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What's Wrong with Common Worship Baptism?  
This and the subsequent articles are articles and letters in the Church of England Newspaper published between March and April 2001.  Click here for other articles on Common Worship

The Common Worship Baptism Service (CW 2000) service is unsatisfactory for two main reasons. The first criticism is practical. It is too long easily to incorporate in the main Sunday service on a regular basis. The second criticism is theological. CW 2000 has shifted the faith response expected of parents in the Alternative Service Book Baptism (ASB 1980) to the congregation. It also uses the language of baptismal regeneration in a somewhat confusing way. We will return to both these matters later. In the meantime some analysis of the components of CW 2000 may help to explain our anxieties. 

Greeting and Introduction

There was no greeting or introduction in ASB 1980. Instead ASB 1980 launched straight into a clear statement of the duties of parents and godparents. This set out a basic contract between parents and the Church. The children were baptised on the understanding that they were brought up as Christians within the family of the Church. We found that this provided an excellent starting point for baptismal preparation. Furthermore the parents and godparents had to make a public declaration that they were willing to give the children help and encouragement in their Christian journey by prayer, by example and by teaching.

In CW2000 the support of children in their Christian growth is left until the Commission at the end of the service, and there it is mentioned with a distinctly different emphasis. In the Commission it is stated: 'As part of the Church of Christ, we all have a duty to support them by prayer, example and teaching.' The Christian support of the baptised is plainly put upon the Church. In contrast the parents and godparents are told: 'As their parents and godparents, you have the prime responsibility for guiding and helping them in their early years. This is a demanding task for which you will need the help and grace of God. Therefore let us now pray for grace in guiding these children in the way of faith.' The effect of this Commission appears to put the prime responsibility upon the parents for the general nurture and guidance of the children, but the prime responsibility upon the Church for their spiritual development and growth in faith.

The Collect

This picks up the mention in the Introduction of our need to be born again. It speaks of the Holy Spirit giving new life in the water of baptism, and then continues 'Guide and strengthen us by the same Spirit, that we who are born again may serve you ...' Granted that the sacrament of baptism speaks in anticipation of that which it promises, the language here could, and probably will, be understood by the family of the children as new birth being effected in the waters of baptism. The language unfortunately opens up the whole issue of baptismal regeneration.

The Liturgy of the Word

The readings are presumably those of the Principal Service and indicate that the whole service is to be constructed around the baptism. The question which arises is how is this to be done without a grave distortion of the pattern of Sunday worship for any church which wishes to have baptisms at its main Sunday worship services.

The Decision

For a service which is intended to be readily accessible to  unchurched families and those on the fringe of church life it seems extraordinary to begin the Decision with three negative statements, commencing with a question asking: 'Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?' Christian ministers want to begin their exposition of the Christian faith by speaking of Christ, not by a lengthy diversion into Satanology and the nature of human rebellion against God and the deceit and corruption of evil.

Some will take comfort that the ASB 1980 words of the Decision are now allowable as an alternative. However it is curious that these are to be 'used where there are strong pastoral reasons'. What is meant by this? Also most significantly the ASB format, addressed to the parents and godparents ('I ask these questions which you must answer for yourselves and for these children'), has been omitted. Instead the president is to address the candidates, or through their parents, godparents and sponsors. This means in effect that parents have been excused from personal responsibility for the decision to turn to Christ as  Saviour. They are now only asked to speak vicariously for their children.

The Prayer over the Water

The CW2000 Prayer is longer than that in A S B 1980. The spectre of baptismal regeneration is again raised by speaking of the water of baptism as the locus of new birth. 'Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.'

The Profession of Faith

The ASB 1980 made explicit the requirement that parents and godparents should declare their belief and trust in the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 'You must answer for yourselves and for these children.'

CW2000 reveals the clear intention of the framers of the service to excuse the parents and godparents from personal assent to such a belief. The president addresses the congregation, which uses a form of belief based on the Apostles' Creed. Even though the shorter ASB form of assent is now permissible, the questions are addressed to the congregation, and not to the parents and godparents.

The Baptism and Commission

We have already commented on the emphasis in the Commission on the Church taking prime responsibility for the children’s spiritual development. It is to be welcomed that for candidates, who are able to answer for themselves, questions about Christian commitment, evangelism and service may be put by the minister.

The Prayers of Intercession

The Prayers in CW 2000 do not, fortunately, repeat the thanksgiving in ASB1980 that thanks God 'that by your Holy Spirit these children have been born again into new life.' Many evangelicals avoided using this prayer because of its suggestion of regeneration in and through the act of baptism.

Welcome, Peace and Lighted Candle

It seems a pity that because of scruples about separating the elements of signing, baptising and the candle, that the giving of a lighted candle is relegated to the sending out at the end of the Eucharist. This also seems to assume that baptism is to take place in the context of a Holy Communion.

Conclusions

Firstly, CW 2000 approximately doubles the length of the service of ASB 1980. It is unrealistic to suppose that it could take much under 20 minutes. This means that in a church with any appreciable number of baptisms in any one year, baptisms will dominate the shape and pattern of Sunday worship if the canonical expectation of Canon B21 is to be fulfilled. Canon B21 states that baptism should normally be administered 'on Sundays at public worship when the most number of people come together.'

Secondly, it is legitimate to ask the Liturgical Commission on what authority the faith of the congregation may be substituted for the faith of parents in the baptising of infants. The Reformed justification for infant baptism within the Church of England has usually rested on the covenant of grace extending through parents to their children. This view has scriptural warrant even where only one parent is a believer (see I Cor. 7:14), and presumably this could be extended to a sponsor where the infant was an orphan.

By deliberately changing the emphasis in CW 2000, the Liturgical Commission appears to be giving the green light to more indiscriminate baptism. We are not in the business of fencing off the font, and welcome all children whose parent(s) can make the responses with integrity. But the responsibility must rest primarily with the parents. The congregation can support the parents as best it can. But in many cases how realistically can a congregation be responsible for the spiritual development of children whom they may never see again, particularly in such a mobile society as ours?

Thirdly, the doctrine of the Church of England has always rejected the view that the sacrament of baptism works ex opere operato (ie by the mere performance of the right). The Gorham Judgement of 1850 stated the Reformed view: 'That Baptism is a sacrament generally necessary to salvation, but that the grace of regeneration does not so necessarily accompany the act of Baptism that regeneration invariably takes place in Baptism; that the grace may be granted before, in or after Baptism; that Baptism is an effectual sign of grace, by which God works invisibly in us, but only in such as worthily receive it -- in them alone it has wholesome effect; and that without reference to the qualification of the recipient it is not in itself an effectual sign of grace ... that in no case is Baptism unconditional.'

Granted that Scripture uses efficacious language (that is, it speaks in anticipation of that which it promises), it does not seem wise to incorporate such language into our liturgy in such a way that it will be generally misunderstood and misinterpreted.

We do hope that General Synod will revisit the service of Baptism. For unless the concerns that we have raised are satisfactorily addressed, we fear that many of us will shy away from using the rite in its present form.

Jeremy Collingwood and Steve Daughtery  

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