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Synod debate about accessible baptism rite

08 August 2014


From the Revd W. N. Brook

Sir, - Reading the report of the debate in the General Synod about the proposed alternative wording of the baptism service (General Synod, 18 July), I was taken back to the 1980s, when we had the Alternative Service Book. So I got hold of my copy, and read again the text of the baptism service there.

The words - not too many - say all that is necessary, and, with a warm welcome and a little comment and explanation, the service served us well.

In those days, I had a parish where we baptised between 80 and 90 children a year; so I had plenty of experience of it.

It was, of course, before the digital age, with its profusion of texts, which has brought us the Common Worship library.

Dare I suggest that we are getting drowned in a sea of words, and that we might benefit from being washed up on a laconic shore?

27 Middleton Drive, Eastbourne
East Sussex BN23 6HD


From the Revd David Perry

Sir, - In the debate in the General Synod on the additional texts in accessible language, Sister Rosemary CHN asked how the "Decision" section should be interpreted. "Am I", she said, "asking the baby to respond, or the parents?" Her question deserves an answer.

The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (c.250) has this rubric: "They shall baptise the little children first. And if they can answer for themselves, let them answer. But if they cannot, let the parents answer or someone from their family."

In the Prayer Book, it is clearly the infant's decision as the candidate, but the infant relies on the godparents to speak for him or her. "Wherefore . . . this Infant must also faithfully . . . promise by you that are his sureties . . . that he will renounce the devil and all his works . . . and constantly believe God's holy Word, and obediently keep his commandments."

"Minister. Wilt thou be baptized in this faith? Answer. That is my desire. Minister. Wilt thou then obediently keep God's holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of thy life? Answer. I will."

It is the baby's future faith and morals that the parents and godparents are pledging, not theirs.

The compilers of the ASB 1980 adopted a both/and approach: "Those who bring children to be baptised must affirm their allegiance to Christ and their rejection of all that is evil. . . Therefore I ask these questions which you must answer for yourselves and for these children."

Note how "their allegiance" is exquisitely ambiguous. Does it refer to the infant about to be baptised, or to the parents and godparents? "You must answer for yourselves" turns the Decision into an integrity test of the parents and godparents, and ignores the fact that the Decision, like the baptism itself, is that of the candidate, not that of the parents or godparents.

In Common Worship: Christian Initiation, the rubric at the Decision restores the historic doctrine enshrined in the Prayer Book: "The president addresses the candidates directly or through their parents, godparents, and sponsors."

In the age of the martyrs, candidates undertook a demanding programme of spiritual exercises, culminating in the Easter baptisms. As times changed, and infant baptism became the norm, there was no attempt to rewrite the baptismal liturgy to take account of the intellectual limitations of the infant mind.

Instead, the solution was to carry on using the same rubric as the one in the Apostolic Tradition: "But if they cannot, let the parents answer or someone from their family." CW: Christian Initiation simply reaffirms that tradition, and so keeps our continuity with apostolic times.

11 Middle Garth Drive
South Cave HU15 2AY

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