Baby being baptised

The Church of England’s liturgical commission has produced new wording for Baptism services. Alternative words are offered for parts of the service which some clergy complained were incomprehensible to parents and godparents in areas of multiple deprivation.

As I don’t do baptisms in my retirement it isn’t personally important to me, but I thought the baptism service in the Alternative Service Book was awful and the one in Common Worship worse.

In the 1990s there was a lobby arguing that the Alternative Service Book had modernised too much; as a result Common Worship was out of date even when it was published. This was especially true of the Baptism service with its didactic feel and its determination to get parents and godparents to believe as much as possible. Today, ooh, the whole of 14 years later, it sounds pompous and out-dated – or at best, designed for a niche market.

The new proposals are a great step forward, though they do not go as far as I would have wanted. The liturgical commission’s explanation states that there is no intention to change the theology: the point is to make the words easier to understand, for people in areas of multiple deprivation. Personally I would have liked to see a change in the theology, and I think they needed to make the words more comprehensible not just to people in areas of multiple deprivation but to anyone who hasn’t got a degree in Theology.

Common Worship:
Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God? I reject them.
New alternative:
Do you reject evil? I reject evil.

I think this is a great improvement because I don’t believe in the devil. I know the devil is in the Bible, but if you read what the biblical scholars say about Satan and the Devil – Peggy Day’s An Adversary in Heaven, Jeffrey Russell’s Satan and The Devil, Henry Kelly’s Satan – it’s a patchy story. Satan and the Devil may or may not be the same person, and seem to vary from one biblical author to another. The devil Christians have inherited has contradictory roles. It (he? Mustn’t be sexist) is God’s permanent enemy, a bit like the baddy of a television series who gets defeated every time but reappears as confident as ever next time; but on the other hand is also God’s obedient agent of punishment. A devil like this owes more to Dante and Milton than to any biblical author. Its closest parallel in the ancient world is the Ahriman of Zoroastrianism.

So I’d rather ask the bewildered parents of those babies to reject evil than to reject the devil. Instead of ‘Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?… Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?… Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?’ the new alternative asks ‘Do you reject evil?… And all its many forms?… And all its empty promises?’

Apart from the fortunate disappearance of the devil, the new words do indeed say very much the same as the earlier words. They are easier to understand. But this only makes the problem with them all the more obvious. Who isn’t prepared to say they are in favour of good and against evil? Even Hitler and Stalin would have agreed with that.

Maybe the words sounded less pompous when most people were familiar with the references. Take, for example, ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ has told us that to enter the kingdom of heaven we must be born again of water and the Spirit, and has given us baptism as the sign and seal of this new birth.’ Or ‘In baptism, God calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light. To follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him.’ Lots of metaphor and biblical quotes. Characteristically, the minister is to say these words to people who are not familiar with either the metaphors or the biblical quotes, but have recently experienced the biggest miracle of their lives: the birth of a baby. They bring the baby to church for baptism, when they normally wouldn’t attend services, because they know in their bones that this is a mystery to be celebrated, a spiritual event surpassing what human language can describe. At such a time, all that formal language emphasising the sacrament of baptism as a different kind of birth, and elaborating it with repeated references to the need to reject evil, sounds like a way of saying ‘We are not interested in your agenda. We want you to buy into our agenda.’

I know there is a different service for thanksgiving after childbirth, but all too many parents feel they are being fobbed off by a second best because they are not prepared to attend lots of church services. If that is what they think, sadly, all too often they are right. At this point I have to confess that, earlier in this post, I lied. To be honest the question of baptism services is still personally important to me. I still feel guilty about all the parents I put off, intentionally or unintentionally, back in the days when I was anxious about numbers of people attending my services and determined to stress the importance of baptism. Sometimes I wish I could go back to all of them and personally apologise. I should have paid attention to their agenda, not acted out mine.

What words should we use instead? Maybe, instead of having one service of baptism with various sets of alternative wordings, and another service of thanksgiving for childbirth, we should offer parents a variety of sets of wordings, let them choose the one that fits their situation, and just not worry whether to call it a baptism service, a thanksgiving service or a christening service.

As for all the stuff about resisting evil, it may be appropriate to some adult baptisms after a dramatic life-changing conversion, but for most people it is no more appropriate to their baptism than to their 21st birthday party. It is one of those occasions when the right thing to do is to be positive – and celebrate.