Church of England to wash some Bible imagery from baptism rite

February 10, 2011
baptism 1

(Sistine Chapel fresco The Baptism of Christ c. 1482 by Pietro Perugino)

The Church of England has voted to use more accessible language during baptisms to help it connect better with congregations, especially non church-goers.  Members attending the Church’s General Synod, or parliament, in London, agreed that the Liturgical Commission should provide supplementary material to help prevent the eyes of  worshippers “glazing over” during important parts of the service.

The Reverend Tim Stratford, from Liverpool, said on Wednesday his motion was “not a request for christenings without Christianity.” Quite the opposite.  “I am not asking for the language of Steven Gerrard,” he said, referring to the Liverpool and England  soccer star. “Just references that could be understood by the majority.”

Parts of the service were difficult to use “without seeming inappropriately schoolmaster-like”, he said.  Stratford said he did not disagree with the words currently being used, such as “I turn to Christ, I repent of my sins, and I renounce evil.”

“But it sounds to many as if the church wants an entirely religious response — removed from our behaviour, actions and conversations”. Instead, he wanted words that showed Christ’s neighbourly love. “Not inquisitorial, but aspirational.”

Those speaking against said there was enough flexibility already and it was unwise to add alternatives.  Other synod members suggested that if the children who were being baptised understood the service better, they and their parents may be more keen to attend church in future. It was not a call for words to be watered down, but for simpler, more powerful language to be used.

The change should also be seen as part of a cultural shift, said Patricia Hawkins, of Lichfield.  “They have heard about Jordan but it does not mean a river,” she added.  “But they understand about needing somebody who can stand beside them in their despair, which is what Christ does in his baptism.”

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(Israel's Escape from Egypt, 1907 Bible card by the Providence Lithograph Company)

In the motion, Stratford said many people today did not have enough background in the Bible to understand the images used in the current baptism services. This was “not a plea for a prayer in Scouse, but for a prayer that the majority of non-theologically-versed Britons would understand.” He gave the following as an example of  what he called “problematic sentences”:

Through water you led the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.

He suggested replacing that with a prayer that dropped the Biblical references but kept the meaning:

Heavenly Father, bless this water,
that whoever is washed in it
may be made one with Christ
in the fellowship of your Church,
and be brought through every tribulation
to share the risen life that is ours in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Guardian said the synod opted for “a more accessible service” with “shorter, snappier baptisms in ‘BBC1 language’.” The BBC quoted Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams telling the debate: “I find myself very much in sympathy with this motion. Like most of those who have spoken, I too, have a sense of the wordiness of what we have and a slight feeling of eyes glazing over.  It is not, I think, solely as a result of my delivery.”

The Church of England has provided an audio file of the synod debate on baptism here.

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