Revising the Language of Baptism

..or, more pedantically, the Anglican liturgy for baptism.

Yesterday General Synod debated a motion calling for alternatives to the current Common Worship provision for baptism, in order to make the language more accessible for the majority of people who attend a baptism service. The proposers of the motion, from Liverpool diocese, cited their experience of preparing parents and godparents and of taking baptism services, especially in urban areas.

Early reaction to the motion was rather mixed. The Daily Mail accused the proponents of the motion of seeking to promote “christenings without Christianity,” which was far from the case. The clerical and Christian blogosphere seems to have been somewhat muted on the subject ( (LLM Calling and The Ugley Vicar being two exceptions to this).

For what it’s worth, Tree has long been uncomfortable with the present Common Worship liturgy for baptism. As many commented when it was first published, it seems long-winded and wordy – too much so, I feel, for most baptism congregations. It feels as though far too many theological i’s are being dotted and t’s crossed. When this happens, the liturgy begins to lose its power as things that have multiple layers are reduced to this, this and this (and nothing else). An example of this can be found in the Decision section of the service, where the three short questions that the 1980 ASB service asks of parents and godparents are replaced by six rather longer ones. Fortunately, the ASB version is still available as an alternative, with the rider that these are to be used “where there are strong pastoral reasons for doing so” – to which I would ask whether there were ever strong pastoral reasons for not doing so.

The other section which particularly grates is the Prayer Over the Water. This is a long prayer and calls on imagery from the creation story, the Exodus and Christ’s baptism before launching into an explanation (couched in prayer form*) of what baptism does. This is material which should have been covered in preparation with parents and godparents, but which in its present form is unlikely to be understood by those who have not been regular church-goers.

I am glad to note that Synod has now asked the Liturgical Commission to draft some alternatives to the present liturgy. In the meantime, Tree will be pondering some suggestions from Peter Mullins as to how the present authorised material can be made to work better for us and those we serve.

Perhaps you might wish to do the same?

* Many of us dislike sermons presented as prayers in our less formal prayer meetings. So why does our liturgy do this?

3 thoughts on “Revising the Language of Baptism

  1. Sounds like the Common Worship service is the same as we use in the Anglican Church of Canada and TEC. I’ve been using it since 1985 and have never had any problem with it.

    But I think the crux of the issue is here: ‘This is material which should have been covered in preparation with parents and godparents, but which in its present form is unlikely to be understood by those who have not been regular church-goers.’ The question is whether the Church has any business baptising the children of those who have not been regular churchgoers. I don’t think there is any theology of baptism that can be defended from the New Testament that would give us permission to do this.

    • Hi Tim

      I suspect that the ACC and TEC liturgies were among the sources for the 2000 Common Worship liturgy, so there is likely to be some commonality. All I can say is that, to me, it feels very wordy and others have said the same. I can’t think what it sounds like to those who are not used to the type of language it uses, and I suspect that even many regular churchgoers would be hard pressed to explain it.

      I rather agree with you on the theological issue about baptising the children of non-regular churchgoers. There is a small movement in the CofE called Baptismal Integrity which seeks to address this, but seems to have made little progress in persuading others over the past 20 years. Legally, we are not able to refuse baptism to anyone within our parishes who requests it for their child, only delay for the purposes of instructing parents and godparents; and the delay can only be “reasonable”. A bishop in another diocese (now retired) opined that this delay should be weeks rather than months. Under these circumstances, I prefer to regard this as a teaching, pastoral and evangelistic opportunity – and sometimes it works!

      However, even if parents and godparents have been clued into the content of the service, should it not also be comprehensible, at least to a large extent, to their friends and family who have come to support them? And if it isn’t, haven’t we wasted an opportunity?

  2. I sympathise. My Diocese of Edmonton has a canon on its books which says that no priest may be compelled to administer a sacrament against his or her conscience. I’ve had cause to give thanks for it from time to time – and also for the fact that we are not an ‘Established Church’.

    By the way, Simon, where exactly are you located (if you don’t want to let on in public, email me at tim dot chesterton at gmail dot com)? I was born in Leicester and my parents are retired in Oakham, so I suspect maybe not too far away?

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