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Testimony in Theology
Neil Perry reflects on his many years of struggle with the integrity of his teenage baptism and how his doubts, years later, were resolved by the renewal of baptismal vows.   A moving testimony of how God works in unexpected ways.

I sought an answer to this question all my adult life. Twice I underwent a rite of baptism but I had no understanding of what I was doing. The problem was that I had a pathological fear of God which eclipsed any sense of life-giving grace. Here I reflect on my journey in the light of scripture, tradition and psychology.

I was not baptised as an infant because my mother was from a Brethren tradition. From the age of eight, I suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Specifically, I developed an obsessive terror of God, death and judgement. I became convinced I was evil, God hated me personally and  I might be predestined for Hell. I found little comfort in the Bible, my interpretation of God’s word grotesquely contorted by fear. I was totally unequipped to deal with these fears, theologically and psychologically. At fourteen I asked to be baptised following a crippling bout. Shortly after, I was baptised by sprinkling and confirmed, the idea being that I would take 'preparation' classes afterwards. Sadly, this didn’t happen.

At nineteen I joined a Charismatic house-church which taught that sprinkling was not a valid baptism and was "re-baptised" by full immersion, though again I missed any preparation. My OCD went undiagnosed until I was forty-one, whereupon I was treated by a Christian psychologist and was cured in little over a year.  I learned that my struggles were an illness. I knew assuredly, for the first time, that God loved me, had saved me and would keep me - but was I truly baptised? Was my original baptism valid if it was done out of fear, not love? Was it valid anyway because it was by sprinkling instead of full-immersion? Was my second baptism a complete renunciation of the first? Was the second valid, as it was “In the name of Jesus” only?

Answers had to wait two years until I had migrated from Charismaticism to an Anglican, Sacramental tradition. At one baptism the congregation was sprinkled while being adjured “Remember your baptism into Christ”. As some drops hit my face, my breath was taken away by a wave of relief and a sense of cleansing.  I had encountered the life-giving affirmation of baptism for the first time. I was amazed by this church’s emphasis on baptism; having long been convinced of the tokenism of Anglican baptism,  I found myself faced with a rich, coherent theology. At the congregational renewal of baptismal vows at the Paschal Vigil on Holy Saturday I determined to crack this nut.

My spiritual director helped me glimpse God’s perspective on my situation: “The fourteen year-old Neil is a terrified lad who is seeking me but can only look through the dark glass of his OCD (1Cor 12.13,). He has no confidence in my judgement of him and fearful, not yet perfected in love (1Jn 4.17-18). But in grace I will not break this bruised reed (Isa 42.3). At his ‘second’ baptism the glass is  a little less dark. Nevertheless he is doing all of this for me.” This kairos moment unburdened me of guilt and fear. I saw that it was not my sin but my brokenness that was the heart of the issue.

It was recommended that, I enquire about renewing my baptismal vows. In the relevant sections of CW:Christian Initiation. I experienced another kairos moment on hearing the section title, “Rites of Affirmation: Appropriating Baptism”. The word “appropriating” electrified me and expressed all I was looking for - to experience the good of what I had already been through. Initially, my preparation consisted of attempting to forge a sound theology of baptism; I found www.baptism.org.uk particularly edifying but increasingly focused on devotional reflections. My principal reference being  “Seeking Life” by Esther de Waal.

I was struck by the intensely mystical baptismal liturgy of the early church, so very far removed from the ‘production line’ baptisms practised in some quarters today. The liturgy concluded with the newly baptised being commissioned to go and make disciples (Matt 28.19). I found this exhilarating and equipping; I was free to serve without fear (Lk 1.74). In my teens, smothered by my obsessive fear, I had experienced only the ‘burial’, as if “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death” (Rom 6.3-4a). Now I read Paul’s statement to completion, “...in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom 6.4b-5). In the words of Cyril of Jerusalem, “Baptism is a burial and a resurrection”. I accepted I was not just buried but resurrected (Col 2.12); raised, hidden, and living in Christ (Col 3.1-4). In my former tradition, baptism was seen as a bare act of public confession of faith. I had always sensed that there was more to it than that. Now I learned that, “a sacrament not only signifies but also efficaciously confers by sanctification” (Hugh of St Victor). I was finally ready to appropriate these blessings, “For a gift is not just given; it must also be recognized, claimed, received” (De Waal).

On All Saint’s Day 2009, I renewed the baptismal vows I had made 30 years earlier. The words of the Decision were definitively mine, no more doubt nor torment. In recognition of the validity of the baptism I was to affirm, I wore an alb throughout the liturgy, not just after the vows. This was an immensely important act connecting me with my troubled past and redeeming it (Isa 61.10). The Lectionary readings were stunningly relevant: the Lord swallowing up death forever, his people rejoicing, having waited for him (Isa 25.6-9) and particularly Lazarus being called out of death and released from his binding grave-clothes (Jn 11.32-44)! Verses from Longfellow’s “The Nun of Nidaros” were quoted in the homily:This poetic simile reflected my spiritual director’s insight; no matter how dry and barren my life has been, God’s love has rained torrentially, albeit unseen until now. The Wilderness could rejoice (Isa 35.1-4).

As torrents in summer,
Half dried in their channels,
Suddenly rise,
though the Sky is still cloudless,
For rain has been falling
Far off at their fountains;
So hearts that are fainting
Grow full to o'erflowing,
And they that behold it
Marvel, and know not
That God at their fountains
Far off has been raining!”

In conclusion, my appropriation of baptismal vows has given me the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things unseen (Heb 11.1). I know that faith is not predicated on perfect obedience or the whim of a belligerent god, it is the wiling gift of a gracious God (Eph 2.8-10)

 

Neil would be happy to correspond with anyone wishing to enquire about his story.  Contact at webmaster@stmarysoldbasing.org.uk  

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