Getting our knickers in a twist over baptism

The Church of England has decided to “simplify the language for baptism ceremonies”. Apparently even the Archbishop of Canterbury has observed the eyes of his congregation “glazing over” during his celebrating of this sacrament, and I’m sure it goes without saying that glazed eyes are not what we want. Generally I’m a great supporter of Dr Williams, and it usually seems to me that when he vacillates, say, over gay bishops, he does so because he is not free simply to impose his own views. In this instance, however, it would seem that he is voluntarily offering the weight of his support to the simplification campaign, and in this instance I cannot go with him.

The campaign to change the words comes from the Diocese of Liverpool, and their problem is that the existing language “particularly baffle[s] non-churchgoers”. As a result of their bafflement, and doubtless because their eyes also glazed over, the fear is that they will never return, not darkening the doors of their church again until one of them dies or gets married – and in the latter case probably not even then as the increasing probability is that their marriages will be solemnized in some cheesy hotel or the gardens of a country house in order to give the impression that they are rich beyond imagining. If this is true, then there’s certainly a problem, but it’s not one of baffling words.

On the contrary. The problem is that for such people baptism is not a sacrament (surely a baffling concept in itself) but a social occasion. Why on earth should they have to stand there, eyes glazed, brains baffled, just so that they can get some ickle-pretty, sentiment-dripping pictures of their little baba with which they’ll be able mightily to embarrass the child in later life? The church is no longer about challenging people with difficult truths, but about colluding with them in a sentimental charade.

Ironically, this problem with language has its roots in the literal-mindedness of too many Christians. Rather than accept that the words of the baptism are poetic statements about existential truths, they see them as a kind of magic recipe that has to be understood in a literal sense, otherwise the resulting cake may not rise, and the fruit will all sink to the bottom. Baptism is about “dying to sin, and rising to new life”, to use the existing baffling, eye-glazing language. In case the non-churchgoer should imagine that, Abraham-like, the vicar is about to garotte their child in order to resuscitate them a moment later, this arcane talk of dying and rising must be banished. Of course, this is bollocks. Baptism is intimately connected with the doctrine of original sin. What? How dare you, nasty, wicked vicar, imply that my beautiful, innocent, special-baptismal-gown-encumbered darling is somehow wicked? Except that’s not what original sin means. Of all the church’s doctrines, I should have thought that original sin is the most obviously evidence based. We don’t have to look very far to see the consequences of humanity’s seemingly inexhaustible capacity for cruelty and wickedness. From the outrageous murder of individual gay Africans to the genocide of the Holocaust and the slave trade, original sin is indisputably all around us.

At the heart of the Christian message is the idea, the extravagant, optimistic, foolish idea, that there is a route of escape. Baptism is the doorway to that route. Parents who bring their babies for baptism should be doing so because they understand, and accept, that truth. If they don’t, or they don’t understand it, then baptism is a charade regardless of how it is expressed.

I believe passionately in two, perhaps seemingly contradictory, things. First, that in every age we Christians have to reinterpret the message of our faith, to express it in ways that we can make sense of. But second, we owe it to those who come after us to leave the faith as we have received it intact, so that they can reinterpret it in turn in their own age. If we try and impose our particular take on the faith, and lose the original framework, then we deprive them of the opportunity to reinterpret it from an authentic base. Leave the baptism words alone. Try and explain their fundamental, existential meaning. But don’t, if you’ll excuse the pun, throw the baby out with the bath-water.

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5 thoughts on “Getting our knickers in a twist over baptism

  1. This “race to the bottom” in terms of language drives me mental. There are ructions over the new translation for the Mass in case people “don’t know what a chalice is.” Way to assume your congregation are so thick they shouldn’t be allowed out unsupervised.

  2. I speak here as an atheist who has, oddly enough I know, been baptised twice.

    I’m afraid that I’m with Dawkins on the point of original sin, the implication that we are born sinful because others have sinned or because we are innately wicked is, I feel, in itself a little wicked.

    However, I agree with you that simplify the words of the ceremony it removes what little majesty & poetry the church has, which in my eyes is all that makes the church worthwhile.

    But if you actually brlieve thr medsage why wouldnt you want it translated to modern terms? Translating the actual message, as you say, would cause consternation in the patents & maybe then they’d only do it if they meant it?

    This has ever been so with the CofE, a fine balance between reassuring ritual & actual belief. It, as ever, will end in a fudge.

    • “the implication that we are born sinful because others have sinned or because we are innately wicked is, I feel, in itself a little wicked”

      I’m not sure that the doctrine of original sin implies either of these things. Or at least, not in the way that you, I think, mean them. We are not “sinful because others have sinned” in the sense that we are morally culpable, or in any way responsible for, the sins of the fathers as the tradition expresses it. Rather, the sins of the fathers have created a context in which mere individual will or determination is insufficient. As an example, I would say that all of us in this country owe some substantial part of our economic well-being to the fact of the slave trade. We cannot avoid that by being nice people in the present.

      Equally, I don’t think this inheritance is the same as saying we are “innately wicked”. Another way of expressing it is to say we are all oppressed by the weight of history. Obviously I don’t expect you as an atheist to have any truck with what I’ve described as a “route of escape”, but I would not want you to misunderstand what I’m suggesting we need to escape from.

      You ask why I might not want the message translated into modern terms. That’s not quite what I’m saying. That translation is absolutely critical. We need a commentary on the sacraments and doctrines of the church exactly as we need one on the Bible. But that is different from changing the source texts. As I’ve indicated, we need to preserve the historic texts so that others can interpret them afresh in their time. I don’t want my descendants to have to interpret my 21st century interpretation: I want them to be exposed to the original.

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