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Open Altars?
An article about the relationship between baptism and confirmation

By Canon Walter Goundry

A Common Mind? 

In this article, long-standing member Canon Walter Goundry raises the issue of the relationship between Baptism and Holy Communion and provokes scrutiny of the usefulness of Confirmation as currently practiced in the Church of England 

BAPTISM

I suspect that we shall never come to a common mind about infant baptism in the scriptures, nor indeed a common theology, for that latter depends on other things, our attitude to Fall and Creation. However the debate is important, for without it we shall not understand each other or decide what is acceptable for a Church that claims universality. The BI Update is the best instrument I know, having been a member almost from the beginning. I would suggest that all members should take extra copies and, if not available, reproduce them themselves and give them to all clergy and, where possible, leave them in public places. 

The question I ask is how necessary is common agreement and interpretation from the New Testament and church history? Indeed, is it possible? A liturgical scholar with regard to the Eucharist writes that it is impossible to say what exactly happened in the beginning or that anything was universal. The question then is: when things settled down, what shaped theology and practice and this then opens up the situation for us. What effect did culture then have on theology and practice? What effect did later events have? I remember Canon Couratin saying that the oil of baptism is the oil of bathing for those who could have a bath in the first century. 

Can we then just lift baptism from the NT and the early church and use it as a blueprint now? Our culture and knowledge is not theirs. Of course, there will be some guidelines in the past but one fact is always true for them and for now and that is the task of evangelism. In our world, with change in theology, with a rediscovery of some old truths, what is a good way to bring people to Christ? I am often astonished that St Paul could write that he became all things to all men in order to save some. He didn’t, of course. 

Many years ago when parish priest of a very lively and busy church, after much discussion and meetings with the bishop, and the local URC and the Baptists, the PCC decided not to baptise babies of non-attending families. In fact we had always taken great care over baptisms – classes etc, parish Eucharist, fixed Sunday. Parents had to get confirmed and come to church. The result was poor. The congregation was bored, irritated by the response. 

There was, as many will appreciate, much flak – letters to the bishop, articles/letters in the local press. The bishop, who much preferred a very open policy, nevertheless supported us. My successor who came from working in a country of strange beliefs moderated this policy. In what ways and why I do not know. He is now a bishop in the same mission field. I wonder what he does with those who believe in black magic? His successor has moderated the system further so that baptisms are more frequent. Will the congregation vote with their feet on these frequent occasions? 

It is easy to say that I wish I knew then what I know now. Practice would have been different. Retirement is a marvellous time for reading and learning. There would have been some modification with regard to baptism/thanksgiving and communion. 

No infant baptism, thanksgiving for everyone. A thanksgiving for birth is something that all people experience. Such a common practice would therefore both remind us of and strengthen our sense of community. It would get rid of the idea of a judgmental church in this issue – first and second class parents. It would also be a restoration of natural theology, of the goodness of God in nature and its wonder. This is already taking place. K Barth’s influence is waning. Christian scientists, stimulated by Darwin, yet not accepting that God is dead, have shown us how fantastic we are. Dr J le Fanu in “Why Us?” opened my eyes. G K Chesterton said that to be ordinary was extraordinary. Some theologians are questioning the gap between the natural and supernatural. 

This acceptance of thanksgiving is the first step of evangelism. We have to be born to be reborn – creation before re-creation. The Church, like Jesus.

He took a risk that in that meeting there might be a “disclosure moment”. There certainly won’t be without meeting Jesus. We stand in his place. We can’t expect people to become Christian or behave like Christians before they have met Christ. Gospel has to come before Law. Jesus is the Gospel as well as the proclaimer of it. Timothy Ratcliffe, “Why go to church?”, points out the dangers of identifying ourselves by our differences. Unnecessary differences can be removed without harm to the Church. 

When people came to Jesus, met Jesus, what did they see? Perhaps just a man or special man, a legion of suggestions. Some saw more. This should be our attitude. Baptism can then become the response of faith, the nailing of one’s colours to the mast, a commissioning for service, a finding of one’s gift for the Body, a public acceptance of responsibility. However we administer it, total immersion, chrismation, bishop or parish priest. This would solve the problem of those baptised as infants wishing to be re-baptised. It could well be that this practice will mean that sin is out for the time being. Again Gospel before Law.

OPEN ALTARS

At the moment the commonly accepted view is that we should be baptised and confirmed or otherwise in good standing to receive communion. I would abolish such a rule and admit all present at the Eucharist to receive and it seems to me possible to justify such a step from the New Testament. There are of course other possible views. Not all evidence is one way but in the present Church crisis, which best will serve God? 

An examination of all the occasions in the gospels when Jesus shared food with others, when he blessed and broke food, the references to the Kingdom and wedding celebrations, the feeding of the 5,000 the issue of who to invite. St Paul after the shipwreck suggests to me a more open Church. 

Such a policy, as with baptism/thanksgiving, is a restoration of the natural order. The creatures, elements of bread and wine the symbols of the goodness of God in the natural order, a celebration of creation, the marvels of nature which allow us to produce them, a thanksgiving for it and a reinstatement of it. We need more of the joy, celebration and wonder of celebration in the Eucharist. We need more of the psalm “for I am fearfully and wonderfully made”. Such a view should save us from the exploitation of others and the earth. 

Secondly it would be a reminder that we are ‘all in this together’, a reminder of our common humanity, of our common need to eat and drink. Of course, to some it will be just bread and wine, ordinary stuff – a response that Jesus met as a person. For all of us it is a reminder that the Eucharist is a community meal and that the Church and world is a community. 

We still debate the question about evangelism and the Eucharist. I don’t and can’t see how it isn’t. The Eucharist is the only divinely ordained service. If it doesn’t fulfil all the needs and responsibilities of the Church for itself and for the world, either Jesus has let us down or we have failed to use it aright. The Eucharist is the Gospel in miniature. If it isn’t fairly obviously so, then we have missed the point. 

I find it odd that we who hold the highest doctrine of the Eucharist, seeing there Christ himself, wish to treat  bread and wine, body and blood differently to Jesus’ treatment of himself. It is not that the divine presence is not there, or wasn’t in Jesus, but that he had no difficulty in meeting anybody and everybody. It was the religious that he had most problems with. Our God is a relational God first and foremost. A holy trinity which comes to meet us in Jesus with the opportunity to see more and move on. Our God in Jesus is a God who reveals and exposes himself, is a God of invitation. 

I am amazed when I hear clergy say that Jesus in the sacrament is nearer to us than if we walked beside him. This is a totally false division but it dictates how we behave. It is the one Jesus, the one Christ, who in our eyes may start as one person, but in his time become another to us. So then in the Eucharist we need to take the risk in meeting, as Jesus did and pray for a moving on, a moving on to baptism. 

It also seems churlish to have people at the Eucharist and not allow them to share bread with us. To some it will be bread and wine and remain so, some Christians believe that in any case, but in the context of the service and community that is not without significance. To others in the course of time, it will be Christ himself. 

As Anglicans we stress Word and Sacrament. If people can receive the Word, why not equally the Sacrament?  In all that we do or say, we are giving a picture of what God is like. Too often it seems to be Father nasty, Jesus nice. Not an encouraging image for evangelism! 

 

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