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Full Christian initiation by local church elders
David Perry, thenVicar of Skirlaugh with Long Riston and Ecumenical Officer for Hull and East Yorkshire, adds his comments.
Baptism - personal transformation

David Wright's article in BI Update 43 (Spring 2002) presented much important material. I have always thought that Aland, having comprehensively demonstrated that infant baptism was for centuries a marginal response to infant mortality while the norm was baptism after a catechising of the candidate, then tamely failed to claim the victory. However, it is a vertiginous experience to begin to think that the church has got things wrong for perhaps 1,600 years! The outcome is a state of giddy ecclesiastical paralysis.

The blunt fact is that baptism set out as a transformative ritual relating to evangelism and discipleship; from Constantine via the Theodosian Code up to Augustine it turned into a system of social and political control. The switch is from baptism for "fants", i.e. those who were able to listen and speak for themselves (cf. etymology of "catechumen") and willingly offered their lives to Christ through baptism to baptism for "infants", i.e. those incapable of speaking for themselves. The driving force for infant baptism was the political need for social cohesion. It was also the only technique, which would allow Augustine to stand a chance against the Donatists in North Africa where in his early days as a convert the Catholics had become a minority. He, being a theologically minded bishop rather than an imperial politician, therefore had to develop a doctrine of original sin and limbo and a repressive exposition of the gospel in order to survive. His motto was "Compel them to come in". What easier target than a new born babe born into a world governed by the Theodosian Code in which the possibility of a person changing religion had become a capital offence?

Pelagius or Augustine - who was the innovator?

May I add en passant that the reason Pelagius was such a hate figure for Augustine was that he came from Britain where a realistic pre-baptismal catechumenate still prevailed and loomed like a question mark over this new stress on instant infant baptism. When Pelagius came to Rome he was shocked to see how conventional the faith had become. He still held the na´ve belief that Christian initiation was meant to be a personal and life-changing event which required the willing participation of the candidate. It was the elimination of the factor of personal engagement which forced theology to drift away from evangelistic and pastoral realities and instead go down a speculative path of philosophising about free will and predestination. In the end Augustine only "won" thanks to the intervention of the Roman emperor and Eastern Christianity has never followed the Augustinian line on original sin.

Bishops - local church elders

One factor in our vertiginous paralysis is the practice of episcopacy. In the early church there was local episcopacy as the man in the street might understand it. How large was Mopsuestia? Probably no larger than my village of Skirlaugh with its 2,000 inhabitants. Yet it had a bishop who was part of his local community. The local Church had the capacity to grow; evangelism and initiation were integrated.

Thanks to Constantine and the development of Christendom we have seen "local" take on very curious dimensions, continuing to be identified with the diocese even if it results in a diocese of Europe! The delocalising of the episcopate had truly drastic results.

The most important outcome was the destruction of the coherence of Christian initiation. Hitherto the bishop had been able to preside at the baptism and confirmation of all candidates at Easter after an orderly process of catechesis had been followed. That process had involved everyone in the local church - people and presbyters in deciding whether someone was suitable to be baptised, deacons and bishops liturgically, catechists in doing the teaching. Imagine what it might be like if the leader of every one of the 35,000 churches in Britain was authorised and empowered to deliver full Christian initiation to all those who had been prepared to receive it on Easter Day? The evangelistic process would be truly impressive. Easter Day would become a seasonal event on a par with Wimbledon! Instead, Anglican clergy have always been neutered by the bishops keeping to themselves the Church's full reproductive capacity, i.e. the power to confirm. Is it not grossly absurd that barely two hundred men have authority to perform the full rites of initiation in a nation of 45 million people whom they reckon are their concern?

If such a point is put to a bishop, the common response is one of complacency. "I seem to meet all the requests that come to me for confirmation." Does he not realise that, however it may seem when basking in the House of Lords, the Church of England is hopelessly marginalized? Methodists, Baptists, URC, and all the others, including new churches and new streams get on with welcoming people into the fellowship of Christ with no reference to any bishop. The bishops are able to "cope" with the demand for Confirmation because the number of those coming to faith within the C of E is a meagre percentage of those being initiated into Christian fellowship overall. C of E confirmations are also down as a result of the toning down or outright abandonment of confirmation for those entering Anglican congregations from non-episcopal churches.

If we want real ecumenical baptismal integrity for the new millennium, we do well to face up to the facts as best we may. Every denomination has distortions in baptismal practice, even the Baptists who so blithely snap the connection between being a communicant and being baptised.

Baptismal practice is the great unmentionable issue but unless we square up to it, no yearning for the "coming great Church" can ever come to fulfilment.

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Buchanan Saward Rowe Wright Godin
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