Robert Desics explains that widespread ignorance of the truths of Christianity is a problem that cannot be addressed by missing out the difficult concepts
The aim is noble, namely, to express Christian truth and doctrine in the language of the people. This after all is a good Reformation principle, but we must beware that such a principle is not abused and utilized as a means for ‘dumbing down’ and casting off Christian truth altogether.
Most notable in the revised options for the baptism liturgy is the removal of the renunciation of sin and the devil from the baptismal promises, and it is this factor that has caught the attention of the media. An article in the Daily Mail (5 January 2014) highlights the issues raised by concerns in the Liverpool Diocese that many lay people who are not regular church attenders, or who never attend church apart from ‘hatches, matches and dispatches,’ find that such theological terms do not resonate with them.
It was suggested that the Liturgical Commission should come up with supplements to the baptism service which are ‘culturally appropriate’ and in ‘accessible language’ (as some have termed it, the ‘language of Eastenders’).
The task entrusted to the Liturgical Commission is most certainly a very weighty one requiring great discernment – social as well as spiritual. Baptism is often the service which serves as the ‘shop window’ for many parishes, as it seeks to welcome baptismal families and their friends into the worshipping life of the church – it is a key factor in the church’s task to proclaim the Christian faith afresh in each generation. And yet, we now see an ever increasing tension between the perceived need for the church to be ‘culturally relevant’ in a largely post-Christian society and the duty to present and express, especially in public worship, the ‘faith once delivered to the saints.’
Decline in understanding
It is certainly true that the past 30 years or so has seen a marked decline in the general understanding of key Christian doctrines within the population of England (and indeed the UK as a whole). As a child brought up in the Eighties I witnessed the demise of the ‘broadly Christian’ ethos of school assemblies. As a five-year-old attending a state school I learnt the Lord’s Prayer (in its Book of Common Prayer form), many traditional Christian hymns, and we always said grace before school meals. We also had a monthly assembly led by the local vicar. But by the time I moved to secondary school in 1990 there was virtually no religious content at all in our assemblies – no prayers, no hymns, and no vicar (just one visit from the Gideons to Year 9 students!). Our assemblies contained nothing more than moral messages designed to promote ‘good citizenship.’ Given this rapid decline of a Christian ethos and expression within our state schools, is it any wonder that basic Christian truths and terms are now alien to the majority of people?
Book of Common Prayer
The church was once at the forefront of education. Many schools were founded by the church or individual Christians, and very often the motive was the furtherance of the gospel through education. To be able to read meant to be able to read the Bible, and to be able to read the Bible meant learning Christian truth. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s motive for providing a Prayer Book in the English language was so that ordinary people could worship God with understanding, and learn the deep truths of the Christian faith in their native tongue.
Cranmer’s liturgy did not dumb down theological truth, but sought to elevate the minds and the spirits of all people to the heavenly mysteries revealed in the pages of Holy Scripture. What strikes me about the Book of Common Prayer is its depth of meaning and its presentation of concepts which challenge and require those reading and using its texts to engage in some pretty thoughtful and thorough reflection. And I am sure that this was just as true in the sixteenth century as it is today. Cranmer’s liturgy forces us to engage with the truths of Scripture, that all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God, and that all may be freely justified by grace before an All-Holy God through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ.
It is certainly lamentable that so many clergy and parishes within the church have rejected the Book of Common Prayer as an archaic irrelevance. The Daily Mail expressed the view that in the Seventies the Church of England decided that the BCP was ‘out of date,’ and it is certainly the case that the use of the Prayer Book liturgies is now the exception rather than the norm (even though the CofE still regards the Book of Common Prayer as its official standard for worship). Perhaps we need to ask ourselves why we think that the BCP and more ‘traditional’ expressions of Christian belief are considered ‘out of date’ or archaic.
Proclaiming the faith
Could there indeed be a correlation between the seemingly unending revisions of the Church of England’s liturgies and the decline in the understanding of basic Christianity amongst the population of England? Has the church itself exacerbated the decline in the knowledge of ‘true religion’ because of this meandering liturgical journey of updated texts and experimentation? It was once said that the two things needful for a person to know Christian truth were the Bible and the Prayer Book!
The ignorance of so many in our nation concerning Christian truth should not be leading us to reduce the theological content of our liturgies under the misapprehension of being ‘accessible’, but rather we should be spurred on to proclaim the faith once delivered to the saints. There is a real need to educate people in the deep truths of Christianity, and we will not meet that need by thinning out the theology and missing out difficult concepts. Our aim in mission must be, as the Apostle Paul says, to declare the whole counsel of God. The Gospel we proclaim must be like Allinson’s bread: ‘nowt taken out!’
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, is quoted as saying: ‘There has been a fashion in the Church of England to minimise depth and mystery in its worship because of the alleged need to make its services accessible… The new alternative service for baptism continues this trend. Instead of explaining what the baptism means and the various parts of the service signify, its solution is to do away with key elements of the service altogether.’
Perhaps, in light of the state of general ignorance of Christian teaching, the time has come for the Church of England to recognize that a policy of indiscriminate Christian baptism needs to change. Surely we must recognize that baptism is a sign given to a covenant community. So many who approach the church for baptism for infants do so not out of a belief in being part of God’s covenant community, but out of a residual superstitious ‘folk-religion.’ Many have no idea of the seriousness of the promises made at baptism, nor of the life-changing effects of the Gospel which brings us out of the darkness of sin and into the glorious light and liberty of the children of God. We do such people no favours by giving them ‘Christianity-lite.’
Teaching the truth
There is certainly a serious concern that concepts such as sin and repentance do not resonate with people today, but this problem of the lack of understanding of such concepts is not solved by reducing their use (or, heaven forbid, ceasing to use them altogether!). We must take seriously the need for catechesis – teaching the faith. Baptism presents us with an opportunity to lead people into the truths of Scripture which make sense of our life now and our relationship with God. The church as a whole must do what the Apostle Paul charged Timothy to do: ‘Preach the word – in season and out of season.’ If we do not present the whole counsel of God we dishonour God, and we endanger the souls of those to whom we have been commissioned to proclaim the saving message of the Gospel of Christ.
All need to be convinced of their own sinful state; all need to be convinced that their sin is an offence to an All-Holy God; all need to be convinced that Christ is the Saviour, our advocate with the Father and the propitiation for our sins; all need to be convinced that the church is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s command. We must teach the truth of the covenant which God has brought into effect at the cost of the blood of his only begotten Son, and not be afraid to express that truth in our public worship. To do otherwise is to cheapen his grace to our detriment and to the detriment of others. ND
The Revd Robert A. Desics is
Vicar of St Timothy’s Church
and is the North East Regional
Trustee of the Prayer Book Society