The new texts which have recently been authorised by the Church of England are intended to enhance the Church’s provision for services of baptism. They are particularly designed for ‘stand alone’ baptisms – those which do not take place during regular Sunday services. These baptisms – ‘christenings’ – often taking place on a Sunday afternoon, have always offered important pastoral and missional opportunities for the Church.
However many clergy felt a sense of frustration with the original Common Worship Baptism services which assumed an approach to baptism that was perhaps more suitable for young people and adults than for infants and small children. There was an expectation that baptism would normally take place within a main Sunday service. The central emphasis was based on the experience of adult conversion, a total change of orientation from a state of sin to new life in Christ. This change of orientation is present in all baptisms, including the new services. But the original Common Worship services downplayed another aspect of baptism which is that of continuity and adherence to a Christian inheritance. Common Worship assumed that stand alone baptisms would die out, but this has not happened. Many parents still want their babies christened because they identify, sometimes admittedly in very broad terms, with our Christian heritage.
Research has shown that families bringing small children to baptism are often seeking to express and sometimes recreate links with the Church. They particularly value the elements of welcome, thanksgiving and blessing. They are also concerned about the reality of evil in the world and desire God’s guidance to be a reality in the lives of their children. The symbols of baptism are important; the water of baptism itself and the opportunity to receive a lighted candle. These visual aspects are what stay in people’s memory perhaps more vividly than the texts that accompany them. Texts are important though. The original Common Worship baptism services were frequently criticised for over-complex language and structure. Some felt the words of the Decision were not easy to understand and that reference to a personal devil was inappropriate. These new texts attempt to express the reality of baptismal commitment in words that are true to tradition while also being fresh and straightforward. The Decision consists of two very clear and simple demands to turn away from sin and evil, followed by an equally simple but challenging statement of commitment.
No image of welcome could be more vivid than that of Jesus blessing the children against the instincts of his disciples. (Mark 10.13-16). This text is used in this service not in any attempt to justify the baptism of infants – that is not what this New Testament story is about – but simply to show God’s unreserved love for children. Welcome, thanksgiving, commitment, blessing. These baptismal texts attempt above all to express the Good News of Christ in a way which is accessible to all.
The Revd Canon Angela Tilby is a consultant to the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission, Diocesan Canon at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Advisor to the Diocese of Oxford. More about Angela Tilby.