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.


Same-Sex Blessings Authorised for Trial Use

Through the wonders of the internet, I was watching last night as the US based Episcopal Church General Convention voted to allow a formal liturgy for Same-Sex Blessings to be authorised for trial use in such dioceses and congregations which chose to allow them.

It was an undramatic moment, it has to be said – they managed to get themselves into a mire of procedural motions before the vote which was clearly testing everyone’s patience.

No-one who has followed the goings on of the US church will be at all surprised by this development though I suppose it might well be a moment when some of the shrill grumpy voices pipe up.

Here in Scotland, interestingly, we don’t seem to be going down the line of producing a special liturgy for same-sex couples to be blessed with. The gay community in Scotland owes a great debt to my ecclesiastical neighbour the Rev David McCarthy for suggesting some years ago in a Synod debate that if one simply chooses option A at each stage of the Scottish Episcopal Marriage Liturgy you get a service which curiously does not mention gender much at all. A little massaging of words like wife, husband and marriage and you have a liturgy ideally suited for blessing same-sex couples.

Certainly, I’ve known a couple of couples recently who are indebted to Fr David for having made this suggestion. It is ingenious and has meant that there is no great pressure building up in our church to produce a formal liturgy of blessing separate to the marriage liturgy. I’m not sure that they actually toast “The McCarthy Liturgy” at their wedding breakfasts, but perhaps they should do.

I think that it is all to the good that we are not going down the line right now of producing a separate liturgy, particularly in the light of current conversations about equal marriage which are taking place in the political sphere and with which many people from the churches are engaged.

I have to confess to thinking that the actual liturgy that the US based church has authorized is a little unexciting. Maybe though, that is the point. If you devise a dazzling liturgy for blessing gay couples, everyone else will want one too.

You can find the blessing service online. (Go to page 67 to find the liturgy). Strictly speaking, that is the version that went to General Convention – it has been modified a little since then. I can’t find a clean version of the newly authorized liturgy, but no doubt one will appear soon. If you know of a link to such a file, do please post it below.

So, what do you think?