Baptism: navigating the waters

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… or, a simple guide to where Baptism comes from, what it is, and who can have it.

Four years ago my partner in marriage and I had our baby ‘Christened’.  The event itself was one of immense joy, and lots of people came from around the country to celebrate and share the occasion with us.  But the simplicity of the service in no way represented the agonising which took place beforehand.

The details of the event itself were easy: in the community centre with a Devon cream tea to follow, and presided over by a local URC minister. Which ceremony we would choose was not such an easy decision to make: Baptism or Thanksgiving? What was the difference? As an ordained minister I knew what I wanted – but my desire to allow my daughter to choose Baptism for herself later was different to that of my husband.  He couldn’t see why we wouldn’t choose the option of having her properly initiated into the church.  It was one of those cases where theological knowledge didn’t actually help.

I don’t think ours is an uncommon experience, and I wish there had been a simple guide when we were deciding what we wanted.  Hopefully this quick guide to Baptism will help others with the same dilemma we had.

Baptism in the Bible

Baptism as a practice predates Christianity. It was undertaken in the first century by Jewish people who wished to recommit themselves to living a holy life. The ceremony would involve being immersed fully in water.  It signified the forgiveness of sins and a new chapter in a person’s spiritual journey.  John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, was renowned for Baptising candidates in the river Jordan. He himself Baptised Jesus.  However, he was always clear that his Baptism would in no way equate to the one initiated by Jesus.

After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptise you with water, but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1.7-8)

Although Jesus is not recorded as Baptising anyone, his parting instructions before he ascends into heaven are, amongst other things, Baptising believers in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matt 28.19). There are several incidences of Baptism recorded in the Book of Acts, and it is referred to frequently in the other books of the New Testament. Here are two examples:

  • According to the Bible, the first Christian convert on mainland Europe was a Macedonian cloth trader called Lydia.  She first encounters Paul, the persecutor turned evangelist, at the river on the outskirts of the town. Paul goes there to pray and meets a group of women, including Lydia. The author records how “The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.”  (Acts 16.14)  In the next verse she and her entire ‘household’ are Baptised.
  • Paul himself went through a radical conversion experience which included Baptism. He was blinded by a vision of Christ on the road to Damascus, then taught in the ways of the faith by Ananias, a Christian leader he was originally on his way to arrest. Paul (who is at that point called Saul) is recorded as being Baptised shortly afterwards. Ever the zealot, he begins to proclaim Jesus the ‘Son of God’ (Acts 9.20), so successfully that he becomes the subject of the arrest warrant he himself used to use.

So what is it all about? 

Baptism is a Sacrament, described by Thomas Cranmer, author of the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, as:

visible signs, expressly commanded in the New Testament, which are joined with the promise of free forgiveness of our sin and of our holiness and union in Christ – there are but two: Baptism and the Supper of the Lord.  (1547)

The Reformed understanding of the sacraments, reflected in the words of Cranmer and in the theology and practice of the URC, is that there are two Gospel Sacraments – ceremonies or activities which Jesus commanded his followers to adopt. They are Baptism (Matt 28.19) and Holy Communion, also known as the Supper of the Lord or Eucharist (which means thanksgiving) (Matt 26.26-29//).

Through the immersion in, or pouring on of, water; the love and saving grace of God, offered so freely to all who believe, are acknowledged, celebrated and received.  participants are united with Christ and bound to each other, receiving through the power of the Holy Spirit the spiritual nourishment needed to empower them for the journey of faith ahead.

The water used is what is known as a ‘signifier’, a visible sign of the activity of God.  It is not simply a marker.  In the act of confessing faith and asking for God’s blessing, ordinary things are made holy, and God becomes present among those gathered as the water is poured or the candidate dunked.

Who can be Baptised?

There are two generally accepted kinds of Baptism:

  • Believer’s Baptism – when the candidate is of an age to make their own commitment to Christ. This can be done by full immersion (in a river, baptistry or pool), or over a font.
  • Infant Baptism – a ceremony sometimes known culturally as ‘Christening’, when an infant is brought by their parents to be Baptised, usually over a font.

Since the earliest days of Christianity, Baptism has been a key initiation ceremony, a signifier of a person’s sincere commitment to following Jesus.  The candidate is required to declare their faith in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, then be immersed in water or have it poured on, as a symbol of the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit and their new identity as member of the Church. Whether infants were Baptised in Biblical times is unclear.  We do not know if the ‘household’ of Lydia, Baptised in its entirety, included minors, and other corporate references to Baptism are equally unclear (Acts 16.33, 1 Cor. 12.13, Gal 3.27, 1 Peter 3.21).  However we do know that, in the third century, Cyprian advocated infant Baptism, and by the fifth or sixth centuries it had become an accepted practice.

While all churches advocate Believers Baptism, not all offer the Baptism of infants. Roman Catholics and the Church of England routinely Baptise babies, while the Baptists, as their name suggests, hold Baptism in particularly high regard.  For them it is a key marker, an occasion during which a person demonstrates their commitment to following Christ, and is therefore only possible for those old enough to make that decision themselves.

Within the United Reformed Church, only two of the three contributing traditions practise infant Baptism (Congregationalist and Presbyterian). The Churches of Christ follow a tradition of Believers’ Baptism by full immersion – with ex-Churches of Christ URCs still in possession of their Baptistries.  One thing which unites all three is the conviction that, whenever it happens, and by whatever means, Baptism – the ceremony through which one enters the church – can only happen once.

Baptism or Thanksgiving/Dedication?

The journey to becoming a Christian can be a complicated one, and is unique for each person. For some it is a momentary experience, a sudden ‘being born again’, so powerful that a person is changed forever. For others it can take as a long as a lifetime.  Being Baptised, whether it is a choice made on a child’s behalf by their parents or by a believing adult, is just as individual, and the expectations of what is appropriate will be influenced by the practices adopted by the tradition with which they are most familiar.

For those feeling unready to declare their faith and commit to following Jesus, but who want to celebrate the birth of a child and have him or her blessed, there are alternatives.  In the URC there is a Service of Thanksgiving, which includes the blessing of the child.  The benefit of choosing this ceremony is that the child is given the option of deciding for themselves later whether or not they want to be Baptised.  There are some for whom the presence of water is important.  It is a signifier – more than just a symbol of God’s love and blessing – and not having it just wouldn’t seem ‘proper’.

As can be seen from this outline, the sacrament of Baptism is a holy act, located at the very heart of church life.  Christians believe that through it, God is at work, so it is never to be taken lightly.  Anyone considering Baptism for themselves or their baby should contact the church they would like to conduct the ceremony, and should expect there to be some form of preparation before the ceremony can take place.

2 thoughts on “Baptism: navigating the waters

  1. Pingback: The trouble with Baptism: Part One – Faith Inspiring Action

  2. Pingback: The trouble with Baptism: Part Two’ – Faith Inspiring Action

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