undertaken with your instructions. . . Our problem during this process is that nobody has been able to say what 'accessible language' is."

There was "a great deal more to worship than the accessibility of the text", he said. "Equally, and perhaps of more importance, is the warmth of the welcome, the style of the leadership, the use of space and music, the use of visual symbols. . . You don't need to understand every single word to be raised up by it into God's presence."

Commenting on the "putting to one side the devil", he said: "That image is so open to misunderstanding. That is not lessening in any sense our belief in the power of evil, or changing the teaching of the Church of England."

He said that he regretted the Bishops' decision to reject a draft of the text in which the parents replied with a simple "I do" to the questions. "I would like to hear what Synod thinks about that."

Canon Dagmar Winter (Newcastle) questioned the theology of the text dealing with the presentation of the candidates. "I wasn't quite sure to what extent we can say theologically that we can help anyone to become part of God's family," she said, "but we might like to help them to respond to Christ's welcome or to Christ's call."

Penny Allen (Lichfield), an RE teacher for 25 years, said that during that time she had talked about the baptism service with children in Years 5 and 6. "It took me an hour to explain the liturgy of this service. . . because it was in complex terms. There were words we had to look up in the dictionary. The young people said, 'If it means that, why doesn't it say that?'"

Canon Tony Walker (Southwell & Nottingham) had been in a parish that had trialled the texts. He commented on The Commission, which says that "The minister will talk directly and simply in his or her own words . . . covering the topics in the bullet points."

"One of the things I did early on was to split the Commission between myself and the churchwarden." It was important to include the laity.

Sister Rosemary Howarth CHN (Religious Communities) welcomed the text, but was concerned about an "emphasis on the performance of the parents being stressed more than the grace of God. It is like it is something they have to achieve."

Sally Muggeridge (Canterbury) reminded the Synod that her maiden speech in 2005 had been on the subject of baptism. She said that some confusion about baptism was not restricted to the text. When it was discussed in her congregation, "not everybody was clear . . . that you could only be baptised once." And she said that an older child being baptised "said that he wished somebody had asked him if he actually wanted to be baptised".

Prudence Dailey (Oxford) argued that the claims made in baptism were "radical and awe-inspiring, and not easy for any of us to understand". Those who were not regular churchgoers, "even more than the regular churchgoers, are in urgent need of extensive catechesis, if they are bringing their children to baptism". There was "no short cut" to understanding the claims of baptism and theological concepts: "How those are explained to people is what really matters."

The Bishop of Blackburn, the Rt Revd Julian Henderson, asked why one prayer over the water read "now send your Spirit" and the other "now send your Spirit on this water".

The Revd Charles Read (Norwich) found "lots of biblical allusion" in the text, which "give us rich quarry for catechesis". But he suggested that this raised "all sort of difficult questions".

The Archdeacon of the Isle of Man, the Ven. Andrew Brown (Sodor & Man),suggested that, "if we are to baptise infants, we do so on the basis of grace and grace alone, and that means there should be no hoops to jump through by parents or godparents."

He told parents that he would "fill in the gaps in the years to come, when they bring children. . . and very often they give me the opportunity". He said that he would "miss the devil", but he was not "the young lass bringing her baby to the font in fear and trembling". His own spiritual struggles assured hm of the enemy's realty, but there remained enough reference in the text to the presence of evil in the world.

The texts were referred for consideration by a revision committee.

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