FaithWorld

Church of England to wash some Bible imagery from baptism rite

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(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.

Feeble, choked River Jordan struggles for salvation

baptism (Photo: Orthodox Christian nuns stand in the muddy Jordan River with two pilgrims at the Qasir al-Yahud baptismal site near the West Bank city of Jericho, March 31, 2010/Darren Whiteside)

Christian pilgrims alarmed by claims that baptism in the River Jordan could make them sick are being urgently reassured by Israeli officials that the water poses no health risk.

Water quality tests published this week counter allegations by environmentalist group Friends of the Earth that the level of coliform bacteria from sewage in the river is too high for safe bathing, Eli Dror of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority said.

“There’s absolutely no problem with the quality of the water. People can come and baptise here as much as they want,” Dror told Reuters. “I can guarantee it.”

Russian Orthodox take icy plunges to celebrate Epiphany

Russian Orthodox believers washed away their sins by taking a plunge into icy waters on the feast of the Epiphany, which fell on Monday according to the Orthodox calendar.  The traditional triple dip commemorates the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan.  Here are several Reuters photographs and a Reuters video of Russians braving the winter cold to perform the ritual. dip 1

A man prepares to dip in icy waters during an Orthodox Epiphany celebration, with the air temperature at about -26 degrees Celsius ( -14.8 degrees Fahrenheit) in Pereslavl-Zalessky, some 140 km (87 miles) northeast of Moscow January 19, 2010/Sergei Karpukhin dip 2

A man gets out of the water during an Orthodox Epiphany celebration, with air temperature at about -24 degrees Celsius (-11.2 degrees Fahrenheit) in Suzdal, some 200 km (124 miles) northeast of Moscow January 19, 2010/Denis Sinyakov dip 3

A man helps a woman out of the Bazaikha river during Orthodox Epiphany celebrations, with air temperature at about -28 degrees Celsius (-18.4 degrees Fahrenheit), in the suburbs of the Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk January 19, 2010/Ilya Naymushin

Jordan amasses evidence for claiming Jesus baptism site

bethany-pool-2 (Photo: Bethany baptismal pool with ruins of ancient basilicas in rear, a staircase to the water and, at right, two of the four massive pillars that used to hold a church above the baptism site, 6 May 2009/Tom Heneghan)

In John’s Gospel, verse 1:28, it says that John the Baptist used to baptise people in “Bethany beyond the Jordan” and Jesus went there for his own baptism. Seen from the perspective of Jerusalem, “beyond the Jordan” means on the river’s east bank, in present-day Jordan. Those words were added to distinguish that Bethany from the village near Jerusalem where Jesus was said to have raised Lazarus from the dead. Despite that, pilgrims have long visited a spot on the river’s west bank, now in an Israeli military zone in the Palestinian territories, and considered it the true site where Jesus was baptised.

bethany-flagFor about a decade or so, Jordan has been contesting that claim with excavations at a site on the river’s east bank that it argues must be the real place. Following John’s Gospel (the others only speak of the river itself) and descriptions from pilgrims dating back to the fourth to twelfth centuries, Jordanian archeologists have uncovered ruins of five ancient churches and a wide array of other remains and artifacts pointing to the area’s use as a pilgrimage site. (Photo: Israeli flag on west bank across Jordan River and Greek Orthodox church on the east bank Bethany site, 6 May 2009//Jamal Saidi)

Pope John Paul’s visit to Bethany in 2000 was a coup for Jordan, which is keen to establish its site as a major centre for Christian pilgrims. But he also slipped in a quick visit to Qasr al Yahud, the west bank site across the river, to avoid any impression of partiality. Pope Benedict doesn’t seem to have the same concern — he’s coming to Bethany only and not planning any stop at the rival site. See our news story on this here.

U.S. atheists to have ‘coming out party’

baptism-2.jpgAmerican atheists are holding a “Coming Out Party” in Westerville, Ohio, this Saturday in a bid to encourage non-believers to publicly declare their conviction that God does not exist.Frank Zindler, president of American Atheists, told me many U.S. atheists felt marginalized in a country where levels of religious belief are high and that the social and family pressures to profess a spiritual faith were huge.”I get an enormous amount of e-mails on our Web site from young people asking me ‘how do I tell my parents?’ It causes a great deal of anguish,” he said.Saturday’s events will include a “De-Baptism” ceremony, which organizers say “will be a fun way for people who feel under pressure to conform to religious orthodoxy to make a statement about their newfound intellectual independence.”According to a comprehensive nationwide survey conducted last year by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, only 1.6 percent of U.S. adults identified themselves as atheists, while 2.4 percent said they were agnostic, or do not know if God exists.Just over 12 percent of adults surveyed said they “were nothing in particular” and atheist activists believe many fellow non-believers are in this group. They also maintain that many Americans who claim a religious affiliation are in fact secret atheists.”I think there are a lot of people who may say that they are religious, who in fact are not,” said Ashley Paramore, a board member with the Secular Student Alliance, who is organizing Saturday’s event.  What do you think? Do you think there are lots of “closet atheists” in America? And are Americans under pressure to profess a belief in God? Or are these pressures minimal and complaints on this score overblown?

Southern Baptists hold meet amid falling baptisms

SBC President Frank Page and President George Bush, 11 Oct 2006/Larry DowningAmerica’s largest evangelical denomination, the 16-million strong Southern Baptist Convention, is holding its annual meeting in Indianapolis on Tuesday and Wednesday against the backdrop of a decline in the number of yearly baptisms.

This is serious stuff indeed for a group that places much emphasis on the conversion experience, the acceptance of Jesus as a person’s savior and the rite of passage that goes with this acceptance: a public immersion in water or baptism.

In April the SBC released its latest baptism numbers — figures it tracks closely, underscoring the importance attatched to them.

Catholic-Mormon tension over LDS baptism of the dead

Salt Lake Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, 28 May 2007/Lucy NicholsonThe issue of Mormon proxy baptisms has resurfaced with the news that the Vatican has written to Catholic dioceses around the world telling them not to provide parish records to the Genealogical Society of Utah. As the Catholic News Service reported last week, the letter calls proxy baptism using these records “detrimental” and says the Vatican did not want Catholic parishes “to cooperate with the erroneous practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”. Mormons use genealogical data to find names of people to baptise posthumously, a practice the Roman Catholic Church rejects on theological grounds.

The LDS Church has not yet replied, but the comments section of the Church-owned Deseret News has erupted with hundreds of entries. Many are from Mormons who cannot understand why anyone would object to their baptism of the dead. Several criticise the Vatican for withholding the data, arguing it actually belongs to the general public. Other blogs have also been commenting for (mostly Mormon — see here, here, here, here, here) and against (mostly Catholic — see here, here, here, here, here). There are also critical comments from Mormons and ex-Mormons (see here, here, here).

Most of this commentary misses the point. There is no way either side is going to agree on proxy baptisms; different religions exist precisely because they disagree on fundamental issues. It is also futile to argue about religious freedom, because obviously both Churches have the right to practise their faith. The idea that one religion’s teachings give it a right to another religion’s data is also a non-starter.

Allam baptism makes more waves, prompts more questions

The Magdi Allam baptism and debate about Catholic-Muslim relations in its aftermath continue to make waves. Here are a few interesting points that have come up in recent days:

    Pope Benedict baptises Magdi Allam, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliAt www.chiesa, a well-informed multi-lingual blog on the Roman Catholic Church, vaticanista Sandro Magister says the Vatican is more interested in an inter-faith dialogue proposed by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah than the one it has just begun with the Common Word group of 138 (plus) Muslim scholars. Magister notes that L’Osservatore Romano published stories on “two instances of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam, demonstrating how this dialogue is showing promising developments precisely during the days of the controversy over the baptism of Allam, administered by the pope.” He adds: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear. In the judgment of the Church of Rome, the dialogue with Islam is not limited to the follow-up to the letter of the 138 – one of whose leading exponents, Aref Ali Nayed, has directed extremely harsh criticism against the pope for having baptized Allam – but is developed in multiple areas, some of which it believes are more promising than others.”
    Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewOur Riyadh bureau chief Andrew Hammond, looking at Abdullah’s call, wrote in an analysis,“the king is seen in Saudi Arabia as a well-intended reformer whose plans for change have largely been foiled by hardline clerics and their allies within the Saudi royal family.” One glaring example of this disconnect came recently in the Shura Council, a quasi-parliamentary body that has refused to support efforts by many Islamic countries to have the United Nations draw up a global pact on respecting religions and their symbols. This pact is one of the top diplomatic goals for many Muslim countries these days, including Saudi Arabia. One of the main supporters of this pact is the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, which is based in and heavily financed by … Saudi Arabia!
    That same www.chiesa post cited above included a long analysis by Pietro De Marco, a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Florence and at the Theological Faculty of Central Italy. In it, he rejects in detail the criticism Sandro Magisterexpressed by the leading Common Word signatory Aref Ali Nayed and offers an interpretation of the baptism as Pope Benedict offering to help Islam to “seize the opportunity to exit critically from itself, to open itself to the dimension of the universal and to come back to itself as a reflectively renewed Islam.” This sounds like the invitation to dialogue that Pope Benedict offered in the Regensburg speech better known for his controversial use of a Byzantine emperor’s quote criticising Islam.
    Magister’s point about Catholic-Muslim dialogue proceeding on several fronts is interesting, even if we’re not so sure Abdullah’s proposals will get anywhere. The fact the Vatican is still pursuing the Common Word option was made clear in the reply that Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi gave to Nayed’s criticism. Check out the full text to see an excellent example of how to reject criticism yet keep all doors open to further dialogue.
    Samir Khalil Samir, S.J.Rev. Samir Khalil Samir, the Egyptian Jesuit who is one of the Catholic Church’s leading experts on Islam, has a long analysis on Asianews.it of Allam’s conversion. In it, he notes that both Christianity and Islam are missionary religions and adds: “The pope’s baptism of Magdi Allam is not an act of aggression, but an exigency of reciprocity. It is a calm provocation that serves to make us sit up and think. Each one of us must live as a missionary, attempting to offer to the other the best of what one has encountered and understood.”
    The National Catholic Reporter’s John Allen interpreted Pope Benedict’s John Allenmessage as follows: (1) For a pope committed to reawakening a strong missionary spirit in Catholicism, receiving a high-profile convert during the Easter Vigil is a symbolic way of making the point, (2) Allam’s baptism can also be read as a statement of solidarity with Muslim converts to Christianity around the world and (3) the episode illustrates an important wrinkle to Benedict’s personality — stubborn indifference to the canons of political correctness. Read more here.
    Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliThere have been comments on various Catholic blogs criticising the media coverage (by us and others) of the Allam baptism. The Catholic Church can baptise anyone it wants, they say, so stop making such a fuss about it. We haven’t had much of that in our comments sections but here’s an example of that argument from another blog. Anyone writing this is either wilfully playing naive or is actually naive. We never said Allam should not be baptised — we have no dispute with the Church’s right to do so. What we did was quote others, Catholics as well as Muslims, who questioned whether it had to be done with such publicity. Saying this event didn’t deserve the headlines it got shows a basic misunderstanding of both how the news media work and how the Vatican works.

More activity on the Christian- Muslim dialogue front

Saudi King Abdullah at a cabinet meeting in Riyadh, 24 March 2008//Ho NewThe dust had hardly settled from the Magdi Allam baptism story when Saudi King Abdullah announced he wanted to promote dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews. The World Council of Churches came out with its endorsement of the Common Word dialogue appeal after consulting member churches (many of which have already responded positively). And the World Economic Forum issued a study that says, among other things, that fewer than 30% of Muslims and Christians polled thought the other faith was sincerely interested in better understanding and cooperation. What’s going on?

The first thing to say is that these all seem to be different developments. We’ve already covered the Magdi Allam baptism story. That incident looks like a bit of unexpected turbulence that should calm down now that Common Word signatory Aref Ali Nayed criticised the Vatican for it and L’Osservatore Romano said the baptism was not a hostile act towards Islam. For more on this, see Nayed’s statement, his El Pais interview today (English, Spanish) and the L’Osservatore Romano editorial (Italian).

King Abdullah’s comments popped up in the Saudi press on Tuesday. He has been making positive comments and taking interesting steps such as his November visit to the Vatican and a recently announced plan to retrain Saudi imams to preach moderation. But what this latest statement really means is still unclear. It is not connected to the Common Word initiative, which has some Saudi signatories but otherwise no link to Saudi Arabia. It is not clear whether the Saudi religious establishment, which is usually more conservative than the royal family, has signed on to this. And it is not clear whether the foreign Muslims who Abdullah says he wants to lead to dialogue with Christians and Jews really want to be that close to a Saudi project. It is certainly interesting to hear the Saudi king speak of inter-faith dialogue, especially when he includes Jews in it, but there are still a lot of question marks over this plan.

Strong words, raw nerves in Catholic-Muslim relations

Pope Benedict at Easter Vigil, 23 March 2008//Dario Pignatelli The nascent Catholic-Muslim dialogue sparked by the “Common Word” initiative was never going to be easy, even under the best of circumstances. There is a lot of suspicion, misunderstanding and different agendas to deal with. And then there are the surprises that can come seemingly out of nowhere and blow the effort off course, at least temporarily. One of these was the baptism of the Egyptian-born Italian journalist Magdi Allam by Pope Benedict that popped up by surprise on Saturday evening and highlighted some of the twists along the path of inter-faith dialogue.

The most surprising part about Allam’s baptism was not that he converted. He has been living in a traditionally Catholic country for 35 years, is married to a Catholic, is close to the lay Catholic movement Communion and Liberation, has long been highly critical of radical Islam and says he was never an especially pious Muslim. The surprise was that the Vatican would make it such a prominent event. There was a second surprise, too — the fact that Allam published such a hard-hitting declaration about his conversion, his view that Islam is intrinsically violent and that the Catholic Church has been too timid about converting Muslims. We quoted from the Corriere della Sera original on Sunday, but now the Catholic news agency Zenit has provided an English translation.

Magdi Allam at his baptism, 22 March 2008/Dario PignatelliReporting from Rome, the Paris daily Le Figaro had an interesting detail. It wrote on Monday that Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue and as such the Vatican’s point man for relations with Islam, had not been informed about the Allam baptism before it happened. If this is true, it suggests some behind-the-scenes Vatican politics on how to deal with Muslims. It would seem that Tauran should have been informed on a need-to-know basis — this is, after all, his area of responsibility — but somebody didn’t do it.