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Mystery Of Baptism In The Anglican Tradition

Mystery Of Baptism In The Anglican Tradition

by Kenneth E. Stevenson

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As the Church continues to try to clarify the meaning of baptism, well-known liturgical scholar Kenneth Stevenson provides important insights into the historical issues with which we still wrestle. Is baptism a private or a public act? Is the symbolism of the rite still appropriate? Does the language of the baptismal service remain meaningful in a secular age?



As the Church continues to try to clarify the meaning of baptism, well-known liturgical scholar Kenneth Stevenson provides important insights into the historical issues with which we still wrestle. Is baptism a private or a public act? Is the symbolism of the rite still appropriate? Does the language of the baptismal service remain meaningful in a secular age?

In order to answer these and other pressing questions, we must understand the thinking of those who have come before us. Stevenson does just that by looking at the writings of the 17th century Anglican divines such as Lancelot Andrewes, George Herbert, Richard Hooker, Richard Baxter, Jeremy Taylor and others, all of whom have a vital and prophetic significance for our understanding and practice of baptism today.

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THE MYSTERY OF BAPTISM in the Anglican Tradition


Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 1998 Kenneth Stevenson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8192-1774-5


Conversation with History

It is a sense of fracture or a sense of imprisonment that sends historians back to the archives, the memoirs, the tape-recorded voices. Yet this relation between loss and the imagination is full of irony. History has less authority than memory, less legitimacy than tradition. History can never speak with the one voice that our need for belonging requires.

When were you baptized? I cannot remember my own baptism in the same way that I can remember where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated or that Mrs Thatcher had resigned. But I have done some digging into the family archives and have put together something of my personal history. I discovered that I was baptized on the afternoon of Saturday 17 December 1949 in St Peter's Church, Musselburgh. The family used to attend that church and the Rector was one of my godparents. The service was taken by Canon John Ballard, who had just seen my father through to becoming a Reader in the diocese of Edinburgh. The church building, moreover, became a familiar sight in later years when we moved further away, because it stands on what was then the main road into Edinburgh. I am told that my baptism was only attended by family and close friends. There was a virtual repeat performance for my sister in the spring of 1954, and according to one piece of family folklore I fell asleep towards the end of the reception afterwards because I went around emptying everyone's sherry glasses.

Then in the summer of 1958 it was arranged that my brother and I should be confirmed along with the rest of the group of young people in the congregation at St Anne's, Dunbar. To save my brother and me a journey on a weekday evening over a period of weeks, the Rector kindly came and prepared us both for confirmation. I remember his kindness and his carefulness in explaining all manner of things to do with Christian faith and worship. He was always ready to answer questions. And he patiently put up with our interruptions.

All this led to the confirmation service on Saturday, 20 December 1958 in St Anne's by Kenneth Warner, Bishop of Edinburgh. I remember the service well, particularly because it was postponed a week at a day's notice; one of the border clergy had died and the Bishop had to go and take the funeral. My brother and I were given our confirmation presents – a watch each – a week in advance, to make up for the disappointment. The service left quite an impression on me. We all sat in the front pews on the north side of the central aisle, and our families and friends huddled around us and sang the hymns lustily. I recall noting how odd it was that the Bishop sat in his chair, even for the hymns. He wore a red and gold cope and my father acted as his Chaplain. As we came up one by one the Rector, Edmund Ivens, called out our names. I remember the touch of the Bishop's hands. I remember too being told to wait after the service for the Bishop to come and give us our confirmation card. The wait seemed like an age. But he eventually appeared, wearing just a cassock, and told us that the card was 'a record of our confirmation'. We duly went up and had a less formal contact with him, and then we went home, with our families.

But there was one rather strange event that day. We gathered in the church in the morning for a rehearsal, and suddenly there was a baptism. One of the candidates had not been baptized, and now he was to be baptized surrounded by his fellow confirmation candidates! We were the congregation as no family or friends seemed to want to be there. I was asked to be one of the servers in order to assist the Rector through the service, even though I did not have much of a clue as to what was happening. But the other Reader in the parish who presented this young lad for baptism took care to find the service for each one of us in the Prayer Book. I remember him distinctly saying to himself in each case 'the baptism of those of riper years' – and adding humorously, 'nothing to do with orange and apples'. At the service, the candidate stood against the font, and the Rector poured water over his head with a mother-of-pearl shell. It all seemed like a routine that was being gone through in as dignified a way as possible. But it left an impression. Finally, on the next morning, we all took communion at the early Eucharist, a quiet service in the traditional style, and from that time onwards our Christian lives progressed and regressed with the passage of years.

It is indeed a 'sense of fracture' as well as a mild 'sense of imprisonment' (to borrow from Ignatieff) that sends me back to the family memoirs as I reconstruct those events from remembered conversations with those who took part. There is for me an inevitable sense of loss, for it is the past, a past that has changed almost beyond recognition, not least over matters of liturgy. Liturgical practice over baptism and confirmation does still vary a great deal but I would hazard a guess that the scenario described above would be different now. The child of practising Anglican parents today would be baptized during a Sunday morning Eucharist in St Peter's, Musselburgh. The Bishop of Edinburgh would have come to St Anne's, Dunbar on a Sunday morning to celebrate what is often regarded as the richest form of Eucharist, one in which baptism and confirmation take their full place. There would be one service, not three. And the young lad would be baptized by the Bishop – for all to see. I expect, too, that the candidates for confirmation would nowadays be prepared not only by the local Rector but by lay people as well.

But to borrow again from Ignatieff, 'History can never speak with the one voice that our need for belonging requires', and that is very much the theme of the pages that follow. Christian belonging is about many things. It is about the welcome at the back of church. It is about the encouragement of family and friends. It is about the capacity to ask God the difficult questions that are at the time unanswerable when tragedy strikes, rather than giving up on him altogether. Christian belonging has a special and primal place at the font, in the rough and tumble of a community getting to grips with the Christian faith through its young, in the confirmation preparation, and in the regular celebration of the Eucharist. The fragmented picture of my own passage through these various rites may be somewhat out of date in contemporary terms but it has nonetheless been the way in which Christians have been nurtured for many centuries. Indeed, the fragmented nature of Christian experience is very much a given aspect of our lives. We can never arrange things so neatly that God is gift-wrapped, cut-priced, and easily available.

This is what makes sacraments so fascinating, particularly the two main sacraments, baptism and Eucharist. In water and in bread and wine the Church is given the equipment to wash in rebirth and to feed her members. So often in history the Church has had to walk something of a tightrope between saying (on the one hand) that sacraments are important, vital, gifts of God, actions of the Church, in which certain important things happen, and (on the other hand) saying that they are part of a wider whole, the means for the journey of faith, patterns of divine life in which we can live and grow, events to focus on but not to confine God within them.

* * *

It is easy to see golden ages in the past and to approach the past with our own particular agendas. Looking back on what I now know of my own baptism, the events on the day of my own confirmation – complete with a rehearsal that ended up with the baptism of a candidate of 'riper years', and the confirmation itself, followed by the communion at the Eucharist the next day – I can see a kind of jumble, a collection of fragments from history. There is the old established norm that goes back to the Middle Ages, whereby infants are indeed baptized, catechized subsequently by the local priest, and confirmed by the bishop. But I can also see the signs of that scheme breaking down in that strange adult baptism at which all I seemed to do was lift the Rector's cope as he stretched out his right hand to pour the baptismal water. In the Anglican divines whom we shall be looking at later, there seemed to be no settled scheme either. There were attempts to justify an inherited system that was in need of adaptation. Many of them delved into the ancient past for inspiration for their ideas and even for the justification of their ideas. It was a scheme that was on the move though the questions they faced were often different from ours. As with today's inheritance, often the way the liturgy is celebrated and what it contains mirrors the issues of the time. Some old churches provide ample evidence of this variety through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

For example, Langley Chapel in Shropshire was probably built in 1564 but with some additions later. It is a simple, small building erected for the residents of the nearby Langley Hall, which has since been pulled down. The interior of the church expresses the ideals of the Puritan approach to worship, grounded in simplicity. There are pews and benches for the congregation, and two pulpits, one of them movable. At the east end there is a communion table round which the congregation will have gathered on those Sundays when the sacrament was celebrated. But there is no evidence of any font. I would hazard a guess that if I had been born at Langley Hall at the time, I would have been baptized in the church in a basin set up on a table for that purpose. Such a practice was frowned upon, no less than moving the old fonts from their position near the door, by the bishops from the beginning of the reign of Queen Elizabeth onwards. Proof enough that it was common practice!

Then there is the church of St Mary, Acton Burnell, which was built about 1270–80 by Richard Burnell, who was Bishop of Bath and Wells and Lord Chancellor to King Edward I. He enjoyed royal favour and had the right 'to crenellate' his family house next to the church, i.e. to turn it into a castle. Everything in this church is of the best. Near the entrance to the church there is an octagonal font. Fonts sometimes had eight sides, not just for geometrical unity but to symbolize the eighth day of the week as the day of the new creation and baptism as the expression of that new birth. On the corner which faces outwards to the rest of the church, there is some stiff foliage carved into the stonework. This is no mistake but a gently eye-catching trick to point to that eighth day. It is easy to imagine the Prayer Book rite celebrated around this font in the context of the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. Here is the Reformed but still Catholic Church of England using its medieval architectural inheritance and attempting to make the baptism service more public, as the title of the service in the Prayer Book suggests.

Then there is, by contrast, the Church of the Holy Trinity at Minsterley, an unusual building which was completed in 1689. The font was originally placed opposite the south door. Its proportions are small by medieval standards and it stands lower than many of its medieval counterparts. One could imagine an adult standing over such a font and being baptized with the form for those 'of riper years' which was only introduced to the Prayer Book in 1662.

Such is the way that three churches in different parts of Shropshire might have been used for the sacrament of baptism. But they might have been used differently. The Langley baptism could have taken place at home, again around a basin. At Acton Burnell, there could have been a parson in the reign of Elizabeth I who was a devout follower of the Puritans. He therefore would not have used the font at the back of the church but would have set up a basin at the head of the nave. Perhaps he would have left out those parts of the service of which he disapproved, for example, the promises by the godparents and the sign of the cross. As to confirmation, this took place when the Bishop performed his Visitation, because there was no explicit direction that confirmation should be held in church. It is conceivable that when the faithful of Minsterley were confirmed by the Bishop of Hereford, the service happened outside. Moreover it was even known for churches to have two fonts, one in the old position and another in a more accessible place, as in Herefordshire at Sutton St Michael during the time of the Commonwealth.

In the pages that follow, we shall be looking at the writings of nine theologians from the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I through to the time of Charles II, each of whom has important things to say about how baptism is celebrated liturgically, about how theology relates to worship. It is a short time span but it is rich in debate and controversy that have a direct bearing on many of the issues facing the Churches today. For each one of them what we believe and exactly what we do – and don't do – about it at the font matter a great deal. Michael Ignatieff's 'sense of fracture' and 'sense of imprisonment' do indeed send the historian back to these archives, these memoirs. Unfortunately the tape-recorded voices are not available, but the material is richly textured and rewarding to ponder. The historian does so knowing full well that the past certainly does not speak with one voice, and we shall delve into this material realizing that our need for belonging in the Christian Church is one that is never ultimately satisfied.

Although they cover between them a great deal of ground, each has a particular insight that leaps to the enquiring twentieth-century eye. 'Is baptism inward or outward?' asks William Perkins. 'How is baptism a means of sharing in the life of God?' asks Richard Hooker. Baptism is the opening of heaven above Christ, as Lancelot Andrewes preached at Whitsun in 1615. God's foreknowledge of us is the dominant theme in the baptism poems of George Herbert. 'What happens to the unbaptized?' asks John Bramhall. Richard Baxter sees us all as disciples of Christ at the font. Jeremy Taylor spreads baptism through human experience as a pattern of 'holy living'. Our profession of Christian faith is always counterbalanced by God's redemption in our hearts and lives, as Simon Patrick eloquently testifies. And Herbert Thorndike sees the covenant of grace between God and humanity begun sacramentally at the font and continued at the only sacrament which bears fruitful iteration, the Holy Communion.

This is the collective memory of what came to be called Anglicanism that we shall tap. It is made up of a combination of ingredients, in which context plays a significant role, through an ordered liturgy which has its own balance of change and stability. And the criteria for that continuity and change are invariably a very Anglican combination of scripture, tradition and reason, always in tension when addressing specific concerns, and always trusted to work towards a solution. It is a rich, varied, and vivacious read, and one in which we may be able to find some explanations of how we in the late twentieth century have arrived at where we are now. It may also beckon us not only to nurture our sense of tradition, but to be sustained by it, to the point of looking yet more profoundly at how we can build a more secure future.


Setting the Scene

I once attended an ecumenical conference at theological college at which one of the speakers was Bishop Alan Clark, who was the first Roman Catholic Co-Chairman of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission. The 'Agreed Statement' on the Eucharist had just been first issued. He was about to address us on that seemingly intractable problem, eucharistie dialogue between Anglicans and Roman Catholics.

Earlier that morning he had walked across from the theological college into Salisbury Cathedral to say his prayers. He sat still for a while and looked around and wondered at the beauty and the sense of continuity and discontinuity in the building. The medieval Gothic architecture remained. But there were important changes, which expressed the way in which the Church of England had absorbed aspects of the Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There had been change and development since then as well. And he could enjoy the way in which the two sister Churches, Roman and Anglican, were drawing closer together. We were being encouraged by a new atmosphere of dialogue and cooperation. In company with other Churches also we were responding to what the Spirit was saying to the Churches in our own age.

One particular expression in his talk to us stuck in my mind. He referred to the Reformation as 'an explosion of ideas'. Explosion indeed it was. And for many people, a necessary explosion. It was an explosion that for many sought to change the outward face of the Western Church without losing its inner heart.

Excerpted from THE MYSTERY OF BAPTISM in the Anglican Tradition by KENNETH STEVENSON. Copyright © 1998 Kenneth Stevenson. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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