Christenings / Infant Baptism
The words below were written by our former Priest in Charge Mark Griffiths, there are a lot of words but we would be delighted if you took the time to read them. When you have read the words, if you still want your child baptised (we also baptise adults of course), then please phone the church office on 01344 886900 and ask to book onto our baptism course.
It involves one afternoon of listening and we even throw in a free lunch. After that, you are free to book a date for the baptism itself. It will usually be at St Michael’s, but we can baptise in our other congregations, and it will usually be the third Sunday of the month.
However, if you are keen not to read, you can always download the talk on baptism by following this link.
When you phone up, we will ask you if you have read the words below (or listened to the talk). That is an important first stage of the process. If you have, then we can book you onto the course, if not, we can send you the below in booklet form.
So, let us enter a conversation that has been running for the last two thousand years. Why do we baptise babies? But don't think for a moment that this is simply a matter of theological debate. All theology to be worthwhile must be based in practice. Theology that exists in a vacuum is fairly useless. On numerous occasions I have found myself with heartbroken parents who have suffered the worst sort of bereavement, the death of a child. And their question is, "is my child in heaven." Followed closely by the follow up comment, "They weren't baptised."
There is a lot is religious myth buried beneath our thin veneer of secularism and it is attached to the significance of baptism. And it is around these moments of crisis that it comes bubbling to the surface. Somewhere in our postmodern world lurks the idea that children who are not baptised will not go to heaven. Is that why we baptise babies?
Baptism is, and always has been the public acknowledgement that the child belongs to Jesus and is a part of the Jesus community in a particular place. And nothing more.
An observation before we attempt to answer the question. The church has always baptised babies. Chrysostom clearly acknowledges infants baptism as early church practice in the 4th century. But there were inferences from Irenaeus (a disciple of the apostle John), Tertullian and many others before this point.
But why? What we can be sure of in the first centuries of the Christian church is it wasn't to wash away sin. Chrysostom writes, “Newborn babies are innocents, wholly without sin.” For Chrysostom baptism represented the public acceptance and recognition of the child as part of the faith community. The public acknowledgement that the child belongs to Jesus and is a part of the Jesus community in a particular place. For the first four centuries of the Christian church this was the recognised position. This is why we baptised babies, and this is why we baptise babies today. It is the only reason we baptize babies.
But an unfortunate twist took place in the churches understanding of baptism in the fifth century, and the source of this twist was one of the most famous and influential bishops of them all, Augustine of Hippo. Shortly after his ordination in 396AD, Augustine preaching on the killing of the innocents from Matthew chapter 2 concluded that even though they were not baptised, God had some, “good compensation” for them. This statement is a long way from the conclusion that he would eventually reach towards the end of life. When Augustine preached his final message on this subject he would conclude that, “the holy innocents were condemned to eternal damnation but he hoped their punishment would be gentle!” Quite a change of understanding.
If Augustine had provided the structure for this way of thinking, Thomas Aquinas many centuries later provided the building. Aquinas stated, “All who are not baptised are subject to the power of demons.” So in Aquinas' view what happens to the unbaptised child? Aquinas declares, although they are not deserving of damnation, they are also undeserving of salvation. They are therefore consigned to the limbus puerorum, or children’s limbo, here they are denied intimate union with God but spared the physical, spiritual, and psychological pain of hell, they neither deserve nor expect heaven. As repugnant as this idea of limbus puerorum may sound, people believed it, and it would be ratified in subsequent Roman Catholic councils and would remain the prevailing Roman Catholic view into the mid 1990s! It was then that a Jesuit priest, Karl Rahner, challenged Augustine and Aquinas' (remember this is 1500 years later!). Rahner rejected the doctrine on the basis that it was not something that could be sustained scripturally or ethically and was not in keeping with what he saw as the character and nature of God. But the ideas of Augustine and Aquinas are so engrained in our culture, that the number one reason people give me when I ask why they would like their child baptised is, "in case something happens to them!" – this answer has more to do with urban myth and superstition than it does the Bible.
The baby is in perfect relationship with God, they are in Christ, until or unless they reach a time where they make a conscious and deliberate decision at some point in their lives to walk away from God.
So how did Augustine come to this conclusion. Well, the full account is in my book ,"One generation from extinction" (available from Amazon), but let me give you some of the arguments. Augustine’s journey between such extremes is not an overnight one. So what led Augustine to this conclusion? Well curiously, a misunderstanding of the Bible! The Epistle to the Romans in chapter 5 tells us, “As in Adam all have sinned, as in Christ all are made alive.” Let’s be careful with this verse. Some people think this verse is saying that because Adam sinned we all automatically become sinners, therefore, because Jesus died on the cross we all automatically become Christians. That’s not what is being said here. But there is a much larger group of people who think these verses mean that we are all born sinful until we get to that point where we decide for ourselves to become followers of Jesus. Well, that’s not what is being said here either!!
Yes, this does involve choice. But it’s taking the story of Adam and Eve and applying it to us. It’s saying that in the same way that Adam and Eve are created in perfect relationship with God, we to are created in that relationship unless we make a conscious and deliberate decision to walk away from God. The baby is in perfect relationship with God, they are in Christ, until or unless they reach a time where they make a conscious and deliberate decision at some point in their lives to walk away from God. It’s conscious and deliberate. It can be as simple as saying, “I don’t believe in God”, or as complex as “I believe in God but I will not follow him any longer.” But it is conscious and deliberate. We all start off as followers of Jesus. We baptise babies to show everyone that they are in Christ, and that they are part of the community of Christ followers in this place.
So is there no need for conversion? Let’s illustrate this with a reference to a children’s book, Prince Caspian by CS Lewis. Lucy has been away from Narnia for many years. And now she returns and for the first time in a long time she sees Aslan the Lion. She says to him:
“Aslan you’re bigger.”
“No little one, I am not bigger, you are older?” Aslan responds,
“Are you really not bigger?” Lucy enquires,
“No, but every year that you grow you will find me bigger.”
The normal pattern for Christian living should be that as we grow and develop we recognise God as bigger and we constantly re-orientate our lives around him. An on-going journey of conversion, an on-going life of wanting to be more God focused and less focused on ourselves.
What about the way we baptise babies?
It is a formal, corporate and public acknowledgement that the child at the font is very much a member of the Christian community. Part of God’s universal family. It's not a new idea, just a new mechanism. Jews and later Muslims will circumcise their male children in a public ceremony to acknowledge exactly that same fact, this child is a member of this community, part of this faith. So baptism is the recreation of an ancient practice and is a whole lot less painful, and less sexist!
Baptism (or Christening as it’s sometimes called) has always had the same elements:
FORMAL: It is the ceremonial enactment of truth. It is a sacrament in the proper use of the word. It is doing something externally and symbolically to give evidence to something which has already happened internally. We are formally saying, "This child belongs to Christ and is a part of the universal church." And there is symbolism. We immerse the child in water. Not submerse or totally immerse, but we immerse the child in water. Sprinkling is illegal in the Church of England. All baptism is by immersion. In fact the word baptism is from the Greek word baptiso meaning to immerse. So we immerse in water. Whether we are baptising an adult or a child, whether at a font or in a tank. The difference is, one is by submerging, one is by pouring. And we say, “you have died with Christ and risen with him to new life.” - symbolism.
That's why those who bring their children come for baptism, but have no intention of joining a Christian community are actually wasting their time.
CORPORATE: We all have part to play. We all welcome this child. We all have a part today in shaping this child's development in faith. The role of the Christian community in working together to shape the child's life is so important. It would appear the African’s were right, it really does take a whole village to raise a child! That's why those who bring their children for baptism, but have no intention of joining a Christian community are actually wasting their time. Now let's not get over militant on that. If a person lives in the parish, or has a connection with us, then we have a legal responsibility to baptise their children and we will enjoy the opportunity to be involved in a young life. But the reality is, if the baptized child is not going to become part of a Christian community, then the baptism has no value.
PUBLIC: And it's public. We are all witnesses. We don't do afternoon baptisms. They don't make sense. This is a public act in front of as many witnesses as possible.
SO IN SUMMARY:
What about the unbaptised child who dies?
They are in Christ and will be with Christ in heaven. The Bible is crystal clear on this.
Why do we baptise?
To formally, corporately and publically declare the child is in Christ and is part of the faith community in this place.
What about conversion?
An ongoing process – of continually coming to Christ.
What about children and communion?
It is the right of the baptised child to take communion. When a child is baptised they become a full member of the body of Christ in this place. To withhold communion from them is to ‘ex-communicate’ them! Something which we will not do. But the ultimate decision will always be with the parent. And common sense says that young children should not receive wine. But the baptised child is allowed to come to communion and to take bread.
What about confirmation?
A useful marker on our journey with Christ. It is a point (usually in early teens but can be for those who are much older) where we can stand and say that we belong to Jesus and affirm the way God has been involved in our lives since baptism.
What about being re-baptised.
If you would like to be immersed in water to affirm what God has done in your life, and symbolise giving your life to God afresh, we are happy to do this, even if you have been baptised before.
Want to join one of our courses and book a date for a baptism / christening?
Then please e-mail [email protected] or call the church office on 01344 886900.