Thursday, 21 May 2015

How Christians Disagree Well - Thoughts On The 20th Anniversary Of My Baptism

20 years ago, something happened to me at Central Baptist Church, Leicester (sometimes referred to as "Charles Street Baptist Church".)

Among evangelical Christians there are various stances on baptism. The two main ones are:

  • It is OK to baptise the children of Christians - baptism was is the sign of the New Covenant, just as circumcision was the sign of the Old Covenant, and as circumcision was performed on the sons of Israelites, baptism can be performed on the children of Christians. This is called "paedobaptism".
  • In the New Testament the call is "repent and be baptised", in that order, so baptism should be restricted to Christians. This is called "believers' baptism"

Then there is also the mode of baptism:

  • Some Christians believe it needs to be full immersion in water, symbolising Jesus's death and resurrection.
  • Others believe that sprinkling of water is sufficient.

Note that there can be a combination - there will be those who believe in "adult baptism" (even that is a confusing term when used to refer to "believers' baptism") can be done by sprinkling.

To add to the mix, there is also the renewal of baptismal vows (which may include immersion in water, like baptism), with the Church of England's Common Worship having services Affirmation of Baptismal Faith within a service of Holy Communion (which seems to be for a small number of candidates) and A Form for the Corporate Renewal of Baptismal Vows (which seems more focussed on the whole congregation).

Unfortunately, there is also the problem of a quasi-pagan view of baptism, which acts as if the Church of England's service book is the 1662 Book of Common Spells. I recall one lady I knew - she was not too keen on her grandchildren spending time with their other grandparents as they were "religious", yet she pressed for them to be christened, "just in case something happens to them". She didn't want it in the main service as she didn't want her family to have "religion" rammed down their throats. And she felt it had to be done using what she called "the Old Bible". I have no idea where to begin with all that!

The Church of England itself can get confused - Canon B21 states:

It is desirable that every minister having a cure of souls shall normally administer the sacrament of Holy Baptism on Sundays at public worship when the most number of people come together, that the congregation there present may witness the receiving of them that be newly baptized into Christ's Church, and be put in remembrance of their own profession made to God in their baptism.

However, their FAQs are quite fluffy, dealing with the issue of having a baptism outside the main service. Despite was Canon B21 states, the FAQs answer the question:

Can we arrange a Christening at a separate time to the Sunday service?


There may be opportunities to have a service at a different time, again usually on a Sunday, but talk to the vicar and ask their advice about what is possible at your church.

There we are, you can make the baptismal promises without sharing in the corporate worship. The FAQs even tell you:

You do not have to have been a regular churchgoer

Even if the early church practiced infant baptism, what would they have made of people wanting their children baptised as a social event, with no history of - or intention of - being involved in a worshipping community?

Now, my background was having infant baptism in December 1972, when I was 5 months old. My baptismal present from my grandmother was a Book of Common Prayer, which I still have by my bedside. However, I did not have any meaningful Church connection growing up, and didn't become a Christian until I was 18. That was through the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union.

Now, OICCU came across as predominantly Anglican - I assume because the big evangelical churches in Oxford city centre were Anglican. And from my background I wasn't really aware of anything much outside the Church of England - although my great-aunt and great-uncle attended a Baptist church (another great-uncle, my grandmother's and great-aunt's elder brother, whom I never met, was a Church of England vicar). So, baptism never came up as an issue. The first time I saw a believer's baptism was while I was in Oxford, when it was one of my friends at New Road Baptist Church.

After Oxford there was a few months of living an ecumenical life - as a volunteer at Cedar Lawn Methodist Home for the Aged in Stratford-upon-Avon, while worshipping at Stratford-upon-Avon Baptist Church.

After Stratford-upon-Avon it was a move to Leicester, and there I was introduced to a very different form of evangelical world to that I had experienced at Anglican-dominated Oxford or more small-town Stratford.

When I moved to Leicester, just across from the end of my road was Melbourne Hall Evangelical Free Church - the first time I had encountered an evangelical free church. The world of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches was completely new to me.

Melbourne Hall has a positive dominance, as it is the father (or grandfather or even great-grandfather) church of other evangelical free churches in the Leicester area, giving the city and the region around it one aspect of its distinctive evangelical culture. One of the philosophies of the Melbourne Hall strand of evangelicalism is the church plant, where a church grows to the point where it is too big and splits positively (rather than the more sadder faction-driven splitting that occurs in churches) and one/some of the leadership team and some of the congregation form a new church elsewhere.

As well as the conservative evangelical churches, there were also the charismatic ones - again, not something I had come across in any detail. The one I was most aware of was New Trinity Church (now Trinity Life Church) - an Assemblies of God church which was the second closest church to me.

What connected the charismatics and the conservative evangelicals was a focus on believers' baptism. This was the first time I came across an environment where being baptised post-conversion by full immersion was seen as the norm. And this had got me thinking.

At the time, as an Anglican, I was worshipping at Holy Trinity. And one day I mentioned to the vicar that I was thinking of getting baptised by full immersion. I had expected him to, as a good Anglican, inform me that I had been done as a baby. A few weeks later, he wrote to me to tell me that some people from Holy Trinity would be getting baptised at Central Baptist Church and would I like to join them? I did. This was pushing Anglican rules to the limit - after all, no-one holding any formal office in the Church of England would be doing the actual baptising. The vicar would be preaching, but again, this is different - a vicar cannot reasonably be expected to say to a Baptist church that he or she cannot preach a sermon at a service because there will be baptisms.

Those of us wanting to be baptised met the pastor of the Baptist church on the Thursday evening for what we called the "dry run" and then on the Sunday were the actual baptisms.

Since then, as I have - due to moving around - swung between Anglicanism and Evangelical Freeism. And I have had to work out what happened that day. Was I renewing my baptismal vows (as Anglicans would have it) with my real baptism in 1972, or was the 1972 event a sham and 1995 the real baptism? I guess I will never resolve that tension fully. To some extent, as one can only be baptised once, this is the same event from two angles - if we believe that infant baptism is a covenantal matter, then in 1972 God was making His side of a covenant, and in 1995 I was responding.

There is a lot of ink spilled over the waters of baptism, but what I want to focus on are three things when we disagree:

  1. We need to find out why someone holds a different viewpoint. I don't mean use the theological equivalent of "pop psychology", but find out what Bible verses they rely on, and accept that they may be correct
  2. We also need not to major on minors. We should never place a secondary issue in the position of being a salvation maker-or-breaker. I am happy to discuss my views on the early chapters of Genesis - but not with a person who sees a belief that something happened over a period of 6 days in 4004 BC as something that separates true Christians from heretics.
  3. In the Bible, the victory we focus on is Jesus' victory at Calvary. There should be no attitude of wanting a victory over other Christians. We should not seek to "own" (in the very modern sense of the word) other Christians. Driving someone out of a church should not be your ambition. I don't approve of the ordination of women, but what has impressed me about the way that Libby Lane, the Suffragan Bishop of Stockport, has gone about her work is that she has not given any indication that she sees her appointment and consecration as a victory over Christians like me or seeks to make the Church of England a cold house for us

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