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Home News Wronging a rite: The baby-talk baptism that replaces beauty with banality

Wronging a rite: The baby-talk baptism that replaces beauty with banality

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EVEN in Tier Three there are activities which the Government has not yet managed to ban. For instance, that which is sometimes referred to as the procreation of children.  

Christenings, however, present difficulties. It so happened that a friend recently gave birth to her first child and I was invited to his Christening – if and when these ceremonies are permitted again.  

Thankfully, in all our insecurities, the Church of England does not leave us comfortless. There is a reassuring note on the church’s webpage which says: ‘You can still contact a church and talk about plans for a date next year. Read more about how to contact your church. Meanwhile, use this site to explore what a Christening means. And even though churches are closed, there are some things you can do over the coming weeks.’  

I thought a handy thing to do would be to read through the Baptism Service in Common Worship which, in most parishes, has replaced The Book of Common Prayer. Though as a parish priest I never used CW, I keep a copy (for reference only) on the high shelf reserved for the creations of Salman Rushdie and Carol Ann Duffy.  


I was under-awed by what I read for, while in the BCP The Public Baptism of Infants is a rite which takes sin and devil seriously and describes Holy Baptism as the mystical washing away of sin, CW offers Initiation Services, which I’m afraid only makes me think of Masonic lore and corny witchcraft films on late-night television.  

This isn’t for the mystical washing away of sin. Today’s bishops don’t believe in sin, only in self-esteem. No, the garrulous, illiterate new rite is just for the booze-up, the cake and, of course, the ‘pics’ – the thousands and thousands of pics.

CW’s Baptism Services is full of little explanations in the language of baby talk: This is a demanding task for which you will need the help and grace of God. It is the infantilised form of expression used by condescending adults when speaking to unruly children: And don’t forget to brush the back of your teeth as well as the front!  


Many of the intrusive injunctions in CW look as if they have been culled from the secular, psychotherapeutic culture or the self-help guidebooks on the Mind, Body and Spirit shelf in the bookshop: God invites you on a life-long journey and Christian formation must allow an individual’s story to be heard.  


One requires no emetic.  


In competent, successful prose or poetry, language and thought are contiguous and the words chosen offer us an immediate presentation of some aspect of reality. But the Introduction to Initiation Services is written in words that obscure meaning: ‘It is important to come to these services with a fresh mind, trying to put aside the approaches which have conditioned thinking while the ASB (Alternative Service Book) has been in use. The authorised text needs to be seen not as intrusive legal regulation but as a guide to performance.’   


But ‘come to these services with a fresh mind’ unavoidably carries the connotation  ‘try to forget everything you’ve ever learnt’ – which is the very modus operandi of the modernisers whose aim is to get churchgoers to cast aside all those texts which have sustained English Christians for 400 years – the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer.  


Unfortunately, it is not possible to make up liturgical language from Year Zero without leaning heavily on what has been used in our long Christian past: in any liturgy such words as God, Jesus Christ, redemption and forgiveness are bound to put in an appearance.  


Indeed, it might be thought that continuity with the past is part of what we mean by Christian tradition. And the church’s theology declares that worshippers here on Earth are part of the whole church, here and in Heaven; part of a living movement that has a past, a present and a future.  


As T S Eliot said: ‘The communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living’ and ‘a people without history is not redeemed from time’. 

And, since Christian doctrine is not a matter of mere fashion but remains the same in its essentials over the millennia, we should not expect too much novelty in the words chosen for its expression. Successful liturgical language effects an immediate presentation of the spiritual mystery.  


Liturgical language is less than successful when it is overwhelmingly discursive and tries to explain the mystery. Attempts to explain what is inexpressible – because transcendent – are bound to result in bathos.  


The BCP service says  ‘… by the baptism of thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ in the river Jordan, thou didst sanctify water to the Mystical washing away of sin’. This is breathtaking. Its use of particular names and places roots the prayer in tangible reality. The reference to Jesus Christ draws us close to him – which is just what is required at a Baptism.  


CW rewrites this passage, removing all the evocative, homely detail, and the result sounds like instructions for operating a washing machine: ‘Now sanctify this water that, by the power of your Holy Spirit, they may be cleansed from sin and born again.’  


Even if we ignore that peremptory now – are we really meant to issue ultimatums to the Almighty? – the sensation produced by the CW version is of a peculiar flatness of tone in which the priest does not by image and rhythm evoke a mysterious spiritual landscape, but merely describes what (he hopes) is going on.

The removal of the fullness and the richness results in a shocking deprivation. They claim that the traditional Biblical imagery is esoteric language. But is it?  


The BCP’s presentation of this imagery is immediate, powerful and memorable. It contains a wonderfully homely evocation of spiritual landscape and the personal involvement of heroes of the faith: Noah and his family in the ark … the children of Israel through the Red Sea … the baptism of thy well-beloved Son in the river Jordan.  


This is nothing less than a recitation of our sacred history which is entirely appropriate when a welcome is being made – because it encourages a thrilling sense of belonging, of being part of the greatest story ever told.  


But if, as CW does, you omit the narrative, the candidate is excluded from his heritage: he is not even told that he has a heritage. This is not a question of mere style, but the reflection of incarnational theology, as we see that the purposes of God are bound up with particular people and places.   


CW also offers a curious rite called Emergency Baptism. The rubric governing its use makes interesting reading: ‘Parents are responsible for requesting emergency baptism for an infant. They should be assured that questions of ultimate salvation or of the provision of a Christian funeral do not depend on whether a child has been baptised.’  

In other words, when is an emergency not an emergency? Answer: when it is CW’s Emergency Baptism!  


Finally, there is a new prayer called Thanksgiving for Holy Baptism, which begins with what appears to be an altogether more mundane sort of emergency: I saw water flowing from the threshold of the temple. I fear this will only provoke wits in the congregation to respond: ‘Quick – call the Ecclesiastical Insurance Company!’

The hierarchy ought to hang their heads in shame for having offered such measly stuff to the people. We ask for bread, but they have given us a stone.  

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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