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
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
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
2 Cor 1:20-22, Eph 1:13-14, Eph 4:30 (sealing); 2 Cor 1:20-22, 1 John
2:20 & 27 (anointing)