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.

Our own little Anglican Communion

We had a great day yesterday at St Mary’s with the Very Rev Peter Elliott visiting from Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver. The way that the rotas resolved themselves meant that we had a preacher from the Anglican Church of Canada, a celebrant (me) from the Scottish Episcopal Church, a deacon, Chucks from the Church of Nigeria (Anglican Communion) and the Scottish Episcopal Church and a subdeacon (Akma) from the US based Episcopal Church. Fluttering delicately around all of that were servers who bring skills and experience from the Church in Wales via the Church of the Province of Southern Africa, the Methodist Church in the USA and the Roman Catholic Church in England. And that isn’t to start on where the congregation came from.

We are at St Mary’s sometimes our own little Anglican Communion and it is lovely.

Peter Elliott and his congregation in Vancouver showed me great kindness when I was travelling in North America on my sabbatical last year and it was a delight to have him here in Glasgow.

Peter and his husband Thomas were travelling to Iona in the company of other North American clergy who are heading off for a time of refreshment and renewal with one another and a few of them were around in St Mary’s on Sunday too.

The world of deans and rectors of larger churches is quite different in North America to the world of Provosts here in Scotland. Generally speaking, their world has far greater financial resources to draw on and it can be quite seductive. Not a few people have asked me since I returned, “ooh, aren’t you tempted?”

However, it is not simply a case of the grass being greener. Having travelled over there I know that quite well. Those who have roles equivalent to mine in ecclesiastical terms do some things the same and other things quite differently. Many, for example, on the other side of the Atlantic need to spend their time on fund raising in a way that would be unimaginable here. (Scheduling several fund-raising visits or lunches a week is not that unusual). I’ve learned that those jobs are very different to my own. Here in Scotland we tend to do things much more on the cheap. It is a very different fund-raising culture. That isn’t to say there are not important lessons to be learned from those on the other side of the pond on this topic, but things are very different.

Here in the UK though we have differently developed key skills. Not least, clergy here in larger places need to be very skilled at building a community where people want to serve and want to offer something. Helping people to offer their gifts is a core skill and not always one which we think about enough. If we have any expertise, it is in gathering a congregation that is so focussed on a vision of life-enhancing and world-renewing worship that they want to join in and collaborate in bringing that vision of the kingdom in.

It has its own excitement and yesterday at St Mary’s was one of those days where that excitement was tangible.

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada

It was good to have Archbishop Fred Hiltz here this morning. He is the Primate of the Anglican Church fo Canada and along with all the rest of them is going down to the Lambeth Conference on Tuesday.

They are going by bus. Imagine, 12 Hours in a bus full of bishops and their spouses in July, and that  before the fun really gets going.

Anyway, I recorded Archbishop Fred and have put the sermon on the new website rather than on here.

I’ve put it under the spirituality menu heading at the top, though I dare say we could debate the hierarchy of those menus for many a happy day.

I think that we will keep comments here for now rather than enable them on the website, though that again is a judgement that could well be questionable.

One interesting aspect was that he got a turnout from the press. Someone from the Danish press was there to hear him ahead of an interview tomorrow. It was also reported to me that there was someone there from the Star.

“The Star!” I exclaimed in the manner not unlike Edith Evans playing Lady Bracknell.

Turned out to be the Toronto Star. Different paper altogether.

O Canada!

The Canadian Anglicans came within a hair’s breadth of allowing dioceses to allow same-sex blessing yesterday. The measure was passed decisively by laity and clergy and then defeated by a couple of votes in their House of Bishops. Rather an uncomfortable situation for one or two bishops, I would guess.

It rather highlights something which I’ve thought for a while. These debates are, on the face of it, about gay people. Those who are opposed to same-sex blessings think that in their hearts that this is really about “the authority of scripture”. However, the real issue which we are debating now has long since moved on. What we are trying to work out is how we square an episcopal system with a synodical one. If you look at the comments of people on blogs and elsewhere when something like this comes up in a synod, it is almost impossible to conclude that there is a strong belief for many Anglicans that the Holy Spirit is involved in synodical government. [The pneumatology of the blogsphere is appallingly lax, if you want to be technical about it].

There are those who believe that the Scottish Episcopal Church is an episcopally ordered church. It isn’t of course, it is a synodically ordered church in which bishops have to find their place. What that place is, is at the heart of so much of this debate, and we share that debate with others in the Anglican Communion. Do theology, doctrine, liturgy, truth etc flow from the bishops into the church? Of course not, but we have yet to decide their role and it must be horrible for them to live through this time.

I’ve seen with my own eyes, and heard with my own ears, what is happening to bishops through all of this, and it is not pretty. The discrepancy between what can sometimes be said in public and what can be said in private is stark and ugly and leaves them vulnerable and, I suspect miserable. It is hard not to pity them, and pity is such a violent emotion.

Sometimes, when it seems as though some bishops have become incapable of telling truths even about things that matter little, we need to remember the pressures on them. No wonder they ask us to pray for them every day.