Better the devil you don’t know

Baptism Liturgy

STEFANO CAGNONI

"Fast and loose": the Revd Charlotte Gale, from Coventry diocese

"Fast and loose": the Revd Charlotte Gale, from Coventry diocese

THE alternative baptism texts returned to the Synod for their report and revision stage on Thursday afternoon.

The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, introducing the debate, reminded members that the texts had been drafted in response to concerns that the Common Worship initiation texts "in their present form are not accessible to those who are unused to attending church".

The new texts were a "practical and pastoral response for those clergy who frequently conduct baptisms for unchurched families, often at services separate from the main Sunday-morning act of worship. In these circumstances, the existing provision can seem complex and inaccessible," he said.

The texts had been "generally welcomed by the Synod", and many members had "expressed a sense of relief that there was now alternative provision which would allow candidates to express their faith clearly and simply, and take forward the mission of the Church".

The steering committee had been resistant to those who wanted more complex language, "or to define the underlying theology along party lines".

One controversial aspect of the new texts has been the removal of references to the devil. On this issue, the Bishop said that "Those who work with young people have consistent advice that references to the devil are likely to be misunderstood in today's culture. A clear majority of the revision committee agreed that it is unhelpful to refer to a personification of evil in the form of the devil."

He said that the alternative texts were "intended to refer to a strong position of standing with Christ against the power of evil. This is seen as a posture of confident resistance rather than an aggressive act, and it deliberately stops short of using the word 'fight'."

Canon William Croft (Peterborough) questioned one line in the first prayer over the water: "Who has rescued us from the deep waters of death?'" He said that, rather than save us from water, Christ had gone through the waters on our behalf. "It rings a little oddly, as though water ought to be avoided," he said. "This phrase should be looked at again."

The Revd Dr Joanna Spreadbury (St Albans) told the story of a six-year-old in her parish who had decided that he wanted to be baptised of his own accord and in his own words. She said that she welcomed the alternative accessible texts, as many people were drawn to baptism but could not theologically articulate why. "The language is direct and yet deep, fresh, and yet has a proper formality," she said.

Canon Chris Sugden (Oxford) recommended the texts to the Synod, and said that they would not change any doctrine in the Church of England.

The Revd Charlotte Gale (Coventry) admitted to playing "fast and loose" with canon law and having introduced the draft alternative texts last summer after the Synod sessions. She said that they were largely excellent, although she questioned why the congregation would be asked to support the candidate, given that most of the new baptisms with alternative texts would take place outside regular Sunday services, and with congregations that had no familiarity with church.

The Synod took note of the revision committee's report.

The Revd Charles Read (Norwich) argued that his recommittal motion for the revision of the opening part of the presentation of the candidates (which quotes Mark 10.14), and "for consideration to be given to providing a choice as to the scriptural texts used", would create a "mission- and discipleship-affirming liturgy", tying together liturgical revision with evangelism and discipleship.

The Bishop of Sodor & Man, the Rt Revd Robert Paterson, opposed this motion and the use of an alternative text that Mr Read had in view. The Great Commission was one of the mandates for evangelism. "If used at this point in a service, which is designed for those on the fringe or beyond the fringe, one is using the text in a way in which it becomes semi-intelligible."

The text had previously been used as an apologia for infant baptism, and it had been agreed over the past 50 years that it was inappropriate. For those who rarely attended church, "the authority of scripture is probably not one of their priorities."

The motion lapsed.

Another recommittal motion was from the Revd Jonathan Frais (Chichester), who wanted the insertion of an alternative Prayer over the Water referring to Noah and the Flood.

Bishop Paterson opposed the amendment. The classic 1662 prayer referred to Noah, but the link with the story of salvation was very little known, and understood hardly at all. The ark and rainbow are associated with ecological issues today.

"This well-known image would now require more rather than less exegesis, and this cannot be encapsulated in a concise and accessible prayer."

The motion lapsed.

Forthcoming Events

21-22 February 2020
Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature
For 2020 the Bloxham festival celebrates ‘The Power of Love’. Book tickets

26 March 2020
Theology Slam Live Final
Competition opens in November - more details coming soon. Read about the 2019 final

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)