Sunday, February 25, 2007

Personal Journey Present Challenges: 1. The Problem of Baptism

Well I am now back in action after a very full two weeks. I may not have been blogging for the past couple of weeks, but I have been giving it some thought. I think that it might be interesting to write about some of the challenges I am facing at the moment both in my ministry and more generally. I would be very interetsed to hear your reactions and opinions.

Personal Journey Present Challenges: 1. The Problem of Baptism

Readers of this blog may remember me writing earlier on in this series about baptism and the problems I had with infant baptism when I first became a Christian. The Christians I associated with took a very dim view of babies being baptized. How could they have faith? And baptism was about us consciously professing our faith. There were even more problems with non-Christians getting their children baptized as no-one involved had faith. At least with Christians the parents had faith. For a while this issue of infant baptism kept me from committing to Anglicanism.

While at LBC, I came to the conclusion that there was a reasonable argument for Christians being able to baptize their children and that at the very least it was a valid position for Christians to take. In any case the vast majority of Christians believed just that. The alternative: ‘believers only baptism’ sounded very pure, but it created problems of its own. When is someone old enough? And are we really saying that believers’ children are effectively pagans until they get baptized?

So I adopted the mainline position. All of which is fine, except that in the CofE, the vast majority of requests for baptism come from people outside the Church. For centuries, the Church has encouraged people to bring their children for baptism. This was all well and good when people had a strong connection with the Church, but with the collapse of Christendom in the West, this connection often simply does not exist. The problem is that a parent’s right to have their child baptized in the parish church does still exist and many want to avail themselves of it for all sorts of reasons. Many people seek baptism to do with custom and social convention, but many also because of a desire simply to express thanks for the child and to have a naming ceremony.

This has created a crisis of conscience for many Anglicans. They just do not feel happy people making vows that it is obvious that they don’t mean or intend to keep. Some Vicars have tried to obstruct people who come for baptism if they are not church members. Others have offered a different ceremony that they feel is more honest. The problem is that many of those coming for baptism want baptism itself and resent being thwarted in their desire.

When I went to Moreton, we were overwhelmed with the numbers seeking baptism for their children. The services were a joke with people wanting to get it done as quickly as possible so they could get off to the party that was being held afterwards. We went down the route of making it more difficult for people, but it wasn’t really facing up to the problem. At the end of the day, we were turning people away who, however tenuously, were coming to Church.

At Bedford, working in a secular context in the College, I met people who had been turned away by their local parish Church. They had taken it very personally and bore a real grudge against the Church because of it. What is more, they often felt that it was their child that had been rejected. This may be illogical, but this is not about logic and the hurt went very deep.

So when I went to Banchory, I adopted a completely open policy and avoided putting any obstacles in people’s way. We tried to be as welcoming as possible in the hope that people who may not have previously have come to Church would now. This did happen in a number of cases, although by no means all. Nevertheless, being open and welcoming seemed a better place to be and fitted with what we were trying to do in terms of mission. Given the emphasis we were placing on Sunday School and attracting families, refusing baptism seemed totally impossible. We insisted that baptism must take place during the morning service so at least we got the family to Church, but that was the only condition - if you can call it a condition.

When I came to Hong Kong I came with this approach to baptism. Christ Church had the same approach and both never refused baptism and always conducted it within the morning service. However whereas in Banchory relatively speaking weren’t that many baptisms, at Christ Church the numbers coming for baptism were huge so that sometimes as many as 22 baptisms were performed in the morning service. Maybe once in a while this would be ok, but it was happening with amazing frequency.

I at once took the decision that I was not going to conduct baptisms in the morning service, but immediately after it in the hope that this would preserve the link with morning worship while not disrupting it in the way it was being disrupted. The congregation breathed a big sigh of relief and those seeking baptism rather liked it as well. It made it easier for them.

The problem occurs because people perceive there to be an advantage in having their child baptized when it comes to gaining admission to the schools. Indeed, there is some advantage although not nearly so great as people think. Whatever, parents are prepared to lie and say anything that is required of them in order to secure baptism. They will attend Church for the period and then leave as soon as they have got what they want. I must confess to being at a total loss to know what to do about this. The present situation is not satisfactory, but I can see problems with all the alternatives.

What to do?

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