Sunday, April 10, 2011

Baptism : Corporate Faith : Personal Faith

Lent is a season bracketed by baptism: recalling Jesus’ baptism plunges us into the wilderness with him; to emerge again on Easter Sunday, a day on which the Church has traditionally baptised new believers.

I regularly hear adults who have come to faith asking to be baptised, because although they were baptised as a baby, their parents did not believe in God (or at least, not in the way that they themselves have come to).

Anglicans do not re-baptise.  Technically, no Christian tradition re-baptises, though some consider previous ‘baptism’ to be null-and-void.  But would non-believing parents make an infant baptism null-and-void?

If you were brought to God, albeit by parents who did not fully appreciate what they were doing (do you?), albeit by a local Christian community who never saw you again (but who promised, at the very least, to pray for you), and it was declared that in your being brought to baptism God was adding to our number those whom he is calling; and if, having been raised outside of the family of faith, you have as an adult come to the decision to be counted among God’s family; if you believe that what took place at your baptism had no connection to your eventual response to God’s call, then I respectfully suggest that you think again ...

I also regularly hear Christian parents, who worship within an Anglican context (a tradition which, like almost all but not every Christian tradition, baptises the children of believers), tell me that they have not had their children baptised, because they want their children to be able to make that decision for themselves.

But infant baptism is not concerned with the child’s decision.  In infant baptism, the parents make promises to draw their children by their own example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ; to care for them on their journey of faith, and help them to take their place within the life and worship of Christ’s Church.  In this responsibility, parents ask for God’s help.  Moreover, the congregation as a whole agree to support this family by upholding the child in their new life in Christ, again with the help of God; and godparents agree to support the family by sharing in the parental responsibilities, again with the help of God.  That is, we do not expect our children to come to faith for themselves in a vacuum, but we raise them according to our own example, asking God to help us fulfil the responsibility he has entrusted us with.

Baptism is the sign of the New Covenant made between God and his people, in and through Jesus Christ.  And the covenant commitments God makes with his people (through Noah to every living thing; through Abraham, confirmed to his son Isaac and to his grandson Jacob; through Moses to the people of Israel; through David; through Jesus) are made “to you and your children” or your descendants.  It is often said that God has no grandchildren, only children; but that does not seem to me to resonate well with the testimony and the promises of Scripture, and I think we need to find a better way to express both corporate and personal faith.  Children of believers need to decide for themselves whether they will choose life or death, the inherent consequences of faithfulness or unfaithfulness in relation to the covenant relationship God longs for with us: but that same choice faces each and every one of us, every day and in every area of our lives.

The perceived problem with baptising children of believers is that it denies a rite-of-passage moment for the child at whatever stage their faith reaches maturity.  But it is hard to know at what point such a rite-of-passage moment would come.  Childhood familial faith is genuine, and often deeply challenging to adults, who find it far harder to trust God; but it comes before the questioning of adolescence and beyond by which we decide how our own faith will be lived out in both continuity with and divergence from that of our parents.  In the Church of England, we have Confirmation, but this has increasingly been done while still at primary school, as a doorway to receiving communion; and as such, does not serve as a rite-of-passage for adult faith.  [An increasing number of us are calling for Confirmation to be pushed back later, and for children – who are full members of the Church by baptism – to receive communion prior to Confirmation by default rather than by special permission.]  We also have a service of Affirmation of Baptismal Faith [technically intended for those who have been Confirmed as well as baptised, though I suspect there is variation in practice], in which the promises made by the parents and godparents at baptism are made for oneself, and which includes water but is explicitly not a re-baptism.  There is also provision for congregations as a corporate whole to re-affirm their baptismal faith.

And this last point is important.  Because faith does not reach a point at which we can say, “Now I have arrived: before, my faith wavered – at times I was close to God, at other times I walked away: but now I am nailing my colours to the mast!”  Rather, faith is an adventure in which there are highs and lows; dead-ends, and the retracing of our steps in order to find the path again; times of settling in one place, and times of setting out as nomads; times when God walks with us, and times when he leaves us with his instruction and investment and goes off on a long journey without us; times when we soar on eagles wings, and times when we fall flat on our faces.  As such, we need to daily repent and believe: to change our mind and step out in faith, in order that we might live within the kingdom of heaven as it is now, breaking in to this world, the future pouring into the present until one day the present will not be able to resist any longer.  It is not so much concerned with multiplying rites-of-passage – important though it is to mark certain events in life – as with being lived-out in our everyday lives, wherever we find ourselves.

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