Saturday, November 18, 2006

Baptism—Wonderful Sacrament but not without with huge problems in American Anglicanism

What ought to be a basis of common faith amongst Anglicans in North America is in fact a means of confusion. Regrettably, Baptism as practiced by Episcopalians tends to divide rather than unite. It does so for a variety of reasons which include the clash of traditional doctrine with innovatory doctrine, and the context of the American “Born-again” scene where half the population says it has made a decision for Jesus and so is “Born-again.”

What the Catechism states

According to the traditional Anglican Catechism, Baptism has been ordained by Jesus Christ as a Sacrament in his Church and it is necessary to salvation. It consists of an outward visible sign, which is Water wherein the person is immersed (or water is poured upon the candidate) as the words, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” are said by the Minister. It also has an inward and spiritual grace which is death unto sin and a new birth unto righteousness. Candidates for baptism forsake sin in repentance and by faith they steadfastly believe the promises of God presented in the Gospel. If the candidates are infants, their godparents act as sureties for them making the promises in their behalf—which promises when the infants come to appropriate age, they renew for themselves.

According to the traditional Prayer Book, all who are baptized are then to be confirmed by the Bishop (immediately or later) and then they become communicant members of the Church. Until Confirmed, though members of the invisible Body of Christ, they are not yet full members of the local, visible church.

Two different Liturgies

In contemporary Anglicanism, there are two liturgies of Baptism in operation, one is in the traditional Book of Common Prayer (editions of 1662, 1928 USA, and 1962 Canada) and the other is in the new Prayer Books (for example, the 1979 book of The Episcopal Church). These are not identical in structure or in doctrine and they are accompanied by varied pastoral practice.

As already noted the traditional liturgy of Baptism is not truly complete in itself for it is completed in Confirmation and First Communion. This is not a matter of salvation for only Baptism (including both outward and inward realities) is necessary for salvation, but it is a matter of being confirmed by the Bishop in the Faith and in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and this leading on to participation in the Holy Communion as a full member of the Body of Christ. (Of course, in the case of adults all three events can and should wherever possible take place in one service.)

The 1979 Liturgy is introduced by the words, “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.” In this Service, Chrism (oil consecrated by the bishop) may be used at the making of the sign of the Cross on the forehead of the baptized. Whether or not Chrism is used the baptized are seen as full communicant members and are welcome to receive Holy Communion immediately after the Sacrament of Baptism is received. Confirmation is not necessary and is not seen as the completion of Baptism, but rather as a public ceremony of commitment to Christ and church membership along with a renewal by God of the covenant made in Baptism with them.

The different approaches to Baptism and Confirmation in the two Liturgies lead obviously to two very different disciplines for approaching the Lord’s Table. In the one, infants may come for a blessing but not for Communion until they have basic understanding, show commitment, and are Confirmed, while in the other they come for Communion after Baptism both when they do not yet understand and later when they do now understand.

Two different doctrines

Also the doctrinal content of the two Liturgies is different. To put this in traditional terms the old service has what may called an Augustinian theology while the modern (1979) has a semi-Pelagian theology.

In the traditional Liturgy the infant or adult comes because of the call of the Gospel of Christ to the waters of Baptism as a sinner needing forgiveness and cleansing for two forms of sin, original and active. The person—himself or by his surety—comes believing in the Lord Jesus Christ and repenting of sin, looking unto God for salvation. In Baptism, God the Father causes the Holy Spirit to cause him to be born again, to be made a new creation, to be regenerated, to be united to Christ in his death unto sin and in his resurrection unto new and abundant life. As a baptized member of the Body of Christ, and an adopted child of God, he then goes forward to confess the faith of Christ crucified, to fight courageously under his banner against win, and the world, and the devil, and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to the end of his life on earth.

In comparison, in the 1979 Liturgy there is only a minimal emphasis upon sin with no original sin stated and there are also only traces of the doctrine of new birth, regeneration. The atmosphere is very different (the devil and the wicked world seem to have disappeared) and so is the relation to God that is presupposed in the words and drama of the Service. The acceptance by the candidate for Baptism of the articles of the Apostles Creed and his commitment to various requirements and duties, are called, “The Baptismal Covenant.” The doctrine seems to be that God offers a covenant and the candidate accepts it, and then it is sealed by the act of Baptism. This is rather different from the doctrine in the traditional Liturgy where while promises are made (e.g., to renounce the devil and all his works…) there is no sense that a covenant is being agreed to—rather there is submission to the sovereign Lord who is also the Father of mercies. However one could reasonably infer that in the traditional Liturgy as solid background is the biblical covenant of grace, which is one sided in the sense that God alone makes it through Christ and by the Holy Spirit and sets the conditions of it, allowing no negotiation from human beings, who gratefully and humbly submit to it.

While most of the human commitments asked for in “The Baptismal Covenant” may be judged to be traditional (though stated in weaker language) the final one is novel, in that it had not appeared in baptismal services before 1979. It is: “Will you strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being?”

This was included because of the radical social, political and cultural agenda of the Episcopal Church from the 1960s into the 1970s and it has the presupposition that God is on the side of the movements of that period for “peace and justice.” And this dimension of “The Baptismal Covenant” has been emphasized and utilized as the basis of the innovations in doctrine and discipline over the last thirty or so years. (At both the installation of Frank Griswold in 1997 and that of Katherine Jefferts Schori in 2006 as Presiding Bishop at the National Cathedral, this Covenant in terms of its radical aspects was a central feature, as it has been at General Conventions since 1979!)

The Augustinian doctrine within the traditional Liturgy cannot exist alongside excessive emphasis upon human rights, human freedoms, human centeredness, self-realization, self-worth and self-fulfillment. To make Baptism acceptable to the post 1960s cultural Zeitgeist which invaded The Episcopal Church another doctrine was necessary which made little of sin, God’s wrath, Christ’s blood and regeneration, and at the same time majored on human potential and possibility. That doctrine was found in the panentheism available at that time in such writers as Paul Tillich and John Macquarrie but fairly traditional language was used in the Baptismal Liturgy. (The same panentheism was also widely embraced by theologians of liberation and feminism to propagate their agenda. Often they encouraged Baptism in the Name of Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier or like words.)

Evangelicals and Regeneration

It would appear that Evangelicals in The Episcopal Church and in the AMiA have been more happy with the 1979 Liturgy than the traditional firstly because the latter is in so-called contemporary, accessible English and secondly because it does not emphasize so often and so clearly the connection of regeneration to Baptism in the case of infants.

Evangelicals have generally followed the model of conversion which from divine perspective is made up of—the preaching of the Gospel accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit in the minds and hearts of hearers; the decision to believe and accept the Gospel made by hearers; this leading to the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul causing new birth into the kingdom of God and the family of God, with the assurance of the forgiveness of sins (all highly individualistic in tome). Then Baptism follows as a public witness by the converted to his/her new life in Christ and then with Baptism comes commitment to a local church.

The traditional Anglican Liturgy of Baptism does not follow this popular model for it is based upon the model of the Early Church. Here people heard the Gospel, responded positively, attended catechetical classes for instruction in the Faith and the Christian life, and then were prepared for Baptism with Chrism at special times of the Church Year—Easter Eve and Whitsuntide, for example. In this model it was only at the Baptism that the candidates, after examination, prayer and exorcism, were declared to be regenerate and were allowed for the first time to say the Lord’s Prayer, calling God “Father” as his new, adopted children. Obviously the Holy Spirit had been working in them for a long time drawing them to Christ but formally it could only be stated that they were regenerate when they were actually baptized in the Triune Name (“Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved” Mark 16:16).

So the difference is that the ancient Church, with the classic Liturgy (weakened in the 1979 form), takes a very high view of the Dominical Sacrament of Holy Baptism and will not publicly speak of the reconciled relation of a sinner to God the Father until he has been baptized in the Triune Name as Jesus commanded. Popular Protestantism and Evangelicalism tend to reply upon the stated experiences of people, claiming a change or conversion or new birth at a specific time and in doing so they have to make Baptism fit into this understanding. For Anglican Evangelicals this causes problems with both the availability and practice of infant Baptism and also the very close identification of regeneration and Baptism in the classic service. (And we may add that their situation is not helped by the widespread administration of Infant Baptism indiscriminately, and with it the claim that even the children on non-believers are regenerate when baptized.)


Basic Christian fellowship and communion is based on the fact that there is “one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all…” (Ephesians 4:4ff.) and this requires us to think rightly about and practice correctly the Dominical Sacrament of Baptism. Right now, Anglicans look as though they serve several Lords and worship several Gods! November 18, 2006 please visit

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