Baptism and the Churches

Liturgists and People Who Know What They Are Talking About have worked very hard to persuade people that we should be trying dissuade people from talking about Christenings and instead talk about the sacrament of baptism. Today the Church of England appears to have let the cat out of the bag with a post that seems to suggest that no-one, least of all anyone in the Church of England’s press team has been paying the blindest bit of notice.

The post, Top 10 facts about Christenings is being comprehensively panned and rubbished on twitter by friends I know in the Church of England.

The post itself reminds me of a conversation that I had only yesterday with an American friend when I realised that what we think about baptism differs radically in different parts of the world. Like marriage, we believe baptism to be a universal thing commonly understood. And then you look at the formularies for the services or chat to someone about it and you realise that we are not always talking about the same thing.

During my trip to North America last year, I was more concious than ever that the churches over there have bought into a baptismal theology that we just don’t talk about. It is based around something called the baptismal covenant – a little catechism that is used at baptisms.

Now, we use the words here too. People will recognise them as being part of the service of baptism.

Here’s one form of it:

Do you believe in God the Creator, who made the world?
I believe.
Do you believe in God the Saviour, who redeemed humanity?
I believe.
Do you believe in God the Sanctifier, who gives life to God’s people?
I believe.

This is the faith of the Church.
This is our faith. We believe in one God, Creator, Saviour and Sanctifier.

NN., as those who will love and care for N., will you continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?
With the help of God, I will
Will you proclaim the good news by word and deed, serving Christ in all people?
With the help of God, I will.
Will you work for justice and peace, honouring God in all Creation?
With the help of God, I will.

This is the task of the Church.
This is our task: to live and work for the kingdom of God.

Now the point is, this isn’t called The Baptismal Covenant in Scotland. And in England, so far as I can get my head around the liturgy, it is entirely optional and even then only for those who have been baptised who can answer for themselves, not for babies.

Yet, my friends in the US and Canada speak about the Baptismal Covenant as though it is universally understood, always used at baptisms and as though it justifies all kinds of things.

For a lot of people over there, the questions about gay relationships, ordaining women as bishops and priests and all kinds of other issues about justice are simply answered with a shrug of the shoulders and “well, we need to do these things because of the baptismal covenant”.

I don’t think that I do well in explaining to friends from across the pond that though we may (or indeed may not) use the same words at baptisms, we don’t generally carry those ideas through into thinking that they are slam dunk answers to difficult questions that arise in other areas of church life. Indeed, they look at me as though I am bonkers. I don’t know anyone in the UK who would seriously argue in public that same-sex marriage or the ordination of women are obviously things that we should do because of anything to do with baptism yet that association is commonplace in other parts of the Anglican Communion.

I may be bonkers, of course. But I think I’m right to say that the north American churches believe that there is something going on at baptism that I think most Christians in the UK Anglican churches and indeed most Christians in all of the rest of Christendom through all the ages of the church would be bewildered and puzzled by.

I’m puzzled by it too. Though there is nothing in the Baptismal Covenant that I disagree with, it isn’t a set of promises that were either made on my behalf as a child nor was I asked to assert any of it when I was baptised.

When you travel, you discover that some things are universal. When you travel well, you realise that they are not the things that you expected to be universal.


Sermon preached by Peter Elliott

Here is the sermon preached last week by the Very Rev Peter Elliott, the Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver.