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.
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.
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.
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.