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Trends in Baptismal Thinking
Paul Bradshaw was Professor of Liturgy at The University of Notre Dame, London

The CW initiation rites   

The first of the Common Worship initiation rites were not received as enthusiastically as they might have been in the Church of England.  I think this is a great pity: it dampened expectations of what was to follow, and it trapped congregations in their past experiences rather than encouraging them to reflect and advance.

A big part of the problem is that the CW services have a different style from the ASB ones:

            1.         You don’t basically “open the book and do it”.  You need to answer the questions “What am I doing?” and “Why am I doing it?”: the answers then show you which bits of the new package to use.  The new services don’t work  “off the peg”, and parishes which have changed liturgy without asking how this will affect their whole process for handling baptism requests have been disappointed.

            2.         CW caters for a wide range of situations.  This means that many people think the rites are too wordy - a common complaint is that you now can’t get through a communion service with a baptism included in much under an hour and a half, whereas you used to be able to manage an hour and ten minutes.  There’s a bigger “expectation gap” than at an ASB service.  I think there are virtues in this gap, because it forces congregations to ask some of the basic questions above.

            3.         The rites don’t stand on their own, but together with the other material which sets the services in their context.  It was unfortunate that the services came out one by one - this is because they went through the synodical process at varying speeds.  The CW liturgies only make sense in the context of the report “On The Way”, the idea of people’s journey of faith, the catechumenate, and the basics of preparation and follow-up, and of appropriate liturgical rites to mark stages on this journey, which appeared later. 

Trends in the C of E 

Roughly speaking, these are the trends I see in the Church of England at present:

I don’t detect -

           the C of E moving away from infant baptism;       

           as rapid a movement away from indiscriminate infant baptism as might have been expected, say from a 1970’s perspective.

I do detect -

           a growing acceptance that believers’ baptism should be the norm in liturgical terms;

           a growing use of thanksgiving and other non-baptismal services for infants; and

           a growth in adult baptisms in practice.

            I think a key task for those wanting baptismal reform is to support adult baptism.  To put people in the position where they can start asking sensible questions about the role of baptism in someone’s journey of faith, there has to be a widely-experienced alternative to the present. 

Trends in research 

Recently there has been quite a lot of progress in research into early initiation practices.  Initiation for the first disciples was the fellowship meal with Jesus, and it was only later that the church decided to institute initiation rites.  Originally there was no single rite, but several: the water bath, the anointing with oil, the washing of the feet (lying behind John 13), and so on.  The East and West developed different emphases in the composite baptism service when it emerged: the West stressed faith by putting the questions to the candidates while standing in the water; the Eastern rite focussed more on an act of adherence to Jesus and less on an affirmation of belief.  This makes baptism less of a “head” exercise and more about a change of life coming through faith - the CW rite separates the decision from the profession of faith partly in imitation of this.

The movement towards infant baptism was all about the baptising of those who were in danger of death: places of high infant mortality moved more quickly towards infant baptism.  The idea of proxies may derive from the situation of an adult in the advanced stages of a terminal illness, no longer able to speak for himself, but whose faith could be vouched for by those who had known him when he was well (this in an age when baptism was often delayed until near death).  The proxy testifies to what the candidate would say if capable - the theory behind our statements of godparents on behalf of an infant.

Finally, we now suspect that the catechumenate was a response to a system  which was breaking down.  As it became fashionable to become a Christian, the church must have seen a decline in the spiritual fervour of those professing faith, and the more formal catechumenate was an invention to address this problem.  Are our own experiments with the catechumenate a sign of modern desperation in an age with a similar problem?

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