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Baptism?  Just Christen Him Please!
Michael Saward, formerly Canon of St Paul's Cathedral

Portrait of the past

 Centuries ago, when I was first ordained, the Church of England baptised more or less anything that moved - about 70% of the live births.  Never mind that for hundreds of years the vast majority of people avoided any realistic voluntary link with the local church after Sunday School, and that those who did go, in rural England, often went because they needed to keep in with the squire.

The whole thing, even up to the 1960’s, came perilously close to superstition.  “Gran says it’s got to be done or Little Willie won’t do well.”  Nothing to do with Little Willie’s career prospects - it was fear that he might sicken and die if he wasn’t “christened”  You can’t get much more superstitious than that.  I remember hearing such phrases quite frequently.

Did the clergy condone these extraordinary attitudes?  Back in 1960 in my second curacy I was asked to speak at my Deanery Chapter about infant baptism.  It was a fairly average gathering, cheifly made up of elderly incumbents, covering the full churchmanship range.  What shook me was that almost none of them had, as far as I could judge, any coherent baptismal theology at all.  They simply did it and were faintly embarrassed when no-one offered any serious theological explanation for their pastoral practice.  They all seemed to welcome my attempt to suggest a “covenant” theology.  No-one had ever heard of it!  Quite a few wished they could exercise some discipline but there was no lead from the bishops and they weren’t prepared to risk a controversy off their own bats.  Indiscriminate practice was simply the Anglican way in England and they grudgingly accepted it.  Most actually respected those parishes which tried to make some disciplinary sense of the shambles.

 Practice in the present 

Today it is radically different.  In London diocese the infant baptism figure is 8% of live births.  Most urban areas are under 25%.  Only in Carlisle, Hereford and Lincoln are the figures a little below 50%, and they, incidentally, have the lowest per capita giving in the land.  Typical folk religion statistics.  So why the huge change in 40 years?

I suspect there are three reasons.  One relates to the large growth in non-Christian immigrants.  The second reason is obvious enough: many young people of two generations have grown up indifferent to the Christian church, and their attitude to marriage has affected their demand for infant baptism.  Ignorant of the faith, they see no reason to inflict ritual mumbo-jumbo on their offspring.  That’s the main reason.  Only in TV soap-operas do all the community’s rogues, whores and generally godless non-descripts dutifully fill the pews for hatchings, matchings and despatchings.  Surprisingly, they all sing hymns lustily!

The third reason is that clergy and congregations are less and less willing to watch (in the main Sunday services) baptismal promises being taken by people who are totally unknown and who seem willing to make promises which they show no evidence of intending to keep.

Forthright in the future 

Those of us who have worked for a lifetime in parishes and Synods trying to make baptism match in reality the fundamental sacramental rite of new-birth aren’t too worried that the country is coming to face up to its spiritual indifference and lethargy.  We aren’t taken in by the assumption that “spirituality” (as popularly conceived) necessarily means anything to do with the Christian faith.  And that gives us something to grapple with.  Real evangelism becomes possible.  Truth can challenge vague ignorance.

Sadly, at exactly this point, many Anglican leaders have got the jitters and talk in a high-flown way of “unqualified grace”.  They are desperate to bump up the baptismal figures and reduce the language of challenge in favour of sweet words which offend no-one.  But what is the theology behind it?

There are only two possibilities.  One speaks of absolutist grace.  Heaven and hell depend on the sacramental new birth, and “you must be born again” means “you must be baptised.”  But the nation clearly assumes that we take a totally universalist position, and if God loves everyone so much that everyone is saved, why waste time in church for baptism?

The other option is that of the Covenant.  God makes a promise and it is eternal: that’s where our salvation and the church start.  Baptism at its core and essence is about receiving this promise and responding to it.  In the new Millennium we have, for the first time in 1500 years, the chance to see whether the gospel really does have the power to break into the lives of those who as yet have little or no knowledge of Jesus.  Let’s use that gospel’s sacraments with respect and integrity.  Who knows what might happen as a result?   

* Rom 6:3-4, 1 Cor 1:13-17, 1 Cor 10:1-4, 1 Cor 12:13, 1 Cor 15:29, Gal 3:26-29, Eph 4:3-5,     Col 2:11-13, 1 Pet 3:18-21; 1 Cor 6:11, Eph 5:25-27, Titus 3:5-7, Heb 10:22-23 (washing);        2 Cor 1:20-22, Eph 1:13-14, Eph 4:30 (sealing); 2 Cor 1:20-22, 1 John 2:20 & 27 (anointing)

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