I ran across this about three weeks ago, but obviously haven't had much time for blogging. A number of atheist and secularist Britons are asking the Church of England to "cancel" their baptisms. Like many of their generation they were, as a matter of course, brought to the Church as infants and baptized, but many fell away or rejected the Christian faith as youth or adults and now they want their baptisms to be "revoked" as it were.

The Church of England has refused to make any such accomodations. Baptism is a matter of historical record, they argue, and that it did in fact take place cannot be changed.

The National Secular Society of England, in response to the Church's refusal, has begun issuing its own Certificates of De-baptism (click here for the story and here for the video).

All of this is very interesting to me and raises a number of questions. One mentioned in the article is: If atheists don't believe in any of this "superstitious" Christian stuff, why do they care one way or the other whether they were baptized as infants or not? That is a very interesting question that might connect to the deep spiritual substance of the baptismal event - maybe it is harder to "shake off" than we might suppose? Of course that brings up all sorts of issues about what is it that goes on in infant baptism (and what does not).

Concerning Baptism from a Methodist perspective, John Wesley (himself and Anglican priest of course) is a little hazy on this - in some places suggesting that new birth occurs in infant baptism and in other places he is clearly stating that new birth was a (potentially) seperate event tied rather to faith in the individual. If we (as Methodist theology does) see the sacrament as a covenant oath - an exchange of vows between God and the person baptized (always in connection with the covenant community) - then infant baptism is God speaking his side of the covenant oath and the community speaking its part, while the individual's own covenant commitment must wait until they are old enough to accept (or reject) Christ's salvation. That is to say - they have been claimed by God in baptism, now the question becomes will they actively accept and live into that divine claim on their lives, or will they not. One must be born again by water AND by Spirit, says St. John (John 3:3-5), and they Holy Spirit, while he blows where he wills, is generally held (especially in Galatians 3) to come upon those who believe. Thus, I cannot see how new birth - though perhaps begun in infant baptism - can possibly be said to have already (and completely) occurred until the individual has made a personal commitment of faith to Christ (that is, affirmed the baptismal vows for himself; see The United Methodist Hymnal, page 34).

I suspect some of my Methodist brethren may object to that (admittedly brief) desription of a baptismal theology, and this is I think why we must further clarify our teachings on this. By Water and the Spirit: A United Methodist understanding of Baptism seemed to me to fail to clarify some of the key issues (especially as it relates to New Birth).

Getting back to the issue of de-baptism, another question is about the popularity of the de-baptismal certificates - over 60,000 have been downloaded - by what authority can the National Secular Society revoke a sacramental action performed by the Church and the Holy Spirit? The Church spokesmen quoted in the article says that if someone wants to renounce his baptism, that is an issue between him and God. Maybe the NSS is simply trying to give individuals a way to do so (rather then claiming any authority).

A final observation is that the quotations in the article suggest that the atheists/secularists make certain assumptions about the Church of England that I suspect may be (at least partly) incorrect (but it would require further research for me to be sure). Is the doctrine of Original Sin the justification given for infant baptism in today's CofE (as they de-baptism certificate suggests)? Does the CofE count baptized infants as members as the de-baptism certificate suggests? The article clearly says that it does not. So there seems to be some ignorance among the secularists about the beliefs and practices of the Church that they are rejecting.

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Blogger Fr. Philip said...

I think your questions are right. Why does it matter if they were baptised if they don't believe? I also agree that this must point to something beyond our understanding that happens in baptism. However, as an Orthodox Christian, I would assert that in infant baptism, a child is baptized with water and the Spirit. It is not something that happens later, the child is a full member of the community able to partake of the mysteries of the Church from that moment on. The Orthodox Church also has a different view on original sin, so that discussion can happen another time. Thanks for posting this interesting piece.

9:24 AM, April 08, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

Hey Fr. Philip,
I would love to talk with you more about the Eastern Orthodox perspective. I read an article on it in seminary, but it was pretty short and basic.

Baptism has always been complicated for me because I have basically 3 streams of thought converging in my mind:
Sacramental (born of water AND spirit at the moment the rite is performed),

Evangelical (born again at the moment of personal faith which is later signified by water),

and Pentecostal (born of the Spirit sometime later, after faith and water baptism).

Reading Acts I see that the 'order of operations' for baptism with water, faith, and baptism with the Spirit seems to be different for different individuals. I can accept that there may be no set formula for how New Birth is experienced, but it does leave the question of proper teaching & liturgical practice a little fuzzy.

This is why I have fallen back on a "cover all the bases" position: when true faith and water baptism are both present, we can be sure the person is a part of the covenant people and has been/is being born again, though more "fillings" with the Spirit may yet follow. Of course, I also allow for the "baptism of desire" qualification for people like the theif on the cross next to Jesus who was clearly not baptized.

Of course, it would be simpler if (like the Churches of Christ) we believed in baptismal regeneration but only baptized believers. However, infant baptism seems quite clearly to be the practice of the whole church across the ages, and therefore has the weight of the Spirit-led tradition behind it. Plus it makes sense as a New Testament analogue to circumcision which was also a sign of faith (Rom. 4:11) but nevertheless given to infants.

11:09 AM, April 08, 2009  
Blogger Fr. Philip said...

For a good look at an Orthodox approach to baptism: http://www.oca.org/OCchapter.asp?SID=2&ID=51

This is done by Fr. Thomas Hopko, former dean of St. Vladimir's Seminary. I would love to talk more about baptism and any other things. This week is busy for us since Holy Week begins Saturday. I'll be more free after our Easter celebration next Sunday. This is going to be a great week! I hope you have a blessed feast!

1:23 PM, April 09, 2009  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

N.T. Wright suggests thinking of baptism as ritual incorporation into the story of the "New Exodus" - the deliverance accomplished by Christ.
If (setting aside for the moment the Covenant-making or New Birth focus) we think of baptism as being incorporated into a narrative, then I think it is quite plain to see how infants could be fully incorporated, even before becoming believers (though they might yet repudiate that faith) like the Hebrew children of old being carried by their parents out of Egypt and across the Red Sea (a pre-figure of baptism) to the mountain of God and the promised Land.

8:53 PM, May 01, 2009  

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