The Reformed Catholic Doctrine of the Church of England and of The Anglican Way concerning Baptism is stated in (a) The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion; (b) The Baptismal Services within The Book of Common Prayer of 1662, and (c) The Catechism, found also within the Prayer Book. It is also assumed in other places, e.g., the Collect for Christmas.
Let us begin with The Articles.
First of all, here is the general statement made concerning Sacraments in Article 25:
The sacraments prescribed by Christ are badges and tokens of our profession as Christians, and, more particularly, they are trustworthy witnesses and effectual signs of God’s grace and good will to us. By them God works invisibly in us, both arousing and also strengthening and confirming our faith in him.
Christ our Lord has ordained two gospel sacraments, namely baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
In the second place here is what is said specifically concerning Baptism in Article 27:
Baptism is a sign of the faith we profess and a mark that differentiates Christian persons from those who are unbaptized; and it is also a sign of regeneration or new birth by which, as by an instrument, those who receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church, the promises of forgiveness of sin and of our adoption to be the sons of God are visibly signified and sealed, and faith is confirmed and grace increased by virtue of prayer to God. The baptism of young children is under all circumstances to be retained in the Church as a practice fully agreeable with the institution of Christ.
Later we shall notice what is stated in Article 16 concerning sin after Baptism. Let us now itemize what is clearly stated in Articles 25 and 27 concerning the Sacrament of Baptism as it applies in the first place to adults, and secondly to infants.
1. God the Father works invisibly and truly by the Holy Spirit in those receiving Baptism, which is a Sacrament instituted and ordained by Christ the Lord, the Incarnate Son of God.
2. Baptism is an outward and visible declaration and badge of belonging to God in Christ the Lord and is thus a means of separating the children of God from others.
3. Baptism points to spiritual regeneration or new birth and is the means by which God the Father by the Holy Spirit and for Christ’s sake declares his good will, places the baptized in his Church, grants the forgiveness of sin, adopts them as his sons/children, communicates his grace, and strengthens their faith in him.
4. Baptism is not only to be administered to adults who believe the Gospel, but also to young children/infants as well, for this is the will of the Lord Jesus Christ as known from Holy Scripture.
Article 16 teaches that there is the possibility and availability of forgiveness of sin by God after the washing and cleansing of Baptism, if, and only if, the baptized sinner is repentant and seeks God’s forgiveness.
If we turn to The Catechism we learn that there are two parts in a Sacrament, the outward visible sign, and the inward spiritual grace. The outward visible sign is Water and the inward and spiritual grace is: “A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness; for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.” So there is a birth into the kingdom of God and the family of God at Baptism, and the cancellation of the guilt of original sin.
Then in answer to the question what is required of adults before they are baptized, it is said: “Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in the Sacrament.” So Baptism assumes and requires that the person being baptized is turning from sin and believing the Gospel promises of salvation from the New Testament. It assumes also that he is not yet regenerate but will be so after Baptism.
While Article 27 declares that Infant Baptism is both right and good, The Catechism tells us why. The question is posed: “Why then are infants baptized when, by reason of their tender age, they cannot either repent of sins or believe the Gospel promises?” And this is the answer: “Because they promise them both [repentance and faith] by their sureties [godparents]; which promise, when they come to age [as young adults] they themselves are bound to perform.” The nature and effects of the Sacrament are therefore identical for believing adults and their infant children, except that, in the latter case, godparents stand in the place of the children representing them, until the children are sufficiently mature consciously to believe the Gospel personally. Thus as with adults, the Catechism teaches that recently-born infants are born again, this time into the kingdom of God and the family of God. And so baptized infants are Christians and it is the profound responsibility of the parents and godparents to ensure that the Christian child is brought up as a Christian in the nurture and admonition of the Lord [see the most serious exhortation given by the Priest to the godparents at the end of the Service of Infant Baptism in the Prayer Book].
Baptism whether of adults or children is a once, and once only, Sacrament. There is no repeating of it. What is required of baptized adults and children, male and female, is that they live lives in conformity with the status given them in Baptism, that is as true followers of Jesus Christ, rejecting sin and following righteousness. The Collect for The Nativity of our Lord has this petition: “Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace [= what God does in Baptism], may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit [living daily truly as the Baptized]…” And the exhortation to the newly baptized adult persons, requires the Priest to address them as “you who have now by Baptism put on Christ” and say:
It is your part and duty, being made the children of God and of the Light by faith in Jesus Christ, to walk answerably to your Christian calling, and as becomes the children of light; remembering always, that Baptism represents unto us our profession; which is, to follow the example of our Saviour Christ, and to be made like unto him; that as he died and rose again for us, so should we, who are baptized, die from sin and rise again unto righteousness, continually mortifying all our evil and corrupt affections, and daily proceeding in all virtue and godliness of living.
In conclusion, this can be claimed. The doctrine of Baptism within the BCP and Articles of the Anglican Way is firmly based upon the teaching and practice of the early Fathers of the Primitive Church in the conviction that they rightly read and understood Scripture concerning the Sacraments and that they rightly discerned the mind of the Lord for his Church in this important matter. It associates, as do plain texts of the N.T., Baptism with Regeneration, and the two are never prized apart. To maintain this Anglican doctrine today requires not only an ancient way of reading the Bible but also a disciplined pastoral practice which upholds it, and such are extremely difficult to achieve and maintain in modern America be it in The Network, the AMiA or the Continuing Churches.
Today many of us think of Sacraments in the tradition of expressive individualism endemic in Western culture and also as heirs of the Evangelical Revivals wherein spiritual regeneration was effectively disconnected from the Sacrament of Baptism and made to equate with conversion. And we read the Bible not with the Fathers (who established the Canon of the New Testament) but rather with the mind of sophisticated or popular Evangelicalism and often in a version of the Bible created by dynamic equivalency from within this mindset. Thus the doctrine that was so clear and biblical and patristic to our Anglican forbears seems to many of modern Anglican clergy to be imbalanced and impractical. And so we prefer the much-changed and dumbed-down doctrine in the Baptismal Text of the 1979 Prayer Book of The Episcopal Church. Or, using the classic text from the historic BCP we simply ignore those parts of it that do not easily fit into our modern situations.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)