The Historical and Practical Background to Baptism to consider when preparing for these key religious events
The Presbyterian minister and theologian Daniel Migliore summarises baptism beautifully. ‘Christian baptism is the sacrament of initiation into life in Christ. It marks the beginning of the journey of faith and discipleship that lasts throughout one’s life’ (Migliore:2014 p.171). Rowan Williams builds on this by establishing the methodology - ‘Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed and re-created’ (Williams:2014). The New Testament describes baptism as ‘a single life transforming event involving both repentance and spiritual rebirth’.
Traditionally, those baptised repented, died to their old life and were reborn into a new life in Christ. However, baptism has evolved; before Our Lord’s death and resurrection John the Baptist performed baptism of repentance only (Mark 1:4, Matthew 3:11, Acts 19:4). After Our Lord’s death and resurrection baptism could include rebirth into Christ in the baptismal process. We could cite Paul unhesitatingly ‘re-baptising’ twelve Ephesians on hearing that they had only received John’s repentance on their baptism (Acts 19:3-5). This suggests that Paul believed the baptism of ‘repentance only’ could be improved upon. Paul’s second baptism of the Ephesians was obviously an overwhelming experience for them as the Holy Spirit came upon them and they immediately spoke in tongues (Acts 19:6-7).
However, once Christian Baptism has been performed Paul does not see the need for it to be repeated (Ephesians 4:4-6). Nevertheless, it has to be stressed that the baptised were traditionally intimately involved in the baptismal process. In other words, they had been prepared, assented and embraced the experience of their baptism. It then became a vital part of their identity, their personality and crucially their testimony. However, we must also address how people incapable of understanding the process, such as those who are cognitively impaired and of course infants, are to be offered this crucial sacrament. I consider this later.
My approach to baptismal preparation as an Anglican Reader would be both supported and bounded by the theology of our Church tradition and the individual tradition of the church I was serving. Starting with the adult baptism Andrew Platt meets parties to ‘Hear their story and testimony. Seeking to understand not only why they want to be baptised but what has brought them to this point’ (Platt:2010). My own incumbent also uses these meetings to tease out the motivations of the candidate. Do they really know and understand the implications of baptism as helpfully defined in the ruling of the World Council of Churches in 1982?
‘Christian baptism is rooted in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, in his death and in his resurrection. It is incorporation into Christ, who is the crucified and risen Lord; it is entry into the New Covenant between God and God’s people. Baptism is a gift of God and is administered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit’ World Council of Churches (1982).
Do they really want and understand what it means to be a disciple of Christ or is it just peer pressure from their parents or peer group? Are they going to be active ‘adverbial Christians’, living their faith - or simply ‘adjectival Christians’ who are baptised but only Christian in name? If it is the latter, I may suggest attending an Alpha or Pilgrim course would be the best way to start or regenerate their Christian journey in preparation for baptism.
The first meeting with the unchurched parents of the babies would also be to tease out their motivations – but differently. They would need to know the strengths and the implications of Infant Baptism – particularly that their babies cannot be ‘re-baptised’ if they come to deep faith later in life. Do they want their children to have a Christian identity? Rowan Williams found that being baptised by non-churched parents was central to his identity as he grew up. The former Archbishop was persuaded of the Reformed theology which, as Leithart says, ‘pushes choice to the side. Far from being a weakness, this is one of the strengths of infant baptism since it shows that God’s approach to us precedes any response that we make. Infant baptism thus highlights the prevalence of ‘grace’ (Leithart:2007). In short, as Migliore reminds us, baptism ‘is something done for us’ (ibid:p.173). From a ceremony which simply ensured that the infant did not receive an Augustinian ‘unwelcoming’ after an infant death it becomes an identity forming act of grace’ (Rotelle:1993). However, the parents of the babies would need to be taken through the theology, explaining that baptism is an outward sign of God’s forgiveness of original sin and the rebirth of their babies into the body of Christ, His Church and His Church’s acceptance of their children. With it the children would be entering into the New Covenant of Christ crucified. I would probably not spend very long on the Exodus and circumcision but explain that the New Covenant makes baptism available to all Christians regardless of the age, gender or cognitive ability.
In practical terms both the parents and godparents would need to be able to both say and believe in the words of the baptism service and understand the significance of the baptismal elements. If they feel uncomfortable with this they should probably be moved towards specific training or at least informed of ‘The Service for the Thanksgiving of a Child’. Indeed, for Earey, Lloyd and Tarrant this is the default service and a first stage to the baptismal preparation - before they are allowed to graduate and have the baptism itself’ (Earey, Lloyd and Tarrant: 2007 p.102).
This introductory service of Thanksgiving is non-baptismal and therefore has the additional benefit of not barring their children from consensual baptism later in their lives. However, if the unchurched couple, although not attending church, could satisfactorily demonstrate that they were ready and willing to bring their children up as Christians, within a Christian household, then Christenings would be appropriate. Indeed, it is worth remembering that appropriately motivated parents have a legal right to have their children baptised in the UK. However, if they are not suitably ‘qualified’ the minister has every right to insist that they be trained in the basic tenets of bringing their children up within a Christian household – or offer them ‘The Service for the Thanksgiving of a Child’. Although all these enquiries can of course all be made in a discreet and non-confrontational manner it would be essential that the parents are made aware of both the implications and their responsibilities associated with infant baptism of their children.
By way of reflection I would reference this point of baptismal discernment by citing two revealing experiences which occurred during my placement in Launceston. The first was witnessing a whole family quietly brought into the church congregation through the infant baptismal process. First the young mother joined the congregation. Her incumbent then wisely suggested that her new baby be baptised - and subsequently that her two other children also be baptised. It was a joyous occasion and seemed completely natural, valid and identity building for the family unit. Surely it was the right thing to have done for that family. However, in the back of my mind was the moving testimony of a senior member of that very benefice whose christening denied him the opportunity of regenerating his Christian life within his own congregation through an immersive baptism. Subsequently he went to another church, with a theologically more permissive tradition, in order to have his immersive and what proved life changing, baptism. I wonder what St Paul would have done? Would he have said that my friend was not completely baptised because his paedobaptism did not allow him to consciously repent and in effect ‘rebaptise’ him as he did the Ephesians ‘...on hearing that they had only received John’s baptism (Acts 19:3-5). However, a key bulwark of adult baptism is a ‘conscious repentance’ and forgiveness of the all the candidate’s sin - not just their original sins. Explaining that the original sins of an infant have to be forgiven is a difficult concept to communicate to parents holding their new born, apparently sinless baby – let alone the baby!
However, as I have said, Migliore emphasises that Baptism is a Christ given gift and that ‘The working of God’s Spirit is not restricted by gender, race or class. Neither is it restricted by age’ (Ibid.). He includes in his defence of paedobaptism the fact that both Luther and Calvin supported the sacrament - although with some reservations concerning its use by the Roman Catholic Church. Migliore goes on to successfully counter several of Karl Barth’s arguments against infant baptism including those questioning it scriptural authority and permissibility. However, he does have more difficulty in dismissing the potentially degrading effect of the early administration of the sacrament can have on future commitment to discipleship.
As Earey, Lloyd and Tarrant would suggest - ‘The doorway into Christ and into the Church is baptism shaped and when we squeeze through it, we ought to be shaped by it’. …. Christians have been given a new identity in Christ’ (Earey, Lloyd and Tarrant: 2007 p.2). Church members baptised in adulthood become heirs to discipleship with Jesus Christ both personally and publicly. This is a new identity. Christ becomes a part of their persona for the rest of their lives. Alister McGrath observes that ‘While all of Barth’s arguments can be countered, they are an impressive witness to a continuing unease within at least some quarters of mainstream churches over the potential abuse of the practice of infant baptism’ (McGrath:2017). However, the ‘Service for the Thanksgiving of a Child’ would not confer communion rights on the children as it is not baptismal service. If they came to faith later in life and wanted to become full members of the Church, they could present themselves for a combined baptism and confirmation service. Again, this would all have to be communicated to the parents as they considered which life path their children should take.
In practical terms of preparation, I would probably use one of the three patterns described by Earey, Lloyd and Tarrant (Ibid. 2007 p.102) that include a church informal or formal church welcoming, followed by training discernment sessions and culminating in attendance of a church Baptism. The last training session might be as described below.
While the adult candidate would have none of the theological challenges facing the parent of the children, they would be hopefully joining a mission-shaped church and so their preparation would need to relate to how they would be able to join and contribute to Luther’s ‘priesthood of all believers’. We would need to consider their experience, abilities, motives, personality and attitude to church. I would suggest that they attended an Alpha course as they this would ensure that they were familiar with the Summary of the Law, the Lord’s Prayer, The Apostles’ Creed and the Beatitudes. It would be important that they attended church regularly and watched at least one baptism being performed.
Once I established that both groups were prepared and had valid reasons for the services they had selected, I would arrange for them to visit the intended church or location of the baptisms so that they could both emotionally and physically run through the liturgy. If the parents had chosen a Christening this would be a further opportunity for them engage with and understand the symbolism and significance of the baptismal elements. For the adult it would be an opportunity to run through liturgy of baptism - by either pouring or immersion. If they had selected immersion, I would advise that this run through was done either in the baptistery or at the location where the immersion would take place, if in church they would also need to decide whether to have a private ceremony or include the baptism within a public service, if available, and if so which one. Combined services have the immediate advantage of welcoming and including both the parents and their children in the church community - with all the crucial religious and identity forming support that can bring. Even if the parents of the babies are unchurched, they may still identify themselves as Christian and therefore might benefit from attending a regenerative course like Alpha before christening the children, to refresh their faith and guide them in their Christian parental responsibilities. In fact, in larger churches the Thanksgiving service is the first step – before baptisms are even considered (Ibid: 2007 p.102). As baptism is the beginning of a lifelong journey of discipleship the preparation for baptism is surely a preparation for the life after baptism. Incumbents will encourage the unchurched couple to focus not only on bringing their children up within a Christian household but within the larger church community. This might be facilitated through baptism ‘Aunt’ or ‘Uncle’ who could make them aware of a messy church, child friendly events, other church activities and of course regular church services.
Later on, a church wedding is another rite of passage which can be used to refresh their faith and reconfirm their personal identities a Christians and a church funeral, their Christian burial, their final dedication. Crucially, technology can now be used to sensitively nudge baptised children and their parents towards a deeper faith. This can range from personalised baptism anniversary cards to age-related celebratory emails. Potentially these emails can be linked with other spiritually deepening resources appropriate to them firstly as children, then through their teenage years and ultimately as they grow into adulthood and seek to establish of their mature personal Christian identities. A subscription to one of these services is a wonderful Christening present for a Godparent. To this end section it would be important that the appropriate GDPR forms are signed to ensure that all are aware of this process and consent to it being initiated. The same system can of course be applied equally well to the newly baptised 40-year-old. In their case the emails might include links to the wonderful daily podcasts of Richard Rohr which in turn include excellent prayer resources and guidance links – on a daily basis.
Lastly, I have not mentioned working with the Holy Spirit – God’s great gift in baptism. In my experience the art of listening to ‘divine nudges’ has been a key part of my own religious life and development. An old priest once said to me ‘Coincidences’ don’t exist, they are ‘Divine Incidences’. I would include the practice of a watchfulness and gratitude for these divine promptings by the Holy Spirit. This will ensure that the newly baptised adult notices and picks up on the right resources and right people when they cross their path. Surely preparation for baptism is preparation for the whole of Christian life and so not to include these initiatives would mean that these preparations were not complete.
In essence Baptism is life changing. For the 40-year-old it is something they do that they want and assent to. For the children it is a wonderful gift which God and their parents do for them – a truly Christian upbringing.
In my experience, faith is a like an ocean wave. It can start with the anonymity of a listless swell of curiosity and develop into a great crested roller traveling hundreds of miles to sometimes completely new shores. In my case it took time and church attendance in order to catch the wind of the Holy Spirit. I would suggest to both parties that baptism is just very beginning of the journey of faith and that catching the ‘church wind’ requires lifelong regular Bible study and a regular church involvement. Once they are baptised their identity, mission and being become Church shaped. Walking with the baptised as they start and then travel on this journey of discipleship would refresh me on mine - and my identity in Christ. Being involved in these baptisms and every baptism would be a part of my own ministry, religious identity and life goals.
Richard Searight 2020
Earey Mark, Lloyd Trevor and Tarrant Trevor, (2007) Connecting with Baptism, Church House Publishing. London Pg.2 and Pg.102
Leithart, Peter, (2007) The Baptized Body Canon Press, Moscow Pg.121
McGrath,Alister. (2017) Christian Theology an Introduction, .John Wiley and Sons. Chichester Pg. 402
Migliore, Daniel (2014). Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Third Edition. Eerdmans Publishing. Grand Rapids Pg.171
Pratt, Andrew (2010) Practical Skills Form Ministry: SCM Press London Pg.4
Rotelle, John (1993), WSA Sermon 272 Rotelle Series, Hyde Park: New City Press New York
World Council of Churches (1982) Faith and Order Paper N0.111 GENEVA, Pg.1
Williams, Rowan (2014) Being Christian Eerdmans Publishing Cambridge. Pg.6