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.