…if the child is under age, the parents should write out a petition as above.
What is the role of godparents?
Whilst introducing some members of our church to the Anglican baptismal theology in the hope that they may join the baptism team, I found a great oversight in our basis for preparation policy. At our church we currently invite parent(s) to come along for an evening to talk about what baptism is and to ‘help them to work out if baptism is right for them’ (to which the snowier seems to always be “yes”!) This ‘preparation evening’ is a great opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them and to encourage them to consider the life of a disciple and to answer the call to follow him. No problems so far…
Then I looked down at Canon Law B22.3 (you know the one, right!?)
The minister shall instruct the parents or guardians of an infant to be admitted to Holy Baptism that the same responsibilities rest on them as are in the service of Holy Baptism required of the godparents.
This assumes that due instruction has been given to the godparents; that the godparents are aware of their responsibilities and can,
…faithfully fulfil their responsibilities both by their care for the children committed to their charge and by the example of their own godly living.(Canon Law B23.2)
In our parish we currently only ask that the parents speak with the godparents about their responsibilities but we have no contact with godparents prior to the baptism.
I asked some other clergy to send me their baptism preparation process to see where we could develop and improve ours. Of the 6 shared with me none of them do any instructing of the godparents on their role and responsibilities and of the 5 churches where I have been aware of their preparation process none of them did either. Bearing in mind that we struggle, in my current parish, to get godparents who are baptised let alone practising Christians we are a long way off. We have long since wavered the requirement of confirmation as set out in Canon Law B23.4!
So here is my question (and it is a question): Would it be so bad to adopt a stricter policy of admission to Holy Baptism based on the requirements laid out regarding godparents?
Let’s take the idea of looking at the admission to Holy Baptism through the lens of a monastic model in a parish church. If a parish church’s baptism policy was connected into a more monastic understanding of discipleship then the approach to infant baptism could be viewed in similar terms as St. Benedict does in this chapter of his Rule. This would be no different to the theology behind infant baptism outside of a monastic understanding of discipleship with parents and godparents taking on the responsibility of making vows on behalf of the child.
In practice, the parents of a child being offered to the monastic life would need to write the petition, an unbreakable contract agreement, with the same understanding of the commitment being made if the child was of age. This would mean the same sort of rigour of instruction before an offering of the child was made. In Canon Law it states that,
No minister shall refuse or, save for the purpose of preparing or instructing the parents or guardians or godparents, delay to baptize any infant within his cure that is brought to the church to be baptized, provided that due notice has been given and the provisions relating to godparents in these Canons are observed.(Canon Law B22.4)
For every child to be baptized there shall be not fewer than three godparents, of whom at least two shall be of the same sex as the child and of whom at least one shall be of the opposite sex; save that, when three cannot conveniently be had, one godfather and godmother shall suffice. Parents may be godparents for their own children provided that the child have at least one other godparent…No person shall be admitted to be a sponsor or godparent who has not been baptized and confirmed. Nevertheless the minister shall have power to dispense with the requirement of confirmation in any case in which in his judgement need so requires.(Canon Law B23.1&4)
Now, whenever delaying baptism is discussed there are some who get uncomfortable with placing ‘hoops’ in the way. They feel that the parents will feel shunned or rejected by the church and that experience of ‘not being worthy,etc.’ will impact in their view of church in general. I understand the fear of this and can see the complex pastoral issues this raises but this is what happens when you develop such an open door policy in the first place. How do these pastoral minded objectors interpret Jesus’ challenge in Luke’s gospel,
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62)
William Barclay suggests,
It may well be that we have hurt the Church very seriously by trying to tell people that Church membership need not make so very much difference; we would be better to tell them that it must make all the difference in the world. We might have fewer people; but those we had would be totally pledged to Crist. (William Barclay,The Gospel of Luke: the daily study bible (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 1961) p.133)
I had a young man contact me wanting to be baptised and so I eagerly met with him to talk about it. I asked him why he felt he wanted to get baptised and he ‘just wanted to’, his family had all ‘been done’ and he had ‘missed out’. I asked if he had any experience of God. He answered by saying that he once prayed for something and it happened. I talked about what he would have to promise if he wanted to be baptised and talked about the need for a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. I sent him away with homework; to read Mark’s gospel and to write down any questions or confusions about what he read. I asked him to contact me in a week and we’ll chat about what he had discovered. I also invited him to come to church and to experience worship and prayer in the context of a community of believers.
He never came to church and I still wait for him to get back in touch. This is not the first time this has happened to me. I have had three previous conversations which have ended after our first meeting. All of them began with a request to be baptised. After these conversations I feel guilty that they hadn’t taken the opportunity to explore faith, I questioned whether I was putting too many barriers in the way and I beat myself up that I wasn’t able to share my faith i a way that was attractive or exciting for them.
Then I remind myself that for each of these encounters I also have stories of when I have sat with someone and share my faith with them and they now stand as faithful, practising Christians. God can and does use me sometimes!
I read the gospels and I see there Jesus asking people to follow him and many turning away and not taking him up on it. These refusals to follow Jesus don’t make Jesus change his admission policy but rather to pray and love them nonetheless. We should do the same. Keep the challenge to be a disciple but love those who feel it is too costly for them. There’s nothing wrong with being the crowd, Jesus still loved them, they just weren’t disciples with the responsibility and cost involved.
We can all feel great pressure to make everyone we meet a Christian. The focus on mission and evangelism can be heard as a drive to increase membership in our churches but there is a distinction which needs to be heeded to stop us from selling grace too cheaply. Evangelism is not about the results. Evangelism is only about proclamation of good news; the word in greek for ‘evangelist’ means messenger, someone who speaks a message of good news. How the hearers responded was not their job, their sole purpose was to say the good news to the people. Let us not change the message so that it is favourable to the hearer. Let us instead proclaim the message faithfully and allow the hearers respond how they wish; some will hear, others won’t. Jesus knew this more than any of us.
Mission is more about establishing God’s Kingdom in our hearts and proclaiming it with our mouths and transformed lives than it is about increasing our market share. The results of mission and evangelism must remain out of our control if we are to not become manipulative or manipulated. This should not hinder the passion with which we engage in mission or evangelism we must still do it with all our heart and lives but God builds his Church. He must encounter people by his grace and he has always given humanity freedom to choose to respond or not. Allow him to take the heart ache of all those who do not listen to his voice.
Gracious Father, you came and met us in your Son, Jesus Christ, and called us to live a life as your disciples. You told us the cost and warned us of the challenge but you also showed us the glory of your resurrected life and the power of your Spirit. May we never forget reward of being in you and having you dwell within us. May we not sell that powerful experience of grace short with the people we meet.
Come, Lord Jesus