Baptism: Learning from the Royal Christening

One of the lovely and important aspects of the establishment of the Church of England is that the sacraments of the Church (marriage and baptism) can become teaching moments for a whole nation. We will be baptizing two babies at Grace on All Saints’ Sunday (November 3) and I was talking yesterday evening with one set of parents, I mentioned today’s baptism. I’m sharing these links because they help us reflect on what baptism means for us, and especially what it means in an increasingly secular society.

The Church of England created a lovely and thoughtful video in which the Archbishop articulates the meaning of the rite:

Cathleen Grossman writes about the decline in numbers of baptism across the US. The numbers of baptisms in the Southern Baptist Convention fell to about the same number as in 1948, when the total membership of the denomination was less than half what it is today. In 1970, about 20% of the babies born in the United States were baptized Roman Catholic; today, that has fallen to 8%.

The Guardian notes that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have selected seven of their friends to be Prince George’s godparents and have solicited stories from readers about what their experiences of the relationship.

And from the Church of England, prayers for the Royal Christening (actually, prayers for all baptisms):

Prayer for HRH Prince George

We thank almighty God for the gift of new life.
May God the Father, who has received you by baptism into his Church,
pour upon you the riches of his grace,
that within the company of Christ’s pilgrim people
you may daily be renewed by his anointing Spirit,
and come to the inheritance of the saints in glory.


Prayer for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

Faithful and loving God,
bless those who care for this child
and grant them your gifts of love, wisdom and faith.
Pour upon them your healing and reconciling love,
and protect their home from all evil.
Fill them with the light of your presence
and establish them in the joy of your kingdom,
through Jesus Christ our Lord

Sarah Coakley on Women Bishops

Sarah Coakley, the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, has written an insightful theological critique of the measure that went down to defeat this week. She contends that the vote against women bishops was a vote for theological incoherency. She made the argument to the House of Bishops earlier this year. It consisted of three main points:

  • we cannot compromise on the historic theology of the bishop as locus of unity;
  • we must return afresh to our distinctively Anglican notions of reason and tradition to solve this crisis, not lapse into rational incoherence; and
  • we must resist in the Church the supervenience of bureaucratic thinking (with all its busy political pragmatism) over theological and spiritual seriousness.

So what we have created in the past twenty years is a theological anomaly which has insidiously been made to seem normal: a whole cadre of priests – a third of our priesthood now – who are supposedly intrinsically disabled from exercising the charisms of spiritual unity and authority historically associated with the episcopate. It is here that the main theological scandal still lies: the implicit creation and normalization of second-class priesthood. The terrible danger is that this may now be extended into second-class episcopacy.

She appeals to Hooker:

First, the status and place of reason in the Anglican hierarchy of theological criteria acts, or should act, as a point of resistance to any forms of theological compromise which are actually contradictory: p and not-p simply cannot co-exist in such a framework. Thus, one cannot simultaneously hold what might be seen as a Donatist theology of taint in relation to women priests or bishops, and an Augustinian theology of objectively valid sacramental orders, and hope to maintain a coherent theology of the church. When provisions are made for those who disagree within the Church, then, it cannot be on the basis of such an actual internal contradiction – or else our beloved Church of England will indeed have finally lost her reason.

On the other hand, and secondly, however, Hooker’s perspective does indeed allow for novelties in the rational reception of Bible and tradition: the plastic nature of Hooker’s conception of reason, and its deep understanding of historical embeddedness, does allow for creative development in response to the primacy of Scriptural authority and the deposit of tradition, without the danger of a merely historical or moral relativism. There is nothing in Hooker, then, that would give credence to the slogan that “nothing new is ever true.” But there is everything to suggest the possibility of hopes for future creativity and renewal.

Her points about “theological incoherence” and the “supervenience of bureaucratic thinking over theological and spiritual seriousness” should be considered by the Episcopal Church as we deal with divisive issues as well. Where have we allowed compromise to get in the way of serious and difficult theological work.

Institutional Failure: The Church’s internal struggles and growing irrelevancy

Yesterday, there was the shocking news that the measure to allow women bishops in the Church of England went down to defeat. Last week came the next step in the dissolution of the Episcopal Church as we’ve known it with the secession of the Diocese of South Carolina.

Outside of Anglicanism, also last week the American Roman Catholic bishops met. They were licking their wounds after a resounding defeat at the ballot box. Having put financial resources and considerable pressure, their efforts to prevent the passage of same-sex marriage failed in four states. The presidential candidate favored by most was defeated, apparently by a majority of their flock. They met with a convicted felon in their midst but no mention was made of his presence or the systemic problem underlying his conviction.

The Protestant religious right, too, is now trying to figure out what went wrong, what God is telling them, and how to move forward. Fortunately, Franklin Graham provides insight for all of us, as he speculates that God intends a total economic collapse in the US in order for us to repent and amend our ways.

Many of us who are passionate about our faith, passionate about the Good News of Jesus Christ, and about building up the Body of Christ, are also deeply committed to and passionate about the institutional church. It has nurtured and shaped us. It is one of the means through which we experience God and the love of Jesus Christ. But the institutional church, like every human institution, is deeply flawed, oppressive as well as life-giving. It can diminish us as human beings as well as enable our flourishing.

It’s pretty clear by now that many (all?) of our institutions are in crisis. Our political system is broken; our economy falters; higher education, the military, you name it. The structures of the Church, the institution of the Church is not only meant to be the means through which we come to know and love God through Jesus Christ but it is also the Body of Christ. It makes Christ present to the world and unites us to Christ’s body throughout history and across the world.

There have been times throughout history when it is very difficult to see how the institutional church incarnates the body of Christ. This may be one of those times, a period when because of human fallibility and social upheaval the institutions of the churches no longer bear witness to the fullness of Christ but have fallen prey to narrow human interest. At such times, prophets and reformers have risen up to breathe new life into old institutions or to create new ways through which God can break in upon us. It may also be that in local settings, in new media and new ways that people come together, we are already seeing hints of the new creation that God is calling into being.

In the meantime, we have to wait patiently, mourn the ways in which the churches and we ourselves fall short of God’s call, and continue to seek God’s will in the present and future. The danger is that our local efforts are ignored while institutional credibility and relevance collapse on the national and global level.

Back to women bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury has spoken publicly on the measure’s defeat. Thinking Anglicans provides full coverage of that as well as a press round up and reactions from various interest groups.

Reactions are beginning to come in. From Andrew Brown on Guardian: “I think I have just watched the Church of England commit suicide. It was a very long and very boring process.”

A view from Scotland (Kelvin Holdsworth):

Looking on at the passion of the Church of England from outside, one finds oneself trying hard to substitute compassion for pity.

There are many fine women priests and the cause for treating them equally in Canon Law is an easy one to make but one which has not been made often enough. Those female clergy deserved better than this measure. The whole church deserved better than this and now has the chance to try to find its way towards it.

The Church of England gets its chance to prove that it worships at something other than the altar of compromise.

No women bishops for Church of England today

The Church of England’s General Synod failed to approve the motion to permit women bishops. The measure passed overwhelmingly in the houses of Bishops and Clergy; failed to achieve the required 2/3 majority in the house of laity.
I’m sure there will be a great deal about this in the coming hours and days. I’ll try to post some of the most compelling comments.

Civil Religion, Monarchy, Establishment, and the Church of England

still reflecting on the royal wedding and what it says about the role of religion in the UK.

Jonathan Chaplin and Religion, Royalty, and the Media. He concludes with the following:

But it surely is primarily responsible for how far the liturgical offerings it seems so eager to supply to what is a largely inattentive and uncomprehending nation are actually consistent with its own theological integrity, even its self-respect.

For many defenders of establishment, the royal wedding will no doubt provide glorious confirmation of their claim that the church remains the spiritual hub of the nation, sending out signals of transcendence from the heart of a unifying national celebration. For many opponents, it will raise the question whether the meaning of even a robustly orthodox wedding liturgy – for such it certainly was, as Martin Bashir so tactlessly pointed out – is effectively neutered when placed in service of a survival strategy for a political institution with an uncertain future. They will interpret the day’s events as yet further evidence of church’s captivity to civil religion, and will ask whether on April 29th the church really “served” the nation or rather was “used” by it. Will the church dare to have a serious discussion about that question?

The situation is quite different in the US than in the UK because of establishment. Still, there is an American civil religion, and the Episcopal Church has very often provided the setting as well as the content for the exercise of it. Witness the prominence of the “National Cathedral.” Sometimes, civil religion is relatively innocuous, such as the requirement that presidents end their speeches with “God Bless America.” It easily shades into the dangerous, however, when civil religion and Christianity are equated, as they so often are, by politicians, people, and pseudo-historians like David Barton.

Still, I’m not sure the appropriate response for concerned theologians is to adopt a neo-Anabaptist position like Simon Barrow and Nick Knisely seem to advocate. Nick Kniseley asks “Co-opting the Church?”  In response to an essay by Simon Barrow. It’s not that I’m not sympathetic to their position; it was difficult to distinguish the worship of God from the worship of the royal family during the wedding, and the prominence of the nation-state in the form of dress uniforms was especially disconcerting. Still, the Anabaptist, and neo-Anabaptist response of withdrawing, figuratively or literally, from engagement with the spiritual concerns of the larger society is troubling to me. Our sacred spaces and rituals need to be available to those who turn to them for support and meaning at times of crisis or transition. The task is to use that tentative engagement as a step to deeper involvement, all the while recognizing that such deeper commitment might not be forthcoming.

And Frederick Schmidt  on the inadequacies of our traditional-language liturgy seems to have struck precisely the wrong note a few days before the use of traditional language in the royal wedding. One of the great powers of ritual is that it can invest with great power, language that seems meaningless or dead in other contexts.

This in the context on continuing doom and gloom concerning the future of Anglicanism in the UK.

Archbishop Barry Morgan of Wales chimes in: “the Church in Wales must adapt to cope with the decline in clergy, waning investments and falling congregations.”

I do think it is time for the Church of England to be disestablished; this would free it up to have precisely the sort of theological conversation that Jonathan Chaplin advocates.