In my opinion, the first of the new initiation services have not been
received as enthusiastically as they might have been.
I personally think this is a great pity: it not only dampens expectations
of what is to follow, but it also traps congregations in their past experiences
rather than encouraging them to reflect and advance.
A big part of the problem is that the new services have a new style, in
at least three respects:
They’re not like the ASB services for which you basically
“open the book and do it”. Instead they provide a directory which needs thought before
use. The questions “What am I
doing?” and “Why am I doing it?” need some answers which then show me
which bits of the new package I need to use.
The new services don’t work on an “off the peg” basis, and parishes
which have changed liturgy without asking
how this will affect their whole process for handling
baptism requests have been disappointed.
They are meant to cater for a wide range of different situations.
This means that many people think they are too wordy - a common
complaint is that you now can’t get through a communion service with a baptism
included in much under an hour and a half, whereas you used to be able to manage
an hour and ten minutes. There’s
a bigger “expectation gap” than at an ASB service.
In fact I think there are virtues in this gap, because it forces
congregations to face up to some of the basic questions which I mentioned above.
They don’t stand on their own, but together with the
other material which sets the services in their context.
Unfortunately the services have come out on their own instead of with
that material: this is because different parts of the liturgies are proceeding
through the synodical process at different speeds.
The new liturgies only make sense in the context of the report “On The
Way”, the idea of people’s journey of faith, the catechumenate, and the
basics of preparation and follow-up, and of appropriate liturgical rites to mark
stages on this journey, which will appear later.
Because the services have appeared on their own, people have judged them
on their own. I regret this.
Roughly speaking, I see the following trends in the Church of England at
I don’t detect the C of E moving away from infant baptism.
I don’t detect as rapid a movement away from indiscriminate infant
baptism as might have been expected, say from a 1970’s perspective.
I do detect a growing acceptance that believers’ baptism should be the
norm in liturgical terms, and also a growth in adult baptism in practice.
I think a task of BI for the next few years should be to support adult
baptism, because when you get enough adult baptisms for many people to have
experienced them, you put people in the position where they can start asking
sensible questions about the role of baptism in someone’s journey of faith.
Before this can happen there has to be an experienced alternative to the
There has been quite a lot of progress recently in research into early
initiation practices, which helps in this quest.
Maxwell Johnson (a Lutheran in the United States) has written a new book
on Christian Initiation, which has become the Alcuin Book of the Year.
He quotes the “RC Pentecostalist” Kilian McDonnell extensively in
establishing the theses that the initiation rite for the first disciples was the
fellowship meal with Jesus rather than the baptism rite, and it was only after
this that the church decided to institute initiation rites.
Originally there was not a single standard rite, but several:
(a) water bath
with oil (separate rites, later combined)
(c) having the feet washed (lying behind John 13),
and the East and West developed different emphases in the
composite baptism service when it emerged.
In the West the credal questions were put to the candidate while standing
in the water, emphasising the intimate link between faith and baptism; while in
the East the two are more separated. On
the other hand, a great strength of the Eastern rite is that it focuses more on
an act of adherence to Jesus and less on an affirmation of belief, thus making
it less of a “head” exercise and more of a matter of a change of life
brought about through faith. In the
early Church there was a progression from initial teaching about Christianity
(mainly practical and ethical) to a confession of faith in Jesus, to admitting
the believer to fellowship and teaching, and then to full membership with
baptism. The new rite separates the
decision from the profession of faith partly in imitation of this.
On the theology of infant baptism, the work of
David Wright in Edinburgh is very important.
Recent research has shown that the movement to infant baptism was all
about the baptising of those who were in danger of death.
The trend to infant baptism was not the same everywhere in the ancient
world, and some places with high infant mortality rates moved more quickly
towards infant baptism. Moreover,
there seems to be indications that some aspects of the rite derive from the
context of the danger of death: for instance, the idea of proxies answering on
the candidate’s behalf derives from the situation of an adult in the advanced
stages of a terminal illness who might be no longer able to speak for himself,
but whose faith could be vouched for by those who had known him when he was well
(this in an age when baptism was often delayed until near death). The proxy would be able to testify to what the candidate
would say if capable - which is the theory behind the present-day statements of
godparents on behalf of an infant.
Finally, the catechumenate.
The formal catechumenate emerges most clearly in the fourth century,
which is when Christianity had become established as the official religion of
the Roman Empire. We now suspect
that it was a response to a system of Christian Initiation which was breaking
down. As it became fashionable to
become a Christian, and advantageous to one’s career and professional
development to do so, the church must have noticed a decline in the spiritual
fervour of those professing to serve the Lord.
There seem to be indications that the establishing of a more formal
catechumenate was an invention aimed at addressing this problem, rather than a
long-standing institution in its own right.
Are our own experiments with the catechumenate a sign of modern
desperation in an age with a similar problem