Give parents room to breathe at baptisms  

by
13 September 2019

The promises demanded in Common Worship are too didactic, argues Philip Welsh. A small act of rebellion is required

WHEN I was a curate, I hated making baptism visits. I thought that my job was to get parents’ motives into line, and to convince them of the need to go to church.

When I was a vicar, I eased up. I decided that my job was to make friends with the parents, and to set the Church’s understanding of baptism alongside their own sense of its importance.

Now that I am a grandfather — and fresh from a family christening where I had no pastoral responsibility — my perspective has changed. I am less defensive of the Church’s interests, but more protective of the family’s. What bothers me now is not the attitude of parents and godparents towards the service, but the attitude of the service towards them. It comes out particularly at the Decision.

 

WE COMMONLY talk about baptism promises, as the Book of Common Prayer does, both in the service and in the Catechism (and, indeed, the 1928 version adds the bold heading: The Promises). Yet Common Worship, like the Alternative Service Book before it, makes no reference at all in the service to promises. It emphatically entitles the declaration by parents and godparents “the Decision”, and a decision is different from a promise. A decision is an action that is done; a promise is a commitment that remains. One is part of a process; the other is part of a relationship. Both have a place in expressing what it means to turn to Christ.

In the ASB the Decision took the form of a response to three crisp, concise questions — questions that left room for individuals to understand them in their own way: Do you turn to Christ? Do you repent of your sins? Do you renounce evil? In a significant change, Common Worship replaces this with six much more elaborate questions which strongly highlight decision over promise. These pitch straight in with some distinctly questionable devil-language (“Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?”), continue with lip-smacking concern with “the deceit and corruption of evil” and “the sins that separate us from God”, and end with three insistently parallel questions that seem to come straight from an evangelistic rally: “Do you turn to Christ as Saviour? Do you submit to Christ as Lord? Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth, and the life?”

The compilers were, indeed, given the task of enriching the language of the service, and have provided echoes of some of the red-blooded language of the BCP. But, between the pit and the altar-call, it is hard not to feel that a partisan conversion agenda has shaped this key part of the baptism service.

For once, we can do something about this, although it is referred to only in a footnote, and grudgingly at that: “Where there are strong pastoral reasons, the alternative form of the Decision (page 372) may be used.” Turn to page 372, and what you find are those shorter promises from the ASB.

The injunction about “strong pastoral reasons” is repeated, but with no indication what these might be. The semi-official guide Using Common Worship suggests that “some candidates — for various reasons — might find the simplicity of the alternative questions easier to understand.” It indicates — again, in somewhat coded language — that the alternative provision was subsequently provided “following calls from various quarters”.

In fact, the shorter alternative was not included at all when the Initiation Services were brought into use two years before Common Worship’s full publication. It was inserted as an afterthought at the insistence of the General Synod, a symptom of the way in which the initiation services, unlike other Common Worship services, were not road-tested in draft form before publication.

There certainly are strong pastoral reasons for using the shorter form — not as an exception, but all the time — though not the reasons that the compilers may have had in mind. The shorter promises have a concise memorability, and do not give the impression of trying to box in those who are making them. We do not need a wordy, coercive interrogation at the heart of the baptism service. The language of worship is there to point to a mystery, not to ensure conformity. And, as so often with liturgical language, less is more.

 

LONG before he became a bishop, Hugh Montefiore said of his conversion as an Anglican: “Perhaps above all I am grateful because I have freedom in which to breathe.” We need to relieve worshippers from the anxiously over-explicit and ploddingly didactic language sometimes apparent in Common Worship, and to allow them room to breathe.

The longer Decision, intended to be the standard form, traces an arc from rebellion to submission. We could do with Christians who are less submissive and more rebellious. A small act of rebellion in supplanting the standard baptism promises of Common Worship will, strange to say, help to restore a classically Anglican atmosphere in which to breathe.

And these shorter promises would have reassured me that the hesitant participants at our grandson’s christening were being invited by the Church to respond to an invitation, and not at risk of feeling theologically bullied.
 

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

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