Monday, January 6, 2014

The Church of England and the rubric of stupid

The liturgy is one of the church's most valuable pedagogical tools. Disciples are formed and nurtured through the recitation of, and participation in, the grand narrative of God's redemptive work. The baptismal liturgy is of particular significance. It serves not only to introduce the newly baptized to the faith but also to remind the already baptized what it means to live out that faith, especially in accepting the responsibility to nurture the newly baptized.

Any baptismal liturgy which makes short shrift of the sacred vows to be taken by the candidates and/or sponsors and the equally sacred vows repeated by the congregation should not be used by a church which is serious about making and forming disciples for Jesus Christ. In light of the proposed changes to the Church of England's baptismal liturgy, it is reasonable to question the Mother Church's seriousness in this regard.

Parents and godparents no longer have to ‘repent sins’ and ‘reject the devil’ during christenings after the Church of England rewrote the solemn ceremony.

The new wording is designed to be easier to understand – but critics are stunned at such a fundamental change to a cornerstone of their faith, saying the new ‘dumbed-down’ version ‘strikes at the heart’ of what baptism means.

In the original version, the vicar asks: ‘Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?’

Prompting the reply: ‘I reject them.’ They then ask: ‘Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?’, with the answer: ‘I repent of them.’

But under the divisive reforms, backed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and already being practised in 1,000 parishes, parents and godparents are asked to ‘reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises’ – with no mention of the devil or sin.

The new text, to be tested in a trial lasting until Easter, also drops the word ‘submit’ in the phrase ‘Do you submit to Christ as Lord?’ because it is thought to have become ‘problematical’, especially among women who object to the idea of submission.

The rewritten version – which came after reformers said they wanted to use the language of EastEnders rather than Shakespeare in services – is designed as an alternative to the wording in the Common Worship prayer book, rather than a replacement.

But insiders predict this draft will become the norm for the Church’s 150,000 christenings each year if, as expected, it is approved by the General Synod. It may discuss the issue as early as this summer.

But the idea has angered many senior members of the Church, who feel it breaks vital links with baptisms as described in the Bible.

Writing in The Mail on Sunday, former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali said the reform should be scrapped before it further reduced Christianity to ‘easily swallowed soundbites’.

And one senior member of the General Synod, who did not wish to be named, said: ‘This is more like a benediction from the Good Fairy than any church service.

‘The trouble is that large parts of the Church of England don’t believe in hell, sin or repentance. They think you can just hold hands and smile and we will all go to Heaven. That is certainly not what Jesus thought.

‘There is so much left out that one wonders why do it at all? If you exclude original sin and repentance there is very little substance left.

‘It doesn’t just dumb the service down – it eviscerates it. It destroys the significance of the rite by watering down the concept of sin and repentance.

'A humanist could say “I renounce evil.” If you take out repentance you immediately strike at the heart of the whole idea of needing to be baptised.

‘John the Baptist only baptised those who came and were repentant. This rite is saying to people you don’t need to be particularly repentant. Just come and join the club.’

Alison Ruoff, a lay member of the General Synod from London, said the new version was ‘weak and woolly’ and lacked conviction.

She said: ‘By removing all mention of the devil and rebellion against God, we are left to our own vague understanding of what evil might or might not mean.’

The draft was drawn up by the Church’s Liturgy Commission to redress fears the current version was too off-putting for lay people who only go to church for baptisms, weddings or funerals.

The Bishop of Wakefield Stephen Platten, who chairs the commission, said repentance was implied in phrases urging people to ‘turn away from evil’, and defended the omission of the devil by saying it was ‘theologically problematic’.

He said: ‘We are certainly not dumbing down. Far from it. What we are concerned about is to make sure that people who are coming to baptism understand what is being said.’

Other changes do away with the cleric saying: ‘Do not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified,’ to which the congregation replies: ‘Fight valiantly as a disciple of Christ against sin, the world and the devil, and remain faithful to Christ to the end of your life.’

The new version – which refers to sin once in an optional prayer – replaces this with: ‘Do not be ashamed of Christ. You are his for ever,’ to which the congregation answers; ‘Stand bravely with him.

Oppose the power of evil, and remain his faithful disciple to the end of your life.’

The baptism ceremony had not been altered for more than 400 years until it was changed in 1980. This is the third revision in 30 years.

There really can be no word for this revised rubric other than stupid! It is the bitter fruit of over a generation of weak, ineffectual, and theologically vacuous church leadership. Worse, however, it appears intentionally designed to perpetuate such innocuousness for generations to come.

As usual, the voice of reason crying out in this wilderness of stupidity is Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali.

Since at least the 1970s there has been a fashion in the Church of England to minimise depth and mystery in its worship because of the alleged need to make its services ‘accessible’.

The new alternative service for baptism, which has been sent for trial, continues this trend. Instead of explaining what baptism means and what the various parts of the service signify, its solution is to do away with key elements of the service altogether!

From ancient times, the structure of the service has included the renunciation of sin, the world and the devil and the turning to Christ as Lord and Saviour.

If a child is being baptised, it is on the basis of the faith of the parents and the godparents, as well as the faith of the community.

There is, finally, a commission both to hear and to proclaim the Gospel.

In all of these aspects, the new service falls short of what has usually been required. At a time of high interest in supernatural evil, the traditional renunciation of the devil and all his works has been replaced with an anodyne rejection of evil in its ‘many forms’.

The very first baptisms of the Church took place after St Peter’s call at Pentecost to ‘repent and be baptised .  .  . for the forgiveness of sins’ (Acts 2:38).

The Church has always regarded repentance as necessary for beginning the Christian life and, for children, a cleansing, if not from actual sin, then certainly from the sinfulness of the whole race since the original sin.

Because of its anxiety to make everyone feel welcome and its desire not to offend anyone, the new service, almost entirely, does away with sin and the need to repent from its personal and social manifestations and consequences.

The whole thrust of the service of deliverance from sin, protection from the devil and regeneration by water and the Holy Spirit, based on the teaching of Jesus himself, has been set aside and replaced by a ‘welcome’ which seems to have no basis in the promises of God, the faith of the parents and godparents or of the Church as a whole.

Indeed, there seems to be ambivalence about the Church itself with such circumlocutions as ‘God’s family’ being used. We are not told anything about the Christ in whom we are to put our trust.

There is no acknowledgement of him as Lord and Saviour. In general, there is a reluctance to declare that the Bible sees the world as having gone wrong and needing to be put right.

This is done by the coming of Christ. Baptism is nothing less than taking part in this story of salvation, no part of which can be sold short.

Rather than the constant ‘dumbing down’ of Christian teaching, whether for baptism, marriage or death, we should be spending time preparing people for these great rites of passage.

When it comes to the service itself, the need is not to eliminate crucial areas of teaching but to explain them.

It is best to call a halt to this perhaps well-meant effort before it further reduces the fullness of the Church’s faith to easily swallowed soundbites.

Unfortunately, the Mother Church as too many Justin Welby's and not nearly enough Michael Nazir-Ali's.

Kyrie eleison.