Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Baptism: public or private?

Baptism by the Book (cont)
I've posted here, here and here on baptism recently, sparked by my daughter's baptism and by re-reading the baptism services in the English and Scottish prayer books from the 16th and 17th centuries.

My final post concerns the social location of the baptism service. And on this, all the prayer books agree. Here is part of the 1662 rubric:

The Minister of every parish shall warn the people that without great cause and necessity they procure not their children to be baptized at home in their houses. But when need shall compel them so to do, then Baptism shall be administered on this fashion: [...]
And the earlier prayer books were even more explicit, offering slight variations on this somewhat lengthy introduction to the topic found in the 1552 version:
It appeareth by auncient wryters, that the Sacramente of Baptisme in the olde tyme was not commonlye ministred but at two tymes in the yeare: at Easter and Whytsontyde. At which tymes it was openly ministred in the presence of all the congregacion: whiche custome (nowe being growen out of use) althoughe it cannot for many consideracions be well restored agayne, yet it is thoughte good to folowe the same as nere as conveniently may be: wherefore the people are to be admonished, that it is most conveniente that Baptisme should not be ministred but upon Sundayes, and other holy dayes, when the moste noumbre of people maye come together as well for that the congregacion there present may testifye the receyving of them, that be newely Baptysed, into the noumbre of Christes Churche, as also because in the Baptisme of infantes, every man present may be put in remembraunce of hys owne profession made to God in hys Baptisme. For whyche cause also, it is expediente that Baptisme be ministred in the Englishe tongue. Neverthelesse (yf necessitie so requyre) chyldren maye at all tymes be Baptized at home.
I'm sure that reading that did you good and has helped your grasp of the Englishe tongue!

Note three things. First, the text recalls ancient custom and treats it as a guide to be followed. It does not feel the need to dump every practice not explicitly found in Scripture (as per the regulative principle of worship found in some versions of Protestantism). Yet neither is ancient custom to be preserved exactly for its own sake. It is able to develop over time. Some things have growen out of use and cannot easily be well restored agayne. But the principles behind it are to be understood, adopted and adapted since it is thoughte good to folowe the same as nere as conveniently may be. So, while baptisms are not to be confined to Easter and Whytsontyde [Whitsunday = Pentecost], the principle that they are best to be held in the public gathering of the church (when the moste noumbre of people maye come together) still holds. However, many baptisms today are essentially private ceremonies held before or after the main services on Sunday, or on other days of the week, where only family and perhaps some close friends are present. Why is this a problem?

Second, therefore, let us therefore consider the two reasons for public baptism offered by the text: so that the congregation present can testify to the receiving of the child into the number of Christ's church; and so that all baptised believers present might be reminded of their own baptismal vows. In other words, baptism has meaning beyond the individual candidate and his or her relationship with God. It is a sign for the church, a public welcome of the newly washed person into the household of faith. This one is now a sister or brother and to be welcomed and treated as such. And it is a reminder of each Christian's own profession of faith, a reminder that can be very powerful and encouraging, even confronting, as once again each believer has to turn to Christ and reject all that is evil (a similar thing happens at weddings, where all the married members of the congregation are reminded of the challenge and joy of their own vows). Baptism therefore has a social (or rather, ecclesial) as well as a personal meaning. To displace the baptismal service from the context of the congregation and perform it in private for a smaller circle of family and close friends obscures or misplaces this significance.

Third, however, all the prayer books have two versions of infant baptism: the normal one for public baptism in a church and a second one for use in private houses in tyme of necessity. Although it is best for baptism to occur amidst the gathered congregation, it is possible for it legitimately to be performed elsewhere in an emergency. Thus, a sick infant who is likely to die before Sunday (or an adult convert too ill to attend church) may receive an emergency baptism "on the spot". The 1604 and 1662 versions indicate this still ought to be done by a minister, but the earlier books simply say that whoever is present can perform the rite. This concession implies that the horizontal or social meanings of baptism are secondary to its primary reference, which is the relation between the candidate and God. Even if the candidate is unable to be welcomed by the full church, baptism still functions as a sign of God's cleansing and renewing love and as a pledge of the candidate's lifelong loyalty to Christ, however short that life may be. Of course, if the newly baptised candidate ends up surviving, then there is also provision for the secondary horizontal meanings of baptism to function in a service that announces and publicly recognises the baptism.
And let them not doubt, but that the Child so baptized is lawfully and sufficiently baptized, and ought not to be baptized again. Yet nevertheless, if the Child, which is after this sort baptized, do afterward live, it is expedient that it be brought into the Church, to the intent that [...] the Congregation may be certified of the true form of Baptism [...].
And if the Minister shall find by the answers of such as bring the Child, that all things were done as they ought to be; then shall not he christen the Child again, but shall receive him as one of the flock of true Christian people [...]
So don't hide the light of baptism under a basket, but put it on a stand so that it can give light to the whole house. Don't deny your brothers and sisters the blessings they receive from witnessing a baptism, or deny the candidate the blessings of a public baptism amongst the congregation.


Matthew Moffitt said...

"...re-reading the baptism services in the English and Scottish prayer books from the 15th and 16th centuries."

Don't you mean 16th and 17th centuries?

Matthew Moffitt said...

PS Great post!

Andrew Chirgwin said...

Simple. At it's most spiritually simplistic Baptism is the adoption of a new person into God's extended family. Why would that be done without the vast majority of the family present? When children are born, friends, immediate family, cousins, aunts and sometimes even workmates come to visit you soon after the birth (not that I've experienced this personally).

Seems rather obvious that the "family should turn up to meet the new member".

Anonymous said...

Another great post Byron.

stef said...

Thanks for the English lesson - or should that be Englyshe? When did we chance endings from "cion" to "tion"? And switch "y" for "i"?

byron smith said...

Matt - yes, it should. And now is.

Andrew - exactly. You could have saved everyone some time if you'd been writing the post!

Jason - thanks!

Stef - sometime between the 16th and 17th centuries, since the Tudor prayer books are a blast to read, but the Stuart books read more like modern English (in spelling at least)

David Palmer said...

Thank goodness, an evangelical Anglican not embarassed by infant baptism.

A Presbyterian

PS Byron, I'm back and girding my loins for an article on climate change for the April Australian Presbyterian - looking forward to engaging with you. I hope to have the first draft done within a week or two.


byron smith said...

David - thanks, that's exactly why I wrote, to bring some of those who joyfully embrace the gift of infant baptism out of the woodwork. There are plenty around amongst Sydney Anglicans, but they often don't make much of a noise about it for various reasons.

And I look forward to your piece.