Have you heard that the Church of England has voted to wash some Bible imagery from its baptism rite? What’s your view?

Here’s mine. On the one hand, I’m all for cultural sensitivity. On the other hand, I’m also for scriptural authenticity. Critical contextualization involves striving for both. So when it comes to contextualizing Christian rites – whether we’re talking baptism or ordinary Sunday services – what I like to ask is, where are our sacred stories in the alternative worship styles we’re experimenting with? Are the stories washed out or are they contextually sharpened?

You be the judge of this. Here’s what they consider problematic:

In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

Here’s what’s proposed instead:

Heavenly Father, bless this water, that whoever is washed in it may be made one with Christ in the fellowship of your Church, and be brought through every tribulation to share the risen life that is ours in Jesus Christ our Lord.

15 thoughts on “Watering down baptism?

  1. Hi Matt,
    thanks, I have been following this. My own take is since all language is metaphor, especially religious language, we need to be very careful not to write out the mystery in an attempt to be more relevant or sensitive. As CS Lewis says,
    “Compare “Our Father which art in Heaven” with “The supreme being transcends space and time”. The first goes to pieces if you begin to apply literal meaning to it. How can anything but a sexual animal really be a father? How can it be in the sky? The second falls into no such traps. On the other hand the first really means something, really represents a concrete experience in the minds of those who use it: the second is mere dextrous playing with counters, and once a man has learned the rule he can go on that way for two volumes without really using the words to refer to any concrete fact at all …”
    Methinks the CoE is approaching the second.

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  2. “…Stratford said many people today did not have enough background in the Bible to understand the images used in the current baptism services.”
    Really? People who are being baptized don’t understand these Biblical images? At the risk of being entirely too snarky, why are they being baptized, then?

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  3. Jarred has hit the nail on the head though. Here’s Dorothy Sayers making the same point in different language in 1941:
    “Teachers and preachers never, I think, make it sufficiently clear that dogmas are not a set of arbitrary regulations invented a priori by a committee of theologians enjoying about of all-in dialectical wrestling. Most of them were hammered out under the pressure of urgent practical necessity to provide an answer to heresy. And heresy is, as I have tried to show, largely to expression of opinion of the untutored average man, trying to grapple with the problems of the universe at the point where they begin to interfere with his daily life and thought. To me, engaged in my diabolical occupation of going to and fro in the world and walking up and down in it, conversations and correspondence bring daily a magnificent crop of all the standard heresies. As practical examples of the life and thought of the “average man” I am extremely familiar with them, thought I had to hunt through the Encyclopaedia to fit them with their proper theological title for the purpose of this address. For the answers I need not go so far: they are compendiously set forth in the creeds. But an interesting fact is this: that nine out of ten of my heretics are exceedingly surprised to discover that Creeds contain any statements that bear a practical and comprehensible meaning. If I tell them that it is an article of faith that the same God who made the world endured the suffering of the world, they ask in perfect good faith what connection there is between that statement and the story of Jesus. If I draw their attention to the dogma that the same Jesus who was the Divine Love was also Light of Light, the Divine Wisdom, they are very surprised. Some of them thank me heartily for this entirely novel and original interpretation of Scripture, which they have never heard before and suppose me to have invented. Others say irritably that they don’t like to think that wisdom and religion have anything to do with one another, and that I should do much better to cut out the wisdom and reason and intelligence and stick to a simple gospel of love. But whether they are pleased or annoyed, they are interested; and the thing that interests them, whether or not they suppose it to be my invention, is the resolute assertion of the dogma.”
    (Sayers, “Creed or Chaos”)

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  4. Jarred said…
    “…Stratford said many people today did not have enough background in the Bible to understand the images used in the current baptism services.”
    Andrew says:
    All the more reason to re-introduce some form of catechism teaching to them, so that they actually do have enough basic and necessary background in the Biblical text before they are invited to get baptised.

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  5. I think the C of E baptises infants, doesn’t it? My understanding is that it is rare for an adult to be baptised, so the catechetical teaching would only perhaps do some good to those old enough to grasp its implications.
    Maybe there should be “virtual baptism” on “cloud computing”, after all there is now a Vatican-approved software app for confession!
    Only kidding! About the virtual baptism, that is. There really IS a confession app available… not develped by the Roman Catholic Church, but produced with priestly guidance and approved by Papa, although apparently, one can’t receive absolution that way.
    Back to the proposed alternative wording… the old wording mentions Christ and the Spirit, but not the presence of the Father. The new wording mentions the Father and Christ, but not the Spirit. Perhaps they should amalgamate them so that baptism is a Trinitarian-presenced rite of passage into the faith community called “the church”.
    With a Catholic father, Protestant mother, upbringing in the Lutheran Church and colourful journey amongst Pentecostals, Anglicans, Baptists and sundry other persuasions of Christianity throughout adulthood, I have probably heard the broad spectrum of arguments over the questions about whether an infant, child, or adult can be deemed dinkumly dunked. However, somewhere amidst all the arguments, the Pauline descriptions of identifying with Christ’s death and being raised to new life in the Spirit by the glory of the Father are never disputed.
    (NIV) Romans 6:3-5
    “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
    5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
    and Romans 8:10-12
    “10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life[a] because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of[b] his Spirit who lives in you.”

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  6. I’m with Jarred and Andrew here. Maybe I’m showing my Baptist bias, but I consider baptism to be an ‘initiation rite’ first and foremost, and a ‘life cycle rite’ secondarily at best. The CofE here seem to be grappling with what to do when the primary meaning has faded from public view but the secondary meaning lingers on.

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  7. CofE ordained being here …
    Yes we do baptise infants and we’re in the midst of de-christendomising. This issue arises from the latest liturgical revision and is actually two problems which don’t necessarily co-ordinate. One is that the revised rite is longer and has more ‘hard core’ language which plays better with suburban congregations but in urban priority areas of Liverpool (where the motion stemmed from) is quite difficult -it’s a different style of English. It is true, however that the other issue is that in some cases a motivator is about relatively ‘uncatechised’ families. However, it is also long recognised that inner-urban Christians often find the kinds of liturgies the CofE habitually produces difficult. The motion is mostly about that issue. I *think* the example cited here is just a suggestion, because my understanding is that the vote was to ask for the matter to be looked at and suggestions brought forward.
    As a liturgical leader who has used the service and its predecessor, the newer version is more wearying to go through though slightly better at making the link between faith of the household and the sacrament (the biblical basis is there).
    Readers may be interested to know that baptisms of adults in the CofE are increasing and that the percentage of the general population being baptised as infants is decreasing -which probably indicates in crude terms the ‘de-christendomising’ process.
    The thing to watch is how the balance between those who want to simplify and contextualise in order to try to claw back a market for Christendom-baptism and those who simply want to make liturgy more ‘understanded of the people’.

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  8. Yes, the last is particularly important. There is nothing intrinsically sacred about ye olde English and translating in order to be understood is a legitimate goal. It’s where the authenticity is lost in translation that things become more problematic. Where the sacrificial challenge is itself sacrificed to the idol of market share.
    In a market where the primary meaning of baptism has been forgotten or rejected and only the secondary meaning retains any meaning for the average person in the street I think we have to accept our own incomprehensability for what it is. A consequence of living to the beat of a different drum. Trying to ‘make’ ourselves relevant for the wrong reasons reminds me too much of the Kevin Smith movie “Dogma”

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  9. In fact the interesting thing to note that it is often difference which precisely makes someone relevant.
    For example, Einstein was relevant to the early 20th century precisely because he was saying stuff that challenged the status quo, not because he was following everyone else. Sometimes difference is precisely what makes a difference.
    I think we’re in danger of forgetting that that cultural contextualization of a radical challenge and me-too-ism are not the same thing.

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  10. You may be interested to know that there are some of us in the CofE who are trying to say that we should attempt to respond to the requests that aren’t fundamentally about a household-in-discipleship not by continuing to offer baptism when asked for a christening, but rather make the best and default offering a service where blessing, thanksgiving, naming and praying for the family are the primary things -done well and in a way that affirms children and parents (seeing Mark 10:13 as a primary inspiration) and then to keep the properly Baptismal concerns for a sacramental occasion either following some catechising or delayed until the child concerned makes up their own mind about the issue.
    Of course, in a not-quite-yet-post-christendom situation that is not always easy if there is a whiff of 2nd-class about the treatment. On the other hand, in an early-post-christendom situation, offering a service where there is a positive affirmation but not yet commitment is actually a good way to keep contact where people are leary of the commitments they have spotted embedded in the baptismal rite as we have it. …
    Much of this is stuff that probably won’t be a problem in 50 years! (The transition will have been made by then).
    So let me say: I hope the outcome of this request for further revision of the rite will maintain the greater robustness of the last revision (2000, Common Worship) with regard to stating fairly clearly the commitments being asked of the parents/household. I would also hope that it will give the cleaner lines and simplicity of the previous revision (the 1980 ASB rite). So this would mean, in all, a greater brevity but without losing the clear call for commitment.

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  11. I am concerned about the loss of uncomfortability that is attached to the revision.
    Jesus’s Gospel teaching was never about accommodating the popular culture of His day, but about challenging people toward a total embrace of a radical new future and direction. It meant surrendering all they had and were, and deliberating choosing to follow Christ into a fulfilling an totally different lifestyle narrative in juxtaposition to the one that their `contemporary’ institution had leveraged them into through religious -legal systems, cultural-liturgies and practices that enforced “at the point of sword”.
    To the early believer, baptism symbollised the death of one lifestyle, and their taking up of another. It was clear public sign to both believers, and to non-believers, that they had rejected a dominant liturgy of religious-legal slavery and spiritual oppression, to take up Jesus’light yoke of discipleship which is to believers is emancipation into `new freedom’ – to know, follow, obey and serve their messianic Lord.
    John the Baptist’s preaching in Luke 3:3-9 indicates very clearly that simply submitting to the `rite’ of
    being dipped into the River Jordan to demonstrate an outward sign to onlookers of their `religious piety’ didn’t `cut to the mustard of things’ spiritually.
    For baptism to mean anything spiritually, it must be accompanied by genuine repentance from lifestyles of sin, as evidenced by them bearing “fruits that befit repentance” (Lk 3:8).
    In Lk 3:10-14, John provides examples of the fruits of radical lifestyle and behavioural change following the genuine repentance, which accompany baptism. These are personally, socially and vocationally risky fruits, in that they engaged the baptised into deliberate acts of social compassion and economic justice toward the poor and other victims of an oppressive mainstream society -to be activists for God’s radical justice, instead of being actively or passively complicit in the institutionalised oppression of those same victims when implementing their day-to-day professional vocations or general lifestyles within their local communities. Doing these fruits which befitted repentance would inevitably stand out. They would cause them to become conspicuous. It would cost them their jobs, friends, positions within the established social order, would cause them to become more identified with the socially outcaste, ostracized and marginalised of their community, and would put them odds with the `status quo’ respectable of their own local communities. They would be perceived as a threat to the mainstream social order of doing things. It may cost them their jobs, wealth, status, families and friends, and even their lives when these Baptised took the teachings of John the Baptist to heart and seriously in their lives.
    Baptism was not to be only some pretty-pious religious rite done as some one-off liturgical happening in the local Sabbath service.
    To the early believers it signified something far more radical than that. It symbollised nothing short of the putting to death of one type of lifestyle predisposed toward sin, greed, self and death and being rebirthed through a committment to faith and following of Jesus into a lifestyle of emptying of self into service of others, compassion for the broken hearted , justice for the poor and victims of society dedicated to pursuing and promoting the new vision and destiny He as Messiah hoped for society.
    Jesus’ vision for society was highly conflicted with the narrative being pursued by an dominant religious-political institutional in his times.
    The dominant Jewish religious-institutional order took for granted its special `choseness’ status by God. The preaching of John the Baptist in Lk 3:8f was extremely controversial because it directly challenged an belief that, by virtual of being born physically as a Jew one automatically became a child of Abraham and hence then the child of God, and the guaranteed heir of all God’s promises to Abraham.
    Not so! said John. Only those who walk in the ways of God – which requires genuine repentance from the ways of the sin-driven world and a lifestyle of good faith as demonstrated through bearing “fruits which befit repentance” – are God’s children. The rest are estranged from God due to their sins.
    People don’t like to be told that they are estranged from God due to their sins. That was a fact in both John’s and Jesus’ time as much as it is today. And that was one of the key reasons that both of these truth-tellers were murdered at the sanction of the state, as any of the other reasons given by the legal-religious authorities to justify their executions on behalf of the state.
    Yet in order to be reborn in Christ, one first needs to be confronted (with the Gospel message) that they are estranged from God due to sin. Like Israel their denial of their sinfulness and estrangement from God needs to be confronted with prophetic biblical truth and any other truths necessary for them to accept in order for them to acknowledge that as the facts, and that in order to resolve that situation they need to repent from and die to an lifestyle enslaved to sin, and to surrender themselves to the mercy, grace, and forgiveness of God.
    Israel in John and Jesus’ time was in denial of its estrangement from God, and therefore it’s need to be reconciled with God. It could not accept it was ‘out of God’s will’ for it because it presumed it was, by virtual of its Abrahamic ancestry and birthright `in God’s will’ already. That it could need to repent or need a Saviour to save them from their sins was both scandalous and heretical as a notion. Many Jews whom John confronted in Lk 3:7-9 were clearly fronting up for a baptism rite because it was `piously-publicly’ fashionably religious to do so, and not because they interpreted themselves as sinners, or estranged from God in any way. It was just a nice religious act for them to do which was then rather trendy, and tickled their sense of religious piety, and being public too would somehow add `kudos’ to them being venerated by their peers as `holier’ by submitting to the process by the mystic-prophet in front of the massive crowds
    of Jews there.
    Before people can be reconciled to God through faith in Christ, they first need to accept that they are estranged from God through their sins.
    One of the key problems I have with the revision of the baptismal liturgy by the C of E is that, in seeking to accommodate people’s feelings and sensitivities about it as a popular rite of passage they are ignoring its original intentions.
    Although I accept that a baptismal rite of passage moment can also become the point of conversion to somebody to faith in Christ, for the most part those converts undergoing the public rite of passage have already undergone through a much more important “baptism of heart” which occurs inwardly upon their own acknowledgement of their sin, estrangement from God, and need for God’s grace and forgiveness of sin, and for reconciliation back to God which occurs through the work of Christ on the cross, the resurrection etc. Water baptism is metaphoric of something they have already gone through in accepting Jesus as their Lord and Saviour prior to submitting themselves before their peers of the Christian community in respect to being publicly identified with Christ and with them as His Church. But there is estrangement, death, , repentance, I am concerned about the loss of uncomfortability that is attached to the revision.
    Jesus’s Gospel teaching was never about accommodating the popular culture of His day, but about challenging people toward a total embrace of a radical new future and direction. It meant surrendering all they had and were, and deliberating choosing to follow Christ into a fulfilling an totally different lifestyle narrative in juxtaposition to the one that their `contemporary’ institution had leveraged them into through religious
    -legal systems, cultural-liturgies and practices that enforced “at the point of sword”.
    To the early believer, baptism symbollised the death of one lifestyle, and their taking up of another. It was clear public sign to both believers, and to non-believers, that they had rejected a dominant liturgy of religious-legal slavery and spiritual oppression, to take up Jesus’light yoke of discipleship which is to believers is emancipation into `new freedom’ – to know, follow, obey and serve their messianic Lord.
    John the Baptist’s preaching in Luke 3:3-9 indicates very clearly that simply submitting to the `rite’ of
    being dipped into the River Jordan to demonstrate an outward sign to onlookers of their `religious piety’ didn’t `cut to the mustard of things’ spiritually.
    For baptism to mean anything spiritually, it must be accompanied by genuine repentance from lifestyles of sin, as evidenced by them bearing “fruits that befit repentance” (Lk 3:8).
    In Lk 3:10-14, John provides examples of the fruits of radical lifestyle and behavioural change following the genuine repentance, which accompany baptism. These are personally, socially and vocationally risky fruits, in that they engaged the baptised into deliberate acts of social compassion and economic justice toward the poor and other victims of an oppressive mainstream society -to be activists for God’s radical justice, instead of being actively or passively complicit in the institutionalised oppression
    of those same victims when implementing their day-to-day professional vocations or general lifestyles within their local communities. Doing these fruits which befitted repentance would inevitably stand out. They would cause them to become conspicuous. It would cost them their jobs, friends, positions within the established social order, would cause them to become more identified with the socially outcaste, ostracized and marginalised of their community, and would put them odds with the `status quo’ respectable of their own local communities. They would be perceived as a threat to the mainstream social order of doing things. It may cost them their jobs, wealth, status, families and friends, and even their lives when these Baptised took the teachings of John the Baptist to heart and seriously in their lives.
    Baptism was not to be only some pretty-pious religious rite done as some one-off liturgical happening in the local Sabbath service.
    To the early believers it signified something far more radical than that. It symbollised nothing short of the putting to death of one type of lifestyle predisposed toward sin, greed, self and death and being rebirthed through a committment to faith and following of Jesus into a lifestyle of emptying of self into service of others, compassion for the broken hearted , justice for the poor and victims of society dedicated to pursuing and promoting the new vision and destiny He as Messiah hoped for society.
    Jesus’ vision for society was highly conflicted with the narrative being pursued by an dominant religious-political institutional in his times.
    The dominant Jewish religious-institutional order took for granted its special `Choseness’ status by God. The preaching of John the Baptist in Lk 3:8f was extremely controversial because it directly challenged an belief that, by virtual of being born physically as a Jew one automatically became a child of Abraham and hence then the child of God, and the guaranteed heir of all God’s promises to Abraham.
    “Not so!” said John. Only those who walk in the ways of God – which requires genuine repentance from the ways of the sin-driven world and a lifestyle of good faith as demonstrated through bearing “fruits which befit repentance” – are God’s children. The rest are estranged from God due to their sins.
    People don’t like to be told that they are estranged from God due to their sins. That was a fact in both John’s and Jesus’ time as much as it is today. That was one of the key reasons both these truth-tellers were eventually murdered at the sanction of the state, as much any of the other reasons given by the legal-religious authorities to justify their executions on behalf of the state.
    Yet in order to be reborn in Christ, one first needs to be confronted (with the Gospel message) that they are estranged from God due to sin. Like Israel their denial of their sinfulness and estrangement from God needs to be confronted with prophetic biblical truth and any other truths necessary for them to accept in order for them to acknowledge that as the facts, and that in order to resolve that situation they need to repent from and die to an lifestyle enslaved to sin, and to surrender themselves to the mercy, grace, and forgiveness of God.
    Israel in John and Jesus’ time was in denial of its estrangement from God, and therefore its need to be reconciled with God. It could not accept it was ‘out of God’s will’ for it because it presumed it was, by virtual of its Abrahamic ancestry and birthright `in God’s will’ already. That it could need to repent or need a Saviour to save them from their sins was both scandalous and heretical as a notion. Many Jews whom John confronted in Lk 3:7-9 were clearly fronting up for a baptism rite because it was `piously-publicly’ fashionably religious to do so, and not because they interpreted themselves as sinners, or estranged from God in any way. It was just a nice religious act for them to do which was then rather trendy, and tickled their sense of religious piety, and being public too would somehow add `kudos’ to them being venerated by their peers as `holier’ by submitting to the process by the mystic-prophet in front of the massive crowds Jews there.
    I take it that by watering down the meaning of baptism the intention is to make it more “consumer-friendly” to the ears, eyes and sensibilities of potential participants.
    Those doing it seem to believe that it will make the “baptismal option” more culturally-palatable as a rite of passage for themselves, their friends and children, as it will put the language in a much more positive idiom for our times.
    However, if we take the teachings of John the Baptist seriously, we must interpret baptism in a far different light to what is being proposed by the revisionists.
    Clearly in John’s teaching, one’s choice to be baptised, although a positive rite of passage, also involved certain rewards to the participant as well as certain costs.
    In John the Baptist’s Gospel there are certain unsettling truths about our humanity, such as our sin which estranges us from God and which cannot be denied by us, but dealt with through genuine life reorienting repentance resulting in `good fruit’ which bears tangible and credible evidence of our true conversion. People will notice it, and it may either cause them to join in the journey with us, or it may cause them to revile, hate, persecute or otherwise oppose us. It may cost us our jobs, our position within the community among our peers, financially, and it may even cost us our lives. Those are crosses we may have to bear because of our standing up to be counted for Christ publically as His baptised people committed to promoting His Way to a yet unconverted and off-side world. It is our choice to stand with Christ against the dominant powers whose narrative for the world stands in opposition to God’s counter-narrative and vision for the world.
    I am concerned also that the revisionists, in their attempts to accommodate the political-religious notions of the dominant powers of status quo society, ignore the subversive nature of the Gospel in terms of how John depicted baptism and in terms of how Jesus confronted the dominant political-religious correctnesses during the broader span of the biblical text. Softening the hard truths of the Gospel message because they resulted in conflicts with popular religious or social opinion was never an option in Jesus’ teaching or in the teachings of the prophets who preceded Him.

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  12. You know, I had an interesting conversation last night on “bounded-set” versus “centred-set” approaches to baptism.
    Baptism, viewed from a bounded-set perspective, can become a bit of a box ticking exercise. Church says, “Okay, you don’t smoke. Okay, you keep sex within marriage. Okay, you go to church. Okay, you’ve been baptised. Okay, you can now call yourself a Christian!” It’s customary in many churches but I find such box ticking can put some Baptists off baptism entirely. “Hey, but I’ve considered myself a Christian for years! Are you saying my faith was insufficient before? Are you saying dunking makes all the difference? Aren’t we saved by faith alone? If I get baptised now, years down the track, doesn’t that call the authenticity of my earlier faith commitment into question? No thanks!” In this way people inclined towards centred-set Christianity can, ironically, reject baptism as a threat to their understanding of faith!
    But a centred-set approach to baptism is not the oxymoron it is sometimes supposed to be. It just takes a little unlearning. Baptism, viewed from a centred-set perspective, can be seen as an act of commitment. It’s not saying “I’ve arrived” someplace, it’s just saying “I’ve turned” towards someone (and now I’m ready to express that symbolically). As you’ve said, it’s an expression of repentance and realignment. It’s a pledge of alligence. It’s an act of coming out. Ooooo, I could have all sorts of fun with that last thought.

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  13. Post-modern Adult education practice acknowledges “unlearning” as a great part of life-long learning. One of the wonders of a life-long journey with the Scriptures is an education of process and progress… hopefully a continual “becoming”… an experience of constant renewal of the mind, since the conformation to culture is not always positive and beneficial. There’s always something new… something to bury… something to exhume… something to reform and reshape… a cycle of death and resurrection… dying to the old… rising to the new.
    If anybody knows Lutheran catechetical teaching on Baptism, there is plenty of fun to be had with your mention of “coming out”, Matt. The English translations of Luther’s small Catechism when I learnt it, are becoming more archaic by the minute… with such things as “a new man come forth daily and arise” etc. I guess that could be one of the reasons to revise wording of the Baptismal rite, just as it’s important to revise the translations of the Bible into contemporarily understood language.

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