Baptism and red paint

E and I had the pleasant duty yesterday (“it is our duty and our joy…”) of standing as godparents at the baptism of the daughter of friends, in a service at St Helen’s Bishopsgate.

St Helen’s is one of the major centres of “conservative evangelicalism” in the Church of England, with an emphasis of Bible teaching and preaching dating from Dick Lucas’ ministry there between 1961 and 1998. This brand of conservative Anglican evangelicalism was my “spiritual home” before I became a Lutheran, and so the service was therefore pretty much as I expected: minister in suit and tie (though the preacher, a younger man, dispensed with the tie), a solidly biblical (if somewhat “lecture-like”) sermon on Acts 16, very little formal liturgy. A pleasant surprise to find the organ in use for a couple of hymns, though.

And of course, a joy to see our goddaughter brought to the waters of baptism to receive the blessings of forgiveness, life and salvation according to the promise of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Not, alas, that you would have known from the service that such momentous (not to mention miraculous) events were taking place, due to the presence of one of the other features of conservative evangelical Anglicanism: a very “low” view of the sacraments.

Before the baptism, the minister (William Taylor) went out of his way to explain how baptism is just a symbol that doesn’t make you a Christian. As he put it:

If I paint a red cross on the side of my car, that doesn’t make it an ambulance.

As I muttered to E (and continued to ponder during the service): maybe so, but if someone who is authorised to commission cars for use as ambulances comes and paints a red cross on the side of your car, then it is an ambulance; not by virtue of any magical properties in the paint, but according to the word which has bestowed the power to commission cars as ambulances.

Of course, if I refuse to allow my car to be used as an ambulance and reject the “word” which has (through the painting of the cross on the car) made it an ambulance, it loses its status as an ambulance. But if I then “repent” and allow my car to be used as an ambulance, it does not need another red cross painted on it: the original red cross retains its validity.

(That said, I’d be pretty cross if a Baptist came along and fully immersed my car in red paint. But that’s a different matter…)

Underlying the conservative evangelical Anglican suspicion of baptism is the experience of living in a country where (historically) very large numbers of people were baptised, very few of whom then showed any signs of having a living faith. This has resulted in a situation where if someone’s response to the question “How do you know you are a Christian?” is, “Because I was baptised as a baby”, then that is taken as conclusive evidence that they are at best a “nominal Christian”, at worst a “baptised pagan”. (And if they use the word “christened”, then that only confirms the position.)

This always troubled me, even before I became a Lutheran. Indeed, the vague sense that there was more to baptism than an empty symbol was one of the factors that drove me first towards the “continental Reformed” tradition, and from there into Lutheranism.

What’s frustrating is that I don’t believe conservative evangelical Anglicans need to denigrate baptism itself in order to address what they perceive as the unfortunate pastoral/evangelistic consequences of “indiscriminate” baptisms within the Church of England. I hope to explain why in a future post.

And to end on a more positive note: at least our friends had brought their daughter to baptism. I suspect that only a minority of committed conservative evangelical Anglicans would now do this, due to the association of infant baptism with “nominalism”. Many now opt for a “dedication” instead. So we were thrilled that our friends went ahead with the baptism, and honoured that we were asked to be godparents.

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12 Responses to Baptism and red paint

  1. Paul Huxley says:

    Good post. I’m CofE at the moment but have more continental reformed understandings. There is a great suspicion of infant baptism among laypeople which ministers tend to attempt to placate.

    One of our ministers always says baptism is a bit like a badge, and a bit like a bath, the badge shows your membership (in the church family) and the bath is a symbol of the washing away of sins that we hope will happen.

    It’s always stressed that there’s nothing special about the water (which is certainly true) but the other side of the coin (that there is something beyond the symbol going on) is not touched upon. If baptism is *just* a symbol, why not get re-baptised when you’re older?

    Historically, Anglicanism seems to be deliberately indeterminate on the sacraments, a hodge podge of Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. Everyone seems to be Zwinglian these days.

  2. When the time comes when Scottish Presbyterians seem to have a higher regard for Baptism than evangelical Anglicans, you know the Anglicans have departed a long, long way from the Articles of Religion. Does no-one in the C of E believe Art XXVII anymore? Not to mention the other ones… Which all serves to confirm me in my decision to become Lutheran.

  3. John H says:

    Mark: good point re Article XXVII, though I think that is part of the problem. It’s a pretty flaccid statement in some respects. Is baptism a “sign” or an “instrument”? What does receiving baptism “rightly” mean in practice? And the final sentence about infant baptism has always felt a bit “tacked on”. (“Always” being code for “even when I was an Anglican”!)

    The BCP’s service of baptism, by contrast, is much better in its clear and forthright affirmation of regeneration and the remission of sins through baptism.

  4. John H says:

    Paul:

    There is a great suspicion of infant baptism among laypeople which ministers tend to attempt to placate.

    That chimes with my experience on both counts. Our first son was baptised at the Anglican church we then attended, and the vicar (an evangelical, though very much at the “open”/”liberal” end of the spectrum) expressed his happiness that we were going ahead with this. The pattern at that church was very much: baptisms involved non-Christian parishioners mumbling or giggling their way through the service; church members maybe had a thanksgiving, but didn’t get their children baptised.

    That of course ends up as a vicious circle, because the baptisms that did occur tended to discredit infant baptisms in the eyes of many members – a source of considerable frustration for our vicar, and hence he was glad to see an infant baptism take place from among the “regulars”.

  5. Yes, of course I agree with you John on the ambiguity of XXVII – I guess I’m reading it with Lutheran eyes ;0). The article was framed to make it as acceptable as possible to both Calvinists and Lutherans, and yes, the BCP’s baptism rite is much meatier, and is where the ‘rubber really hit the road’ in terms of what people heard and saw of baptism down through the centuries in Anglican churches. What is really flaccid, by comparison, is the evangelical Anglican doctrine and practice of baptism today.

  6. Chris Jones says:

    Everybody basically beat me to the punch on this one, citing the Articles and the Prayer Book to show that baptismal regeneration is the teaching of the Church of England. But I suppose that if the Revd Mr Gorham could deny baptismal regeneration with impunity then anybody can. And at this late date anyone who expects doctrinal discipline (or even coherence) in the Church of England has not been paying attention.

    Still and all, the Privy Council to the contrary notwithstanding, the Church of England does have doctrine, expressed in her Articles and her Prayer Book. And if the Articles are a bit waffly on some issues, well, that is the way Good Queen Bess wanted it. I don’t think the Articles are all that ambiguous on this point, however. The Prayer Book is also a formulary of the Church, and its language should serve to disambiguate the Articles when it speaks to the same issue.

    So exactly what part of We yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this Infant with thy Holy Spirit, to receive him for thine own Child by adoption, and to incorporate him into thy holy Church. do they not understand?

    • John H says:

      Chris: J.C. Ryle’s Church Association Tract on “Regeneration and Baptism” (PDF) sets out the classic Anglican evangelical position on this, including an engagement with the BCP texts to which you refer.

      The “problem” of the BCP’s references to regeneration has, in a sense, “gone away” in recent years, because (a) the BCP service is hardly ever used, and certainly never used by con. ev. churches; (b) the modern C of E baptismal services are less clear on this issue than the BCP, and (c) in any event, con. ev. churches tend now to produce their own baptismal liturgies anyway, or at least to use the “official” services highly selectively.

  7. Rick Ritchie says:

    1961 to 1998. Talk about being able to set the tone of a place! That’s a good reminder to pastors of what being rooted can do in a positive sense. (Not that EVERYTHING he set in place was positive, as you noted.) I like the idea of Lutheran pastors remaining in their congregations for a similar stretch of time. The pastor I grew up under, John A. Huffman, Jr., has been at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach since 1978, and will be retiring next month. That was quite an era. When there is that kind of continuity, even if you are a dyed-in-the-wool in your Lutheranism, you will feel a deep sense of your ties to the old place, and I think that’s good.

    The irony is that the length of the pastorship was a visible sign of the continuous nature of true belonging. Yet baptism was established to create a more permanent belonging, and they miss it.

  8. John H says:

    Rick: as you say, Dick Lucas’ example (and John Stott’s at All Soul’s) shows the value of a long ministry. I’m a huge admirer of Dick Lucas, as of Stott, and wouldn’t want any criticisms in this post to detract from that.

    I wasn’t taken aback by anything that was said in the service: conservative evangelical Anglicans having an ultra-“low” view of baptism is “in the price”, as they say. 😉

  9. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Downplaying baptism

  10. Chris Jones says:

    John,

    Thanks for the link to the Ryle tract. It is sad that the bishop did not believe the teachings of his own Church. His argument boils down to two things: one, we don’t actually mean what the Prayer Book says, we are just saying it to be nice; and two, gee, they sure don’t look regenerate, so I guess God’s promises don’t really mean anything.

    On further looking at the Articles, it seems to me that they aren’t really all that ambiguous on this point after all. You can sort of see Article XXVII as not requiring baptismal regeneration by putting a lot of weight on the language of a sign of regeneration or new birth and by taking they that receive baptism rightly to refer to the disposition of the baptizand rather than to the form and matter of the rite. But Article XXV sets it in context by teaching that the sacraments are certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace and God’s good will towards us, by the which He doth work invisibly in us …. When Article XXVII describes baptism as a “sign of regeneration,” it must, in the context of Article XXV, be understood to be an effectual sign. For Ryle’s view to be correct, baptism must be a sign that is either not sure, or not effectual.

    And I have to say that the following from Ryle takes the biscuit for sophistry:

    The Church Catechism says that baptism contains two parts,—the outward and visible sign, and the inward and spiritual grace. But the Catechism nowhere says that the sign and the grace always go together.

    If they don’t always go together then you can’t say that they are two parts of the same thing.

    And they say that it is we Tractarians who twist the teachings of the Articles beyond recognition!

  11. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Lutheran baptism for Anglican evangelicals

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