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The General Synod of the Church of England actively reviewed baptismal policy in 1988-90.  Members of BI were actively involved!


Mr Roger Godin (Southwark): I beg to move:

 ‘This Synod calls attention to the concern over apparent indiscriminate baptism, as expressed in the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry documents, and increasingly shared by many people of differing theological persuasions in the Church of England and, with a view to the presentation to Synod by the end of 1988 of a discussion document concerning current theological, pastoral, evangelistic and ecumenical issues, calls upon the House of Bishops to give it further study.’

I want to introduce this vexed question of indiscriminate baptism in as gentle a way as I can.  At the outset, I would like to suggest that my main concern is to try to create a forum in which such phrases as “loving discernment” might begin replacing the more pejorative expressions such as “indiscriminate” or “rigorous” and maybe, in due time, to help our great Church of England move to a pastoral practice where everybody feels more at ease with the tensions within which we all live, concerning especially the care and nurture of young children brought into the life of the Church.  I have had some lovely talks with people across the range of theological opinion in the past few days, and I believe that this is a real possibility. 

Bishop Knapp Fisher in one of his monographs, which has not yet come back to the Synod and probably never will, wisely pointed out that in an open debate about infant baptism there can be few converts to either particular point of view.  So for this debate — and I have only a few minutes — I would ask Synod to concentrate on the words actually in front of it.  It is an admitted sub-sector of the wider issue of Christian initiation.  It is not about confirmation; it is not about the abolition of infant baptism nor about the admission to Holy Communion before confirmation; it is addressed solely to the words “apparent indiscriminate baptism” and, within that, to indiscriminate child baptism.  The motion is an attempt, in the words of The Times a few weeks back, to find “a bridge over troubled baptismal waters”.

And troubled they are.  Statistics I do not very much believe in, but whichever way you look at them only about three per cent of our baptised membership are regular communicant members; and this must mean something about what has happened in past days.  But leaving statistics aside, there can be few people here, clergy or laity, who have not at some time been involved in some serious pastoral situation concerning this matter.  In the average PCC meeting people can be quite placid about the latest excesses of the youth club or about the new church hall; they can be even apathetic about General Synod; but mention any variation in 200 years of parish infant baptism policy and any problems about the church heating system immediately disappear.

Every so often there is an outbreak of correspondence in the Church press, and less frequently a comment in the secular press or even in Parliament.  Six years ago we as a Church were challenged to respond to the following words, quite familiar by now: “ . . believer baptists and those who practise infant baptism should reconsider certain aspects of their practices.  The first may seek to express more visibly the fact that their children are placed under the protection of God’s grace.  The latter” — and that is us — “must guard themselves against the practice of apparently indiscriminate baptism and take more seriously the responsibility for the nurture of baptized children to mature commitment to Christ”.  So spake the prophet BEM.  As I have re-read those words several times and been impressed by the careful words used and the excellent doctrinal statement preceding them, I feel that we should not be lulled into apathy by the gentleness of the rebuke.  What have we done to respond? I suggest that it is not as much as we should. 

There were only ten lines of direct response.  While accepting that “the text is right to warn of the offence which the practice of indiscriminate baptism can cause, where admission to baptism is granted to those who do not seem to have given any evidence of wanting to be identified with Jesus Christ and his Church”, FOAG went on to say that “baptismal discipline may be so over-discriminating that those requesting baptism are required to provide unreasonable evidence of the authenticity of their faith.  So-called ‘indiscriminate baptism’ reflects a view of the Church as a ‘mixed community’; a more rigorous policy emphasises the ‘gathered’ nature of the Church’.  

I find it sad that the concluding reflections of that report, endorsed by the Synod debate in 1985, made no actual reference at all to the words about which we were challenged, “apparent indiscriminate baptism”.  Make no mistake: the fact that the word “apparent” was used did not mean that the writers did not think that there was indiscriminate baptism. 

When the subject was raised before it was stated on behalf of the Assessors of York that “we believed we had taken action synodically against indiscriminate baptism . . . under the impression that the canons and ASB rubrics contained words, relating to godparents . . ‘willing and able’ to make the requisite promises . . . The express intention . . . was to rule out indiscriminate baptism . . . but Canon B 23 was . . . never. . . revised or amended to take account of that Synod resolution”.  That remains the position, despite assurances given in response to two Questions in February that a draft amending Canon would be introduced when the legislative programme was less full.  I understand too that the sector report from the Lambeth Conference will reaffirm the problems of our practice. 

As a sort of self-imposed penance in preparing for this debate I have now read almost every word said in this place since 1971 about Christian initiation.  It is tempting to throw the whole lot into my word processor, get the computer to eliminate all repeat phrases and come out with a short speech which would say everything.  In fact, doing that tells us why we are where we are, because if we accept all the words which have been said 99 per cent of them seem to accept that we do not practise indiscriminate baptism.  Is this, I wonder, another example of the General Synod being out of touch with what is going on in the parishes?  No, I do not think so, because Mr Packer’s amendment points to the dangers of the so-called “rigorous” policies and brings us right back to the coalface. 

This is not the time even to try to reiterate a theology of baptism.  In general, most of us in such sessions as this try to quote and read what most suits our particular standpoint.  An appeal to Church tradition, I suggest, can only be supportive, and must never be regarded as foundational, of Christian doctrine.  We can use proof texts but they simply do not demonstrate the propriety of baptising infants, and it is futile to imagine or argue that they do.  The apostolic writers of the New Testament give us no explicit and unambiguous evidence about the baptism of the children of Christian families, but neither is there any account of teaching of the adult baptism of a child born into a Christian family. We must all have personal integrity and openness on this issue — me first. 

So what I hope Synod will do as a result of this motion is at least to accept that the position is canonically and pastorally unsatisfactory.  I suggest that it would avoid duplicate debates in the future, and repeating the whole thing many times over if, when that amending Canon is brought to Synod, it comes with a suitable report, prepared not in monograph form but perhaps in trigraph form by a group of three people who might be able to bring forward what I would call best pastoral practice.  It is what happens in industry these days; even the DTI are saying to industry, “Use best management practice.”  If we can bring forward an amending Canon with a statement of best pastoral practice we stand a chance of being able to deal with the issue very clearly, so that the world outside, the people we want to bring into the Church, understand that we do know what we are talking about. 

I hope that such a group would address itself to such things as welcoming people when they make the first move towards us, a quick welcome, possibly by layfolk.  I hope that it will concentrate on encouraging people towards an understanding of what the Christian faith is about, without being dominating and making them feel overcome; on nurturing them and, above all, on loving them.  I hope that it will take every opportunity to suggest best alternative practices, for example, the creative use of the thanksgiving service. 

I have tried to use measured language in my introduction and I hope that the debate, which I trust will follow this session, will follow that wonderful example I am giving, because this is a subject, I believe, on which we can get somewhere. The present position is unsatisfactory, and an amending Canon is overdue.  If we give suitable guidance with that we can help confused clergy, strengthen the bishops — who sometimes do not seem quite to know where they are in supporting or denying — and can give, above all else, a clear-sounding Gospel call which says to the people in the pews." We want you, we love you, we love your children.  Please come and join the family of the Church”. 

This motion is designed to create the start of that atmosphere, and I hope that the Synod will support it.

The Debate was then adjourned to January 1989 - for transcript (copyright Church House Publishing) click here     

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