Paul Cartwright on the recent General Synod debate on baptism

Well, please excuse my attempt to write in the Yorkshire dialect – I speak it much better than I write it, but this was something that was to intrigue me when the papers for this last General Synod in February dropped through my letterbox.

There was much to be debated this session, including a request for the Liturgical Commission to prepare material to supplement the Common Worship baptism provision, so that there would be additional forms of the Decision, the Prayer over the Water and the Commission which would be expressed in culturally appropriate and accessible language. At last, recognition was to be formally given to what the Yorkshire accent had to offer liturgy!

I was fascinated by the discussion around baptism which centred on the request for culturally appropriate language by a group of clergy in the Liverpool diocese. Did this mean that we would all be provided with prayers formulated in regional dialects? Could we request a specific Barnsley dialect rather than the general Yorkshire one? Of course, this is not what was meant by the motion, but I was astounded that so many people had experienced problems when conducting baptisms in their parishes because of the language used in Common Worship.

We heard from one person who worked in Cambridge amongst people who were described as ‘loving words’ (although I would have called them students), but who thought that the liturgy did not work, and also from another person who told the story about how he had been asked about the hocus-pocus prayers over the water whilst he worked with young adults in a Fresh Expression setting. This was also supported by other members of synod who saw the liturgy as being full of jargon, but at least we were reassured that the motion was not a request for Christenings without Christianity! Another member suggested that the clergy had to be liturgical artists that use all the tools which are available to them, as well as being ‘Surgeons of the text’.

The debate continued on the fringes, with suggestions that the problems may in fact be due to those who are conducting the baptism not being able to describe or fully understand what baptism is; the problem lay with the minister and not the words of the liturgy; and then there were others who felt that they were unable to comment on the debate as they had never used the Church of England’s baptism liturgy due to them opting to use an alternative version.

In the end though, the debate was carried and the Liturgical Commission was asked to revisit the resources provided to enable those who are taking part in the baptism to have an experience which they can easily understand and one which may result in them returning back to the Church on another occasion. Baptism should be seen as a missionary opportunity that needed to be seized and which would be assisted by using the language of BBC1 rather than that found in theological colleges.

Although some thought that this was a good idea, they forgot that the Liturgical Commission will be unable to fully provide resources which will allow the officiating minister to get to know their congregations and parishes so that they are best able and equipped to interact with those who seek and support at baptisms, as when this happens, mission is more likely to be successful regardless of the words provided.