Baptism lite

Pete Broadbent on the shortcomings of the alternative rite of baptism currently being tested in the CofE

If ever you were looking for a story to illustrate the problems caused to the Church of England by the Law of Inexorable Synodical Process (LISP), the alternative rite of baptism currently being ‘trialled’ in 400+ parishes across the country provides a salutary lesson.

Request for new material

Clergy in the Diocese of Liverpool struggled with fringe attenders for whom the Common Worship baptism service was seemingly incomprehensible. Their Diocesan Synod brought a motion to General Synod requesting material to supplement the baptism service ‘in culturally appropriate and accessible language.’ It was true that the Stancliffesque CW liturgy was verbose at points, though that had already been addressed through supplementary seasonal responsive material.

The Liturgical Commission sought to respond by producing texts for the decision, the prayer over the water and the commission (the three points which were thought to be the most difficult). Their first effort was so heavily panned by the House of Bishops that it did not see the light of day.

What is now doing the rounds is a second version. Many of us thought this was not worthy of circulation either – but that is where LISP kicked in. ‘Synod asked for this. The House of Bishops must send something out. You can’t not circulate it.’ So it was released on an unsuspecting public. But we were not given sufficient time to consider whether it was theologically coherent, or indeed, whether it was properly addressing the Liverpool Question.

Major criticisms

What are the major criticisms of the text?

The ethos is semi-Pelagian. Though it claims to be about grace, there’s a chatty ethos of ‘helping children on their journey’ which obscures the nature of the sacrament. Indeed, although CW baptism speaks of the start of a pilgrimage (‘walk with them in the way of Christ?’), this feels more like a homely domesticized admission to a club.

Then there are hard questions about our theological understanding of who we are and why we need baptism. We have lost the truth that we are rebels against God, repentance from sin, and that Christ is Saviour – and that we need saving.

The drafters seem to be scared of traditional Christian formularies – the devil has gone. We no longer renounce evil, merely reject it (‘reject’ is a much weaker word – I can reject your ideas, but I need purposefully to renounce evil).

We are not allowed to submit to the rule of Christ as a disciple, for fear that ‘submission’ (a New Testament word) might conjure up inappropriate human domination.

At the signing with the cross, sin, the world and the devil are similarly relegated – despite the fact that this is where we need to fight (another concept that has gone) the good fight of faith. Do we seriously believe that God will achieve our sanctification unless we understand the nature of the spiritual battle?

To be fair, the prayer over the water is an improvement (though some of my more Protestant evangelical friends will cavil at the explicit language of blessing the water!).

When we get to the Commission, we lapse into chat show mode: ‘bringing up a child as a Christian has its challenges…’ (at least no mention of ‘challenging behaviour’!) ‘They will need to learn the story of Christ’s birth, death and resurrection…’ – No, they need to inhabit the story, as forgiven sinners, as praying people, as those in whom the Spirit dwells (the Spirit does not get a mention here…). This is not a spectator sport or a learning outcome – this is baptism into Jesus Christ and his Holy Church.


The liturgy is inadequate – but so are the presuppositions which underlie this crass piece of baptism lite.

First, though nobody doubts the difficulty of holding an ‘audience’ of fringe people and turning them into a worshipping congregation, it is not impossible. Forty or fifty times a year, it is what I have to do at a confirmation – where the candidates may engage, but many of their supporters do not. The words of Common Worship tell the story to those who have not yet embraced the faith – and the possibilities for dramatic movement in the building also help make it an event.

Secondly, we patronize people if we think they cannot understand some of the powerful affirmations – turning to Christ, repenting of sin and renouncing evil. By contrast, ‘I reject evil. And all its many forms. And all its empty promises’ is a soft-pedal. Radio interviews I have taken part in since voicing my public disquiet at this dilution of language have mostly focused on the question ‘so what is the Church of England ashamed of or embarrassed about?’

Thirdly, the place of pastoral preparation of parents and godparents seems to have been forgotten. Liturgy is performative, but it is also a teaching aid. Taking good care over preparation, preferably using a trained team of lay catechists, is something that I would expect.

But finally, and perhaps most tellingly, we seem to have fallen into the usual trap – the assumption that if we are invincibly ‘nice’, welcoming and inclusive, people will be attracted to the faith. And so we devise pastoral offices that denude the Christian faith of its challenge. ‘Christ claims you for his own.

“Receive the sign of his cross’ means moving from death to life, from darkness to light. Being regenerate. This is language we need – because it is true – and diluting it does not help anyone. ND

Pete Broadbent is Bishop of Willesden