Is this modest(y)?

Browsing around on the web, I came across this article, which is offering a critique of this website.  As of my writing, the website is down, so for its contents I’m relying on what has been said elsewhere.

Apparently, on the website, women are able to post photographs of themselves, and have feedback from others about their level of modesty.  Also, photographs of women from elsewhere on the web can be posted and commented on.  In and of itself, that doesn’t sound too appalling (although I doubt I’d be interested to visit).  But apparently, the comments end up obsessing over things such as whether a girl should wear a top in a size bigger to disguise her curves, or whether or not her heels are too high.  It’s all a bit odd.  And I have to ask myself, is this really what modesty’s about?

Don’t get me wrong.  I understand that sexuality is a vexed question for many, and that some of us take time and experience to find our own balance between wanting to look attractive and not wanting to look sexually available.  The feedback of trusted friends and family can be helpful in that process.  But is the barometer of a healthy modesty really whether or not a man looking at your photo on the Internet finds anything sexually appealing about what he sees?  I mean, you could wear burka but have bare feet, and a foot fetishist could be enraptured.

So I asked myself, what does the Bible say about modesty?  And the answer, perhaps surprisingly, is “not very much.”  Modesty is praised here and there, without it being spelled out what precisely makes one modest.  The only detailed comment I could find was in 1 Timothy 2:8-10: “Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God.”

Oh.  No guidance as to neckline or hemline there (or indeed the height of one’s heels).  What does seem to be in focus is the cost of clothing, and the place of a woman’s appearance in her priorities.  (Braided hair would be the work of a servant or slave, a mark of a life of prosperity and indolence).  So modesty might be more about what I pay for my jeans, and less about what cut they are?  Perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to think that the ethical production of clothes might be worth considering, too?

A modest woman, according to the author of that letter, is one who concerns herself more with doing good, than looking good.  One who chooses to invest her time and money in the kingdom of God, rather than in her wardrobe.  There’s a challenge in that for me; I love to shop as much as the next woman.  (And, as an aside, there’s a challenge for the church too.  I’m not sure there’s much modesty in a cassock which costs over a thousand dollars, no matter how devout its wearer!)

But I’m much more comfortable with that challenge, with its call to be fully engaged in life and in the mission of God for the world, than I am with the challenge of a website which seems to be something of a vicarious outlet for lust and misogyny, posing as concern for purity.


Cult or religion: a rose by any other name?

It came up in conversation again, the well-worn idea that religion is all about controlling people, and that there is no meaningful distinction between a religion and a cult.

I’ve been at theological college, preparing to become a priest, for five years now.  From the point of view of leadership in my denomination, I’m in on how things really are.  I don’t expect I’m going to get to my pre-ordination retreat and have the director sit us down, wide-eyed, for an explanation of all the special secrets no one told us before now.  So, from that insider’s point of view, I’m going to examine this idea that a religion is just a cult that got successful.

For that purpose, I’m going to use the list of characteristics of a cult published here.  I recognise that such a list is a useful analytical tool without necessarily being exhaustive, but it will do for this exercise.  My main point of reference for “religion” will be my own denomination; but having studied ecumenically, with lecturers from at least five denominations and fellow students from more, I’m confident that my comments apply more broadly.

So, let’s take them one at a time:

The group displays excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to its leader and (whether he is alive or dead) regards his belief system, ideology, and practices as the Truth, as law.

The leader of my denomination is the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He recently resigned to go back to academia, after the failure of his attempts to forge a way forward for a church divided over sexuality, the ministry of women and the interpretation of the Bible.  Trying to serve all, ultimately I think he pleased very few.  Certainly no one took his views as immutable law.

Some might like to object that the position of the Pope in Catholicism comes closer to this, but even then I’d disagree.  As one example, I’ve sat in ethics lectures where a Roman Catholic priest with a doctorate in canon law has explained to his students why the Vatican is wrong, with its approach to “moral micro-management,” and it’s my observation that most Catholics feel free to ignore the teachings they find silly or unhelpful.  Again, there is no commitment here to the idea of the Pope as being above critique or reproach.

– Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

The attitude I have consistently encountered is that questioning and doubt are spurs to learning and growth.  The mind which seeks a deeper understanding is commended.  Dissent is trickier; there are certainly times when, for clergy, public dissent is discouraged or even punished.  One could argue that there are points at which public dissent by clergy can be very harmful to their congregations; and also that there is a time and place for dissent, and times and places where that is unhelpful.  But at the same time, Spong and Holloway remain bishops in the church, despite their very public dissent.  So the issue can be as much about good order and working together as about whether dissent is tolerated at all.  But for the average believer?  I’ve never seen anyone take issue with dissent.  And people who truly take issue with the church on some point tend to exercise their freedom to leave, often to worship elsewhere, without that encountering any opposition.

– Mind-altering practices (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, and debilitating work routines) are used in excess and serve to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

In your average parish, there might be a meditation session once a month; perhaps once a week, if there is a very committed group.  Similar use might be made of something like a Taizé-style service with sung chant.  Speaking in tongues is popular on the charismatic fringe, but very few congregations can boast more than a small number of tongues-speakers.  As for denunciation sessions or debilitating work routines (a few overworked staff aside), that simply is not part of my experience in the church at all.  Since none of these activities are compulsory, they can’t really be effectively used in the manner described.

– The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel (for example, members must get permission to date, change jobs, marry—or leaders prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, whether or not to have children, how to discipline children, and so forth).

Good grief.  I already have a life, which is enough trouble for one person, thank you.  Believe me when I tell you that I have no interest in running yours too; and I’ve never met any member of the clergy who would feel differently.

– The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader is considered the Messiah, a special being, an avatar—or the group and/or the leader is on a special mission to save humanity).

There is, I think, the possibility of the church falling into this kind of trap at times.  The church does understand itself as participating in the Missio Dei, the mission of God.  (In the words of Moltmann: “It is not the church that has a mission of salvation to fulfil in the world; it is the mission of the Son and the Spirit through the Father that includes the church.”)   However, the church at its best recognises that the image of God rests in all humanity, and that the church is here to serve the world, not exalt itself over it.  At the very least, it remains true that when the church begins to exalt itself, voices from within its membership are able to speak out against that, and are resourced to do so from within the Scriptures and traditions which shape the church.

– The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.

I think this may have been true in the past, particularly in the early days of the church when it was illegal and persecuted.  Today occasional pockets of it do pop up from time to time, particularly in fundamentalist groups.  But the history of Christendom and Establishment tends to give the larger denominations much less scope to understand themselves over against the society in which they are embedded.

– The leader is not accountable to any authorities (unlike, for example, teachers, military commanders or ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream religious denominations).

I need say very little on this, except perhaps to note that even bishops and senior officials in the church can have complaints raised against them, be formally investigated and be removed from office should they be upheld.  Church leaders are not above reproach.

– The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviours or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (for example, lying to family or friends, or collecting money for bogus charities).

Ethical behaviour and the importance of conscience are not undermined, in my experience, by the pursuit of growth or money in the church.  Quite honestly, it’s hard enough to encourage members to participate ethically, without putting additional difficulties in the way.  Actually, that’s a relevant point; this list of criteria seems to assume a great deal of involvement and activity on the part of members; rather than the sort of participation we tend to see for churches, where most people turn up to one service a week (if that) and don’t get involved beyond that.

– The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. Often, this is done through peer pressure and subtle forms of persuasion.

All of my training in pastoral care has highlighted how harmful shame is, and how destructive and debilitating being trapped in guilt is.  We are taught to help people to gain insight into these emotions, and encourage them to leave them behind; to seek forgiveness where guilt is appropriate, to build reconciliation, and to work in ways which are liberating and enlivening of people.  The use of shame or guilt to influence or control would fall squarely into the category of spiritual abuse, and the church works very hard to equip us to avoid those pitfalls.

– Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group.

The church encourages people to place their families as a priority.  The pastoral care provided around baptisms, weddings and funerals brings this into high relief.  It would be considered grossly unethical to behave in the manner described here.  Occasionally, a congregation member may be challenged, for example, to give up an addiction; but I don’t think that’s the sort of personal activity in mind here!  This kind of radical reorientation is simply not part of becoming a church member in any way.

– The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

Many congregations are aging and shrinking.  This can be a concern in some places.  But I have never seen a church congregation concerned with bringing in new members in a way which displaces its life of worship or its care for its own community.  Congregations don’t exist simply in order to make new members, which is I think what is suggested here.

– The group is preoccupied with making money.

(Gasp, wipe tears from eyes)  That was the best laugh I’ve had in ages…. oh, wait, you were serious?  Have a look at a few parish budgets, or even better, a diocesan budget or two, sometime.  Churches don’t make money, and we have a list of things we want to spend it on far bigger than we can afford.  Money’s a means to an end, not an end in itself.

– Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities.

I sort of touched on this already, but unless you think an hour or so of a Sunday morning is inordinate, this really doesn’t apply.

– Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members.

This just isn’t part of the landscape of the church at all.  Live with whomever you please, and socialise with whomever you please.  It really is not an issue.

– The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (or even consider leaving) the group.

Even the most devoted church members I’ve known, generally monks and nuns, don’t think like this.  They maintain family and social contact beyond their own community, and value those people for who they are.  As for reprisals for leaving… it just doesn’t happen.

So there you have it.  That’s my two cents on it.  I hope it helps you to see that a mainstream religion is worlds away from a cult.  And if at some point you strike a religious leader who seems in danger of falling into one of these traps – stand up and tell him or her.  You’re free to disagree.  It’s not a cult.

Musings on the Trinity

It’s not unusual, as I talk to other Christians (especially the more consciously Protestant sort) to find that they’re vaguely aware of the doctrine of the Trinity, but they feel they don’t understand it, and even that they distrust it as not being Biblical.  And it’s true that the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible, although there are places where Trinitarian formulae are used (Matthew 28:19 is a good example).  But it took the first few centuries of the Church’s existence, and much reflection on Scripture and the experience of believers, and many arguments, to sort out what the Church felt it could safely say about God, after Christ.

And I want to emphasise that lived experience of believers as important.  For example, it was because Christians worshipped the Spirit, sang songs in praise of the Spirit, and prayed to the Spirit; because they recognised the Spirit as present and active in the Church’s life, that they found they needed a way of speaking which recognised the Spirit as God, as much as the Father and the Son.

It raises the question in my mind; if we don’t use the language of Father, Son and Holy Spirit to describe our experience of God, have we explored the potential of our faith as fully as possible?

Let me put that another way.  We talk about God as Trinity.  And I think it’s an important and valid question then to ask, “So What?”

I’d like to begin to scope out an answer to that question.

What is it that leads us to talk about God as Father?  Isn’t it that we celebrate the dignity, the value, and the wonder of each human being around us – and remember that these human beings are made in the image of God?  Isn’t it that we look at the heavens and the earth – everything from the vastness of space to the intricacy of a single living cell – and worship in awe at the wisdom which could conceive of this, and the might that could bring it into existence?  Isn’t it also that we are aware that in what we know, we are just playing in the waves on the edges of a vast ocean, and that we can only guess at the depth and breadth of the mysteries which are just too vast for us to grasp?

I suggest that every time we are mindful of these things, they bring us back to recognising God as Father, and to a profound reverence and awe in our worship and our lives.

And then, what is it to talk about God the Son?  The defining story of Christianity – of the God who emptied himself; who, as Philippians says, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but laid it aside, became human, and became our servant, even to the point of death – shows us an aspect of the life of God which is distinct from that of the Father.

There is, I think, something important to pause and consider here.  And that is that in no way can we consider Father and Son to be divided or opposites.  Sometimes the way we think and talk about what Jesus did for us, in dying for us and opening a way back into intimate relationship with God, it sounds as if the Father and the Son were pulling something of a cosmic good cop-bad cop routine.  The Father is presented as the “bad cop” who holds judgement and damnation over our heads, and the Son as the “good cop” who steps in, placates the “bad cop” and makes everything alright for us, if only we comply with what is being asked of us.

I have to tell you, that that kind of thinking about God doesn’t wash.  There is no difference in attitude towards us between Father and Son.  Both the Father and the Son love us; both the Father and the Son care for us, and the Father and the Son collaborated together in the costly work of our redemption.  In this, as much as in creation or any other work of God, they are united in purpose and action.

Yet we still need to ask, what is it for us to recognise the work of the Spirit in our lives, in our Church, and to be able to talk about that?  Some of us will have experienced, or known others who have experienced, “charismatic” expressions of the Spirit in the life of believers.  That is all well and good and to the glory of God.  But even for those of us who haven’t, the evidence of the Spirit’s work amongst us is still there to be seen.  As long as we can recognise in ourselves (or, more often it is easier to see it in others) the growth of a person, becoming more loving, patient, kind, generous and gentle; more wise, faithful, joyful, and peaceful; and more self-controlled – we can recognise the work of the Spirit in bringing about good fruit in our lives.

All of this is as much to say, the idea of the Trinity isn’t an intellectual puzzle or an abstract mathematical formula.  It isn’t something handed down to us from theologians in ivory towers with scarily intelligent minds.  It is an idea which comes out of the lived experience of every Christian believer.  It is the Church’s communal shout of praise for a God whose richness of being overflows, in ways which stretch our language almost to breaking point, but only so as to make room for us to grow in love and worship Him more fully.  It is as we realise the truth of God’s being, for us, that we find ourselves growing more fully into His likeness; that we find God’s kingdom growing and transforming the world in which we live; and that we find our language unable to contain the full meaning of truth which ultimately we have to experience to know.

I came across a line which I very much liked from Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, in which he said that in speaking of the Trinity, we try to find, not the most exact but the least silly things to say; that we try to find language which will share the exhilaration of being drawn into the life of God.  It’s just possible that I’m a lot sillier than Rowan Williams.  But I hope that if I can say anything which is of use at all about the Trinity, it will be something which speaks of that exhilaration.  Of the abundance of God the Father, poured out in creation; of the generosity and selflessness of God the Son, shown in his life, death and resurrection; of the power and energy of the Spirit, renewing us, pushing at the world as God’s kingdom comes and grows in our midst.  Who wouldn’t be exhilarated?  Who wouldn’t be encouraged to glimpse something of this?

In that sense, having a formal doctrine and a feast day to celebrate the Trinity starts to make more sense.  It’s not a day to be put off by the fact that we still see God only through a mirror, dimly.  Rather it’s a day to celebrate and give thanks for the understanding we do have; not just in words and teaching, but in our concrete lived experience, and that of the whole Church through all of time.

I haven’t, however, quite finished with the question, “So What?”

So far I have been talking as if the inner life of God, the reality of the three persons working together in love, is something which doesn’t have implications for our own lives.  But all of us who are Christians have made that commitment because something about that God has been deeply attractive to us.  Even as we work to understand our awesome God, that awesomeness lays hold of us and makes claims on us.  The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us.

And this is also part of the meaning of our baptism in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This is, just as surely, the place where we find our understanding that the whole Church, the whole body of Christ, is involved and caught up in the mission of God to the world.  Whatever gifts we have each been given, whatever our abilities and personalities, whatever niche each of us has within this community, we are called to work and to function together.  Our life as a community should mirror something of the inner life of God; a life in which hierarchy and ego are not at issue; a life in which each is willing to be involved in work that is costly; a life which is not closed off and turned inward, but looking outward in overflowing abundant generosity, love and joy.  God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and we can hardly remain unchanged after that experience.

That is my answer to the question “So What?”  That is the least silly glimpse into the meaning of Trinity which I can offer you today.  That is the hope in which I walk and live every day; that in this lived experience, this and every Christian community can press deeper into the mystery of the Trinity.  May our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let it be so.

“Indiscriminate” Baptism

This post began its life as an essay I wrote for a unit in Ministry and Sacraments.  I’ve modified it a bit here to make it more blog-friendly, but the thrust of it is the same.

For much of Christian history, the question of whether or not to grant a request for baptism did not arise, since European society (aside from a small Jewish presence) was consciously Christian and baptism was a given in that society.  This situation has changed, such that Western society is consciously secular and Christianity is an optional way of life.  The Church, as one community of faith within this society, is learning to focus again on mission; and the baptism of new believers is now seen, not as a given, but as an aspect of mission and the rite of initiation into this optional way of life.

Questions of baptism are related very closely to ecclesiology and the understanding of the relationship between the Church and wider society.  Because different denominations have different self-understandings, different theologies of baptism, and exist in a wide range of societies, for reasons of brevity this post focuses particularly on the issues in play for the Anglican Church of Australia, with the understanding that this is not universal and different traditions within Christianity do shape their approaches differently.

Baptismal enquiries generally come from one of three groups of people; unbaptised adults, church members seeking baptism for their children, and non-church members seeking baptism for their children.  These different situations give rise to different concerns.

First, a few caveats: the whole discussion of whether or not to grant a request for baptism is put aside in a situation where the candidate’s life is under threat.  Concerns for preparation and education are not seen as being as important as making the sacrament available where delay might mean depriving the candidate of it.  It is also worth noting that baptism is administered only to the living; in the awful circumstance of a request to baptize a newly-deceased child, it is necessary to explain that the child is in the care of God, and baptism could add nothing to his or her blessedness.  Further, as baptism is an unrepeatable event, it is not possible to baptize someone who has already been baptized.

Baptism in context

Whether or not baptism proceeds, every enquiry about baptism gives an opportunity to speak of the gospel.  Every person who enquires can be made welcome and given opportunities to explore and progress in faith.  While the gospel, read, preached and heard, is important, it is related to but distinct from the sacraments of baptism and eucharist.  The sacraments have their own purpose and integrity and should not be treated as merely audiovisual aids for the preached Word.  Thus the chance to speak of the gospel is not in itself sufficient justification for baptism, and this decision must be made with concern for the integrity of the sacrament.

According to Kuhrt in his book Believing in Baptism, baptism is “essentially a gift from God witnessing to what he has done and intends to do, rather than a human action witnessing to the faith-response….Having said that, the covenant promises of God must be received by faith.  It has always been so, and there is no other way to benefit from or enjoy them.”  (Italics added).  This understanding leads to the official position of the Anglican diocese of Melbourne (articulated in A Pastoral Handbook for Anglicans) that “no candidate should be baptized without evidence of faith in Christ.”  This faith may yet seem embryonic or inadequate, but that should be encouraged to grow, rather than extinguished.  “The warrant for admitting a person to baptism is not so much present faith, as evidence that the candidate is being set to live the new life by faith.”

In this view, it is appropriate to expect adults to participate in preparation, to be willing to make the affirmations and decisions in the rite itself, and to progress to being a communicant.  For infants, it is appropriate to expect the sponsors to be willing to make the affirmations and decisions in the rite; and since the intention is that they should nurture the child in faith, at least one parent must be baptized and ideally should be a regular communicant of whatever denomination.  Preparation continues to be important for parents, even for the baptism of subsequent children.

There is a concern that sponsors and godparents do not make promises by which they do not intend to live, which is hypocrisy for them, and where the Church winks at it, hypocrisy for the Church as well.  Yet, care should be taken not to place too unbalanced an emphasis on this concern; Schleiermacher noted that the effect of the action of baptism does not depend on the intention being pure and unmixed, and discerning some appropriate intent, however imperfect, can be considered warrant enough.

This discussion touches on the issue of so-called “indiscriminate baptism,” an approach to baptism which would grant all requests, or at least many more than some would feel to be appropriate.  Colin Buchanan, an English champion of a more discriminating baptismal policy, argues in his book Reforming Infant Baptism that although it is not necessary or helpful to have to investigate too closely how credible the commitment or faith profession of parents is, “we dare not forego that profession if baptism is to be baptism, and the church of God is to be the church of God.”  To practice a faithless baptism is to practice to no effect.  Indiscriminate baptism “inhabited Christendom: we are of missiondom.”

Baptism, as an important spiritual function within the Church, should be defined and controlled by the Church, not the family seeking baptism or the historical accidents of common custom or folk piety.  Thus it is appropriate to insist that baptism be practiced in accordance with a sound theological understanding of its meaning and implications.  There will be times when enquirers will find this difficult or even offensive, but what is theologically wrong cannot be pastorally right.  Practising a more “discriminate” form of infant baptism would be helped by the theology of baptism being re-defined and made public in such ways that the meaning and implications of the sacrament are more readily understood, with the aim of leading to fewer inappropriate requests.

Possible approaches to admission to baptism

A scheme of six positions of increasing degrees of “strictness” when it comes to deciding to baptize has been published by Owen in his chapter in Reforming Infant Baptism.  Although his scheme was worked out in the context of a discussion of infant baptism, the different levels of preparation and moral commitment could translate equally well to a discussion of the admission of candidates old enough to answer for themselves.

1) Open baptism.  All requests are met.  Preparation is minimized.
2)  Open with preparation.  This “may involve a group, a course or some attendance at worship.”
3)  A “hurdles” policy.  Preparation is more rigorous.  Thanksgiving for the birth of the child is recommended as an alternative to baptism for uncommitted families.  Unmarried parents are encouraged to consider marriage.
4)  Practising communicant status is required of at least one parent.  This approach reflects a justification of infant baptism based on a covenantal theology.
5)  Only children of regular worshippers are baptized.
6)  Baptism only of those able to answer for themselves.

He suggests that the contested distinction between discriminate and indiscriminate baptism is actually an area covered by the more rigorous end of the third category in his scheme and the more lax of the fourth.

With regard to infants, Anglican canons and formularies hold that where the sponsors are baptized, and desire the baptism of their child, this is sufficient for baptism to take place.  Except in exceptional circumstances, at least one of the parents must also meet these conditions.  Where one parent and two sponsors are baptized, and willing to make the promises as set out in the authorized rites of the Anglican Church of Australia, baptism is not to be denied.  (Parents may act as sponsors and count in that number, but an unbaptised or unwilling parent may also refrain). Referral to another minister is required if the minister who receives the enquiry cannot in good conscience acquiesce.  At the same time, there is official encouragement of formal preparation for baptism, and the use of the rite of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child.  This places the official position of the Anglican Church roughly in accord with the third category outlined above.

Two concerns should be borne in mind when assessing requests for baptism according to these guidelines.  Making baptism difficult to obtain can be a de facto refusal and may conceal a lack of honesty and integrity on the part of the minister or parish.  Preparation should be provided in a way which assists, rather than obstructs, the progress of enquirers towards baptism.

Conversely, it is important to realize that although some in the Church might wish to be discriminate in admitting to baptism, seeking to apply more rigour in discerning faith and commitment, it is much more difficult to raise children meaningfully as believers without baptizing them.  Their status as believing but unbaptised would be irregular and set up a tension only resolved upon their baptism.

To defer or decline?
Ultimately, it is not the place of the Church to decline to baptize.  It is the role of the Church to see that enquirers and candidates understand what they are asking for and to make clear the nature of Christian commitment, but where there is sincere desire for baptism after such instruction, refusal is inappropriate.  To decline baptism must rest with the parents or candidate, if they come to understand the nature of baptism as incompatible with their intentions at that point in time.
Anglican canon law specifies that deferment or delay should only be about preparation and instruction, rather than for any other reason.  While rushing the process would be irresponsible, it is suggested that preparation should not take longer than a year at most.

Preparation for baptism, then, becomes an exercise not only in instruction in the faith, but in discernment by the candidate or sponsors.  In presenting the gospel message, and the Church’s understanding of baptism and the continuing life of discipleship, good baptismal preparation calls for a response from the enquirer, and presents him or her with opportunities for increased commitment as well as understanding.  Preparation ought to be enough to allow a candidate to express a genuinely baptismal faith, not just in words but in all of life.  Buchanan writes that “parish clergy are correct to ‘delay’ baptism for the sake of preparation. ‘Preparation’ (if it were for exams!) would include some evidence that something of what had been taught had in fact been learned – and in this case parents are to learn discipleship themselves.”

Placing baptism within the context of preparation and ongoing discipleship is to put it in its rightful place.  It is from this context that baptism has its meaning and significance, for if it is not a part of a process which also includes repentance, faith and receiving the Spirit, it is less than it should be.

It follows from this that baptismal preparation is not a one-size-fits-all phenomenon.  The level of understanding, experiences and needs of enquirers will shape it significantly, and it has also been noted that it should be appropriate to the age, background and culture of each candidate and his or her sponsors.

Ongoing participation in the community of faith

It has been pointed out above that baptism should be celebrated with a concern to safeguard its integrity.  As much as possible, preparation should assist and encourage the candidate to discover the full depth of the meaning of baptism.  One aspect of this emphasized by many writers on the topic is that baptism should lead to ongoing participation in the community of faith.  As an analogy, it would be illogical to step through a doorway and find oneself on the same side of the door from which one began.  If baptism is seen as a rite of initiation into the Christian life, it is similarly illogical to go through baptism and find oneself still effectively outside the Church.

It would seem reasonable then that some commitment to continue in the corporate life of the Christian community would be part of the expression of faith considered sufficient to grant a request for baptism.  As Mikoski put it in Baptism and Christian Identity, “Candidates for baptism cannot simply show up for baptism, receive it upon demand, and leave as if it were an event with merely punctiliar significance.  The revolutionary transformation in inner life and outer behavior does not come as a magical event.  Baptism marks the entrance into an entire way of life characterized by ongoing transformation.”  Put another way, if baptism is seen as establishing (or perhaps correcting) relationship with God, it is a nonsense for it to be celebrated in a context which is not relational; where baptism is an intrusion into a context where God is otherwise neither acknowledged nor sought.

This communal aspect of baptismal life can be encouraged in part by making church attendance a part of the process of preparation within a parish.  This is often an unpopular move with the parents of an infant, but such a requirement can be justified on many grounds.  To participate in Christian worship and congregational life is clearly a most important part of instruction in Christian life, which is not just an intellectual matter.  Baptism is ‘into Christ’ and into ‘the body of Christ,’ the Church.  It is a nonsense to divorce it from the congregational life.  Worship, holy communion and church membership are not optional aspects of Christian life, parenthood and nurture.  The Church does grave disservice to God and his gospel to leave any grounds for people thinking they are.

There is a Christological reason for insisting on belonging as an essential part of baptism.  In New Testament terms, it is impossible to belong to Jesus Christ without becoming members of his body. Salvation never happens between just an individual and Jesus. When we are united with Jesus, we are simultaneously incorporated into the church.  Zizioulas, in Being as Communion, describes this incorporation in terms of the the assigning of a “place” for a person within the community of faith. If a newly-baptised person does not take his or her given place, the community becomes malformed (or at best impoverished), since it is constituted by all of the people baptized into it.  In this view baptism is in fact a sort of ordination, into the priesthood of all believers, with all the interdependence in the community that that entails.   A baptized person apart from the community is thus displaced, and both the person and the community suffer for it.

Placing a high degree of importance on fellowship in the community of faith is also helpful in another way.  Being part of the communion viatorum, the fellowship of the way, takes the pressure off the person being baptized to have all in order and perfect understanding (and allows questions of preparation to fall into their natural perspective rather than being highly stressed), since the claim that faith is absent can be upheld only if the faith of the community and the faith of the individual are isolated from one another.  The community becomes the supportive context which upholds and nurtures the developing faith of the new Christian.  This approach also relaxes some of the tension about the status of the parents of baptized infants.  Where parents are willing to allow the faith of the Church to be a natural part of the child’s life, and to shape his or her nurture, the “faith of the Church” becomes a more reasonable justification for infant baptism, and there is less pressure to be sure of the faith of the parents.
It is, however, important not to be legalistic about the concern for participation in the community of faith.  There may be some persons who sincerely want to identify themselves with a group living in Christ’s spirit but may yet be unable to recognize this in the local Sunday congregation in Church.  These people should still be given the opportunity to begin the life of faith and to grow into its fullness.

It is not sufficient justification for baptism, that it provides an opportunity to speak of the gospel.  That opportunity presents itself with each enquiry, but not all enquiries must lead to baptism.  It is also not sufficient justification to baptize, to claim that it is an occasion of grace; for this to be the case, baptism must be received by faith.  A faithless baptism is really no baptism at all.

The deferral of a baptism should be undertaken for purposes of preparation and instruction.  Although this should be taken seriously, and every attempt should be made to offer a thorough preparation, (including participation in the life of the church community), this should be designed and delivered in a way which helps rather than hinders the approach of candidates to baptism.

If a person is willing and able to make the affirmations and participate in the rite as it is given, baptism should not be declined.  It is, finally, the decision of the enquirer to decline Christ’s invitation, and not the decision of the Church to decline the request.  The enquirer should be given as much assistance as possible to discern whether a Christian life is truly something to which he or she wishes to commit.

The Bible and the Bechdel test

Some readers may be familiar with the Bechdel test.  Usually, it is used as a measure of gender bias in works of fiction.  A work passes the test if it has two named women characters, who talk to each other about something other than a man.  While the Bible is not (at least in my eyes) a work of fiction, it does have within it a number of narrative works, and as narratives they are as prone to displaying the biases of their authors as any others.  I thought it would be an interesting exercise, then, to see which of these works pass the Bechdel test.  I’ve put a summary below, along with comment where I thought it was warranted (for the sake of completeness, I’ve included the apocrypha, without meaning to imply anything about their canonical status.  That is a whole other topic!)

First, some disclaimers.  The Bechdel test is not the only or a perfect measure of gender bias.  It can be criticised on a number of grounds.  I don’t mean to suggest, by compiling this summary, that the books of the Bible which pass are thus free of gender bias, or indeed that the books which fail are intolerably biased.  I was simply curious, when I learned of the test, to use it as one measure which might be food for thought.  If anyone were interested in serious considerations of gender bias in the Bible, the necessary reading would be well beyond the humble scope of this blog.

For the purposes of this analysis, I have treated God as without gender; that is, a conversation about God is not about a man, and does not fail; and a conversation with God is not with a woman, and does not pass.

I notice, too, that this post has been linked to from Twitter and there are some comments there asking about which translation of the Bible I work from.  To the best of my knowledge, different translations would not make a difference to this analysis, but for the curious, I generally work from the NRSV (or for the New Testament, from the original Greek.  Sadly, I have not yet mastered Hebrew and need to rely on translations for the Old Testament).

So, without further ado:

Books which pass the Bechdel test:


Books which fail because there is conversation between named female characters, but it is about a man:


Books which fail because there is conversation, not about a man, between female characters who are not both named:

Samuel (taken as one work)
Kings (taken as one work)

Books which fail because named women speak, but only to men:

Chronicles (taken as one work)
Esther (including the additions)
Daniel (including the additions)

Books which fail because only unnamed women speak, and only to men:

2 Maccabees
2 Esdras
4 Maccabees

Books which fail because no woman speaks:

1 Maccabees
1 Esdras
3 Maccabees

*(only a small portion of the book is in narrative form, so it is limited by genre)

Books to which the test does not apply, since they are not in narrative form:

Song of Songs
Wisdom of Solomon
Letter of Jeremiah
1 Corinthians
2 Corinthians
1 Thessalonians
2 Thessalonians
1 Timothy
2 Timothy
1 Peter
2 Peter
1 John
2 John
3 John