In my opinion, looking to London’s Daily Mail for religion news coverage is rather like looking to People magazine for peer-reviewed medical studies. Once in a great while there might just be a People article that accurately references some startling medical development — and the studies behind same — but that’s not the publication’s stock-in-trade.
So when the celebrity-saturated British tabloid — “Buffy The Vampire Player: Sarah Michelle Gellar has a blast with daughter Charlotte and her pal as they enjoy day at the beach” is a typical headline — dips into the Godbeat, you know something’s up. How thoroughly accurate that something will be is, well, another matter.
The Church of England, like many communions, practices pedobaptism — the baptism of infants and very young children. Its ceremony has, for years, required both parents and godparents to express their dedication to God and a repudiation of sin and Satan alike. Now, the Daily Mail revealed in a January 5 story that sparked global headlines, the CofE wants to change the script, something with which traditionalists are allegedly none-too-happy.
The report starts with a typical Mail-style headline, this time referencing a popular British soap opera: “Welby casts out ‘sin’ from christenings: Centuries-old rite rewritten in ‘language of EastEnders’ for modern congregation” is the top line. After that, the news:
Parents and godparents no longer have to ‘repent sins’ and ‘reject the devil’ during christenings after the Church of England rewrote the solemn ceremony.
The new wording is designed to be easier to understand – but critics are stunned at such a fundamental change to a cornerstone of their faith, saying the new ‘dumbed-down’ version ‘strikes at the heart’ of what baptism means.
In the original version, the vicar asks: ‘Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?’
Prompting the reply: ‘I reject them.’ They then ask: ‘Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?’, with the answer: ‘I repent of them.’
But under the divisive reforms, backed by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and already being practised in 1,000 parishes, parents and godparents are asked to ‘reject evil, and all its many forms, and all its empty promises’ – with no mention of the devil or sin.
The new text, to be tested in a trial lasting until Easter, also drops the word ‘submit’ in the phrase ‘Do you submit to Christ as Lord?’ because it is thought to have become ‘problematical’, especially among women who object to the idea of submission.
The rewritten version – which came after reformers said they wanted to use the language of EastEnders rather than Shakespeare in services – is designed as an alternative to the wording in the Common Worship prayer book, rather than a replacement.
Was that Luther, Zwingli or Calvin? (Sorry — I couldn’t resist.) But as the story moves on (and on, and on to include a sidebar of dissent by a more-traditional CofE archbishop), we keep learning more and more of how tentative and minor this supposedly plate-shifting “change” is. First, we learn it’s a “trial” through April. Then, it’s “designed as an alternative” wording “rather than a replacement.”
Of course, emphasizing all that would take
some most of the wind out of the story’s sails. And that wouldn’t sell tabloids, would it now?
Having witnessed the Archbishop of Canterbury in action during a news conference at the World Council of Churches’ 10th Assembly in Busan, Republic of Korea last November, I can testify he’s a serious, thoughtful cleric, not without humor. I also caught his reverence not only for his own communion, but also for the broader Christian family, and for Christianity’s many (and varied) traditions. He doesn’t strike me as someone appealing to ‘EastEnders’ for liturgical guidance.
Sadly, there’s little scholarly analysis other than comments from the Rt. Rev. Stephen Platten, Bishop of Wakefield, who told both the Mail and the Daily Telegraph that mentioning Satan in the baptismal liturgy is “theologically problematic.” Neither paper, apparently, asked Platten what the “problematic” aspect was.
It’s all rather juicy as the Daily Mail frames it, but without context, comment and even contemplation, the reader isn’t enlightened all that much — kind of the way the trial liturgy allegedly won’t enlighten its participants.