28 October 2009

Anglicans and the baptism of children

The Baptismal Font at the west end of Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

Opening Prayer:

Lord of all eternity,
you opened heaven’s gate and revealed yourself as Father
by the voice that called Jesus your beloved Son,
baptizing him, in the power of the spirit;
reveal yourself to us now, to claim us as your children,
and so complete the heavenly work of our rebirth
in the waters of your new creation;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer (2004), p. 392.

For the past few weeks we have been looking at the opening chapters of the Gospel according to Saint John, and we have seen how two of the major narratives in these opening chapters have sacramental resonances – the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan by John the Baptist; and Wedding Feast of Cana.

These two sacraments, Baptism and the Eucharist are central to the life of the Church and, indeed, are constitutive of the Church.

From the 16th to 19th centuries, the 39 Articles were the norm for Anglican teaching.

Article 25 teaches that there are two “Sacraments ordained of Christ” – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper – along with five other rites that are “commonly called Sacraments.” Of course the difference is obvious: we can go through life as members of the Church without ever being ordained or married, but not without being baptised or taking part in the Eucharist.

Article 27, “Of Baptism,” tells us that it is by Baptism that we are “grafted into the Church,” that we are adopted by God as his own children.

In the past we have tended to think of the sacraments as rites or rituals that are dispensed by the Church, that are performed, delivered and even defined by the Church. But an interesting insight of the modern liturgical movement is that we ought to approach this the other way around. In other words, it is not so much that we as the Church make the sacraments, but rather that the sacraments make or constitutethe Church.

According to this way of thinking, it is not because we are the Church that we baptise, but because we are baptised we are the Church. And similarly, it is not because we are the Church that we celebrate the Eucharist. But that we are the Church because we celebrate the Eucharist:

We say: “We being many are one body for we all share in the one bread.” It is the one bread that makes us one body. Similarly, it is our baptism that makes us, that constitutes the church, rather than it being the Church that makes baptism.

In the past, many of the discussions about who to baptise or at what age someone should be baptised have centred around the individual’s ability to consciously ask for the benefits of baptism. But is this not an argument for salvation by works? If I say the right words, do the right things, then I can be baptised?

But baptism is never dependent on our worthiness – whether by prayer, age, lifestyle, or tests of commitment.

Is any one of us worthy of the bountiful outpouring of God’s grace? And so, then it would be a very small church indeed. And if not, then what gives us the right to decide who should and should not be baptised, or when.

Baptism is not so much about a commitment to or maturing in faith, nor is it even about the forgiveness of sins, but about incorporation into the Body of Christ.

Secondly, we have also concentrated our discussions of baptism on the individual rather than collectively. I suppose this is a post-Renaissance elevation of the individual over the collective.

But the New Testament provides examples of both individuals and groups being baptised: the Great Commission is to being the Gospel to all nations and to baptise them (Matthew 28: 19).

When Peter calls people to baptism, is both a collective and individual call (Acts 2: 37-39, reminding those he addresses of “the promise … for you, for your children and for all …”

Both individuals and households are invited to be baptised, often with the minimal amount of instruction. Individuals include the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8: 26-39); Paul (9: 18) Groups include the crowd on the first Pentecost (Acts 2: 38); the family of Cornelius (Acts 10: 47-48); Lydia and her household (Acts 16: 11-15); Paul’s jailer and his household (Acts 16: 31); households and many others in Corinth (Acts 18: 1-8); and 12 fomer disciples of John in Ephesus (Acts 19: 1-5).

The baptistery in Saint John’s Basilica in Ephesus still retains its cruciform shape and symbolism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford

Sometimes, baptism in New Testament terms, as an entry into the covenant is compared with circumcision (see Genesis 17: 9-14; Acts 2: 39; Acts 16: 31; I Corinthians 7: 14). But entry into a covenant with God also comes through entering the ark and passing through the waters of the flood, or for the people who cross through the waters of Red Sea into the wilderness in Exodus, a comparison – images that are also drawn on in the New Testament (see I Peter 2: 9, and especially I Peter 3: 20-21; see also The Book of Common Prayer, p. 346).

At Baptism, a person is initiated into the Christian faith and becomes a member of the Church. The sacrament, therefore, not only receives individuals into the household of God, allowing them to receive the grace of the other sacraments, but also constitutes and defines the Church.

As Richard Hooker (1554-1600) defined it, a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” Therefore, a sacrament has the effect of conveying sanctification on the individual taking part in or receiving the sacramental action. But many Anglicans are now wrestling with questions about the revision of initiation rites and the place of children within the ecclesial community of faith.

Kurt Stasiak argues that a coherent theology of adoption might be the best way to reassert the value and importance of the practice of baptising infants.

The 1972 Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) has proved to be a watershed in baptismal praxis, affecting not only adults but infants and young children. However, Stasiak has taken issue with Aidan Kavanagh’s influential thesis that the adult ordo must set the norm for the Church’s baptismal praxis.

Stasiak’s “theology of childhood” reminds us that the child not only learns passively from adults but is an important teacher of adults too. He suggests the concept of adoption as an appropriate paradigm from which to approach questions relating to infant baptism, and in making this argument he draws on the Pauline concept of adoption.

One of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s husbands had himself adopted by an ageing German artistocrat when he was 37 and she was 82 so that he could change his name and call himself Frédéric Prinz von Anhalt. And he and Zsa Zsa Gabor have adopted countless adult men who want to use this phoney title. We find this amusing because we think of adoption only in terms of children. But we are all God’s children by adoption, and the language of adoption in baptism is particularly appropriate whern it comes to children.

The Church is God’s child by adoption and grace, and Stasiak presents a challenge to the Church to see itself as “God’s once and future child; to rediscover within herself the child-like qualities which clearly mark those to whom Gods kingdom belongs.”

In the New Testament, we are presented with the greatest collective understanding of adoption when we are told read that it is God’s plan to unite all things in heaven and earth to himself through his Son Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1: 10), and this is sealed in our baptism (see Ephesians 1: 13).

In the Church, we are sisters and brothers with all the other members of God’s family (I Corinthians 12: 12-13). This new relationship is open to all.

At the Reformation, Anglicans retained the pattern in the Western Church of baptising infants, with some modifications. As a result, the standard Anglican pattern of Christian initiation until recently has been one in which people have been baptised as infants on the understanding that they will then be brought up as Christians, receive instruction in the Christian faith, confess the faith for themselves when they are confirmed in their early teens and then be admitted to Holy Communion (see The Book of Common Prayer, p. 351).

In canon law, everyone resident in a parish is entitled to ask for their child to be baptised. It is only the sponsors or godparents who must be baptised Christians, and of these only two need be members of the Church of Ireland (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 352; Canon 26.4). There ought to be no such thing as private baptisms, baptism should be in public in the Church, preferably during the main Sunday service, and the font should be visible to all present (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 352).

There are four reasons why as Anglicans we have retained the practice of infant baptism.

1, infant baptism as a practice goes back to the very earliest days of the Church and therefore something that we are not free to discard.

2, we teach that God’s merciful love or grace always precedes our human response and enables it. Personal confession of faith following on from and responding to the grace of God received in infant baptism is consistent with this fact.

3, In the Gospels, Christ welcomes and blesses infants brought to him (see Mark 10: 13-15) and in infant baptism he continues to do this today.

4, The children of believers are part of God’s family and therefore should have the sign of belonging to the family just as Jewish boys in the Old Testament had the sign of circumcision (see Genesis 17: 9-14; Acts 2: 39; Acts 16: 31; I Corinthians 7: 14).

However, the traditional Anglican pattern of initiation is changing in a number of ways.

In some dioceses, there are provisions, with the approval of the bishop, for children who have not been confirmed to receive Holy Communion after appropriate instruction, provided this is in the context of a programme of continuing nurture leading to confirmation.

An increasing numbers of people who have been baptised as infants are not being confirmed as teenagers but are being confirmed later as adults, as part of a journey to Christian faith or as part of a return to it.

Increasing numbers of people are not being baptised as infants, but are being baptised when they come to faith when they are older. In this case provision is made for a return to the older Western pattern with baptism, confirmation and receiving the Eucharist taking place in the same service.

So now we are experiencing a number of different patterns of Christian initiation among Anglicans.

It may be that in the future, without increasing secularisation, that adult baptism may become the norm within the Church. But in the meantime, what is the appropriate pastoral response to people who come to mature adult faith long after baptism, or even long after baptism and confirmation, and who wish to have a public affirmation of this within the Church?

What do we do about people who have been baptised as infants, have fallen away from the practice of Christianity in their late teens or as young adults, and who ten return to Christianity and want to claim Church membership for themselves?

If we have been incorporated into the Body of Christ, how can we divide the body once again by denying a past baptism?

And why do we appear to elevate Confirmation above Baptism, making a two-tier membership of the Church: those who are baptised, but cannot receive Communion; and those who are Confirmed and can receive Communion? Why should Confirmation, and not Baptism, be the sacrament that confers full membership of the Church, the Body of Christ?

The Book of Common Prayer of the Church of Ireland provides an order for Receiving into the Congregation (pp 377-381), and for the Renewal of Baptismal Vows (pp 398-401). Both – especially the Renewal of Baptismal Vows – can be adapted for use in appropriate parish settings. At baptisms, I like everyone to take the opportunity to be reminded of their own baptism promises, and to renew those pledges.

The Methodist Covenant Service at the beginning of each year also offers a prayer that is suitable for adaptation for public occasions like this, and that can be used publicly:

Christ has many services to be done. Some are easy, others are difficult.
Some bring honour, others bring reproach. Some are suitable to our natural inclinations and temporal interests, others are contrary to both.
Yet the power to do all these things is given to us in Christ, who strengthens us.

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you,
or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low for you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.


The Book of Common Prayer, The Church of Ireland, 2004.

Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism (New York: Pueblo, 1978).
Harold Miller, The Desire of Our Soul (Dublin: Columba Press, 2002004).
Kurt Stasiak, Return to Grace: A Theology for Infant Baptism (Collegeville: Pueblo, 1996).
Ross Thompson, The Sacraments (London: SCM Press, 2006).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a tutorial with B.Th. and M.Th. students on Wednesday 28 October 2009.

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