Baptism - personal transformation
David Wright's article in BI Update 43 (Spring
2002) presented much important material. I have always thought that
Aland, having comprehensively demonstrated that infant baptism was for
centuries a marginal response to infant mortality while the norm was
baptism after a catechising of the candidate, then tamely failed to
claim the victory. However, it is a vertiginous experience to begin to
think that the church has got things wrong for perhaps 1,600 years! The
outcome is a state of giddy ecclesiastical paralysis.
The blunt fact is that baptism set out as a
transformative ritual relating to evangelism and discipleship; from
Constantine via the Theodosian Code up to Augustine it turned into a
system of social and political control. The switch is from baptism for
"fants", i.e. those who were able to listen and speak for
themselves (cf. etymology of "catechumen") and willingly
offered their lives to Christ through baptism to baptism for
"infants", i.e. those incapable of speaking for themselves.
The driving force for infant baptism was the political need for social
cohesion. It was also the only technique, which would allow Augustine to
stand a chance against the Donatists in North Africa where in his early
days as a convert the Catholics had become a minority. He, being a
theologically minded bishop rather than an imperial politician,
therefore had to develop a doctrine of original sin and limbo and a
repressive exposition of the gospel in order to survive. His motto was
"Compel them to come in". What easier target than a new born
babe born into a world governed by the Theodosian Code in which the
possibility of a person changing religion had become a capital offence?
Pelagius or Augustine - who was the innovator?
May I add en passant that the reason Pelagius
was such a hate figure for Augustine was that he came from Britain where
a realistic pre-baptismal catechumenate still prevailed and loomed like
a question mark over this new stress on instant infant baptism. When
Pelagius came to Rome he was shocked to see how conventional the faith
had become. He still held the na´ve belief that Christian initiation
was meant to be a personal and life-changing event which required the
willing participation of the candidate. It was the elimination of the
factor of personal engagement which forced theology to drift away from
evangelistic and pastoral realities and instead go down a speculative
path of philosophising about free will and predestination. In the end
Augustine only "won" thanks to the intervention of the Roman
emperor and Eastern Christianity has never followed the Augustinian line
on original sin.
Bishops - local church elders
One factor in our vertiginous paralysis is the
practice of episcopacy. In the early church there was local episcopacy
as the man in the street might understand it. How large was Mopsuestia?
Probably no larger than my village of Skirlaugh with its 2,000
inhabitants. Yet it had a bishop who was part of his local community.
The local Church had the capacity to grow; evangelism and initiation
Thanks to Constantine and the development of
Christendom we have seen "local" take on very curious
dimensions, continuing to be identified with the diocese even if it
results in a diocese of Europe! The delocalising of the episcopate had
truly drastic results.
The most important outcome was the destruction of the
coherence of Christian initiation. Hitherto the bishop had been able to
preside at the baptism and confirmation of all candidates at Easter
after an orderly process of catechesis had been followed. That process
had involved everyone in the local church - people and presbyters in
deciding whether someone was suitable to be baptised, deacons and
bishops liturgically, catechists in doing the teaching. Imagine what it
might be like if the leader of every one of the 35,000 churches in
Britain was authorised and empowered to deliver full Christian
initiation to all those who had been prepared to receive it on Easter
Day? The evangelistic process would be truly impressive. Easter Day
would become a seasonal event on a par with Wimbledon! Instead, Anglican
clergy have always been neutered by the bishops keeping to themselves
the Church's full reproductive capacity, i.e. the power to confirm. Is
it not grossly absurd that barely two hundred men have authority to
perform the full rites of initiation in a nation of 45 million people
whom they reckon are their concern?
If such a point is put to a bishop, the common
response is one of complacency. "I seem to meet all the requests
that come to me for confirmation." Does he not realise that,
however it may seem when basking in the House of Lords, the Church of
England is hopelessly marginalized? Methodists, Baptists, URC, and all
the others, including new churches and new streams get on with welcoming
people into the fellowship of Christ with no reference to any bishop.
The bishops are able to "cope" with the demand for
Confirmation because the number of those coming to faith within the C of
E is a meagre percentage of those being initiated into Christian
fellowship overall. C of E confirmations are also down as a result of
the toning down or outright abandonment of confirmation for those
entering Anglican congregations from non-episcopal churches.
If we want real ecumenical baptismal integrity for the
new millennium, we do well to face up to the facts as best we may. Every
denomination has distortions in baptismal practice, even the Baptists
who so blithely snap the connection between being a communicant and
Baptismal practice is the great unmentionable issue
but unless we square up to it, no yearning for the "coming great
Church" can ever come to fulfilment.
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