Christopher Smith wonders why some in the Church of England
want to take the devil out of the rite of baptism

I’m still not a twitterer, but I have recently discovered to my almost unbearable delight that the Church of England’s Liturgical Commission is. Well, OK, maybe delight is pushing it. The Pope is still tweeting, and now has eleven million followers. The Liturgical Commission has 1,728, which is at least 1,700 more than I would have expected.

The Commission is not a terribly frequent tweeter, and as I write, last tweeted on New Year’s Eve, simply posting the first verse of the evangelical hymn ‘Lord, for the years’. @CofE_Worship has also re-tweeted the odd offering from someone calling himself ‘@ABCJustin’.

But, rather disappointingly, they have failed to tweet about the thing for which they have made the news recently, the experimental simplified texts for a baptism liturgy, which have removed the devil.

Now I have to admit that the first I knew of this came from the mid-January issue of the satirical magazine Private Eye, thanks to its ‘Alternative Rocky Horror Service Book’. That column has been amusing me for rather longer than I care to remember, and I strongly sug`pect one or two of my clerical friends of contributing to it.

My favourite rubric from years ago was ‘If there is to be a spontaneous happening, it shall happen here’, but truth is stranger than fiction nowadays.

So which of these is Private Eye, and which is the Liturgical Commission? (a) ‘Do you diss wickedness in all its forms?’, or (b) ‘Parents and Godparents, it has been good to welcome you to (name of church) for the baptism of N and N. Today we have started them on their Christian journey’. Or, among the rubrics, (a) ‘The congregation then retire to the Queen Vic for a celebratory knees up’, or (b) ‘The candidates, together with their parents, godparents and sponsors, may now turn to face the font, a cross, or the large candle’.

It is not surprising, of course, that the press should have picked it up. ‘Church of England removes devil from Christening service’ (Telegraph). ‘Church of England accused of dumbing down baptism service’ (Guardian). ‘Draft “baptism lite” criticised’ (Church Times).

Well, of course, it’s all so as not to put people off. All those non-churchgoers who cram into our churches for baptisms might think it’s a bit funny talking about the devil. They mustn’t be made to feel embarrassed by anything they hear. But surely, the more demotic the rite, the less attractive, the less powerful, the less converting must the experience be.

When St Cyril of Jerusalem was baptizing catechumens in the fourth century, he required them to say, as though the devil were present, ‘I renounce thee, Satan, and all thy works, and all thy pomp’, a text which survives almost unchanged to this day in the modern Latin rite.

The candidates faced west, the region of darkness, to renounce the devil, then turned east, to the place of light (rather than towards a ‘large candle’).

And so it is in the Apostolic Constitutions of the fourth century, and St John Chrysostom, and Theodore of Mopsuestia, and the ancient Armenian rites, and the ancient Byzantine rites (where, rather excitingly, catechumens also had to ‘blow upon him’), and the ancient Coptic rites.

And there it is in Hippolytus, and in Augustine, and so on and so on. Oh, and there it is in the Stowe Missal, and the Sarum Missal, and the Book of Common Prayer.

Of course, the new rite is also somewhat coy about original sin, in stark contradiction of the Prayer Book, where the liturgy went straight in with

‘Dearly beloved, for as much as all men are conceived and born in sin…’, and later asks that ‘this infant … may receive remission of his sins by spiritual regeneration’,

and then to the Godparents,

‘ye have brought this child here to be baptized, ye have prayed that our Lord Jesus Christ would vouchsafe to receive him, to release him of his sins, to sanctify him with the Holy Ghost, to give him the kingdom of heaven, and everlasting life.’

Oh dear. Sinful infants? That’s not very modern is it?

And to crown it all, what do we find at the end of the new rite? The exchange of the sign of peace. Well, if all those good folk who had come for little Jonny’s Christening found it odd up to this point, they will be completely puzzled now, as they are asked to shake hands with a whole bunch of people they’ve been in the pub with since noon.

In the early Seventies, the late Fr Edward Yarnold SJ published a book about baptismal liturgies called The Awe-Inspiring Rites of Initiation.

It made its point with its title: those early rites really were designed to evoke a sense of awe in catechumens and other members of the congregation. Inspiring a little awe does not prevent us from extending a warm welcome, or explaining what is going to happen in terms appropriate to the particular group gathered in church. But it does suggest that we might offer an experience that inspires something that might follow on from awe: enquiry. And then the awe-inspiring rites will have done double duty, both in bringing another soul into the Church of God, and attracting others to worship. ND