Doh! Archbishop of Canterbury forgets what it means to become a Christian

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. Ninian Reid, Flickr

While undertaking a revision of the traditional christening (or baptismal) service, the Church of England has pretty much negated the whole enterprise.

Whereas once parents and godparents were asked if they “reject the devil and all rebellion against God,” along with “the sins that separate us from God and neighbor,” the new language prompts disavowal of “evil . . . and all its empty promises.” It’s a fine thought, but hardly an adequate baptismal renunciation.

The revisions are, as the Daily Mail reports, supported by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, which should trigger doubts the man is familiar with his job description.

The gospel narrative concerns more than delivery from a nondescript negative condition. As Welby and the rest of his crew should recall, the world was plunged into darkness by the trickery of — write this down now — the devil.

Prompted by envy, Satan schemed to bring ruin to humanity and succeeded. For remedial theology students, we call this the Fall. Man was from that moment forward subject to the devil and death as he willingly rebelled against God and separated himself from divine life by his rebellion.

Though the angels were tasked with protecting us from Satan and his demons, humanity rejected the light and plunged itself further into darkness. Even God’s chosen means of redemption and blessing for the world — Israel — succumbed to Satan.

Finally, after what might be termed a rather long while, came Jesus. As the son of God, Jesus took on human flesh and was faithful to the uttermost, unlike any prior man. He faced the devil, defeated him, and through his obedience defeated death, thereby reconstituting humanity within himself and making life with God possible again.

To participate in this triumph one must become incorporated in Christ — the means for which is baptism. What’s so great about the English term christening is that it preserves the essential meaning of the baptismal service, to be brought into Christ. What’s so terrible about the new Anglican service is that it forgets what was involved in making that incorporation possible.

Without any reference to the devil, Welby and his heroes have lost the narrative. Jesus didn’t deliver us from a vague sense of wrong or an ethical entanglement. He delivered us from the devil, sin, and death. Satan isn’t a metaphor, and sin is not an archaic word for which “empty promises” is an ample synonym.

Christians have known this from the start. That’s why traditional baptismal services begin with an exorcism. To become incorporated into Christ through baptism is to be finished with the devil and all his pomp and all his works. That’s what it means to become a Christian.

Read Tertullian. Read Hippolytus’s On the Apostolic Tradition. If Archbishop Welby is unaware, his fellow churchman, E.C. Whitaker, published a fine book called The Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy that arranges a glistening cascade of ancient liturgical sources.

None of these, it should be noted, sound much like the new form — which “doesn’t just dumb the service down,” as one critic said, but rather “eviscerates it.” Indeed, it betrays the traditional meaning of baptism itself.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • dorkyman

    I am not an Anglican, so please forgive my lack of knowledge about Anglican matters.

    I mean no disrespect here, but how to Anglicans reconcile whatever they consider sacred about their church, knowing that its very existence is based on the actions of a clearly disgusting and immoral man (Henry VIII) who seemed to enjoy beheading his current wife in order to marry another? Multiple times?

    • Joel J. Miller

      I am also not an Anglican, but I don’t think they would tie their existence to King Henry, not fully.

      They would point back to the founding of the church in the apostolic age (or right thereafter) and the proper apostolic succession that continued unabated through the period of Roman control over the local British church.

      In that way King Henry is seen as a flawed human used by God for the benefit of his people (like King David), freeing the local church from Roman control.

    • Andrew G.

      Historical nitpick: Anne Boleyn was the only one of Henry’s wives to be beheaded “in order to marry another” (and even then, the need for a male heir was a significant factor).

      While Catherine Howard was also beheaded, that was on a (probably) legitimate charge of treasonous adultery. Catherine of Aragon, Jane Seymour (died of childbirth complications), Anne of Cleves (marriage never consummated and annulled on grounds of pre-existing contract) and Catherine Parr (still married to Henry at his death) all died of natural causes.

      • Joel J. Miller

        Thanks for adding that clarification.

  • Edward M Killilea

    Today! There is a definite error that Evil, Satan, or “Screwtape” does not exist
    in the modern world of “acceptance”

    Baptism is the Sacrament that frees us from Original Sin. “Screwtape” does exist.
    Mankind is/was deceive.

    The greatest deception is the error that sin, the devil, “Screwtape” is not relevant.

    ed killilea

    kearny nj

  • Celia Blay

    I am an Anglican and live in the UK.
    You really shouldn’t take the Daily Mail as gospel.
    The new service is an alternative provided for those who see Satan as a personification of evil rather than a person. It is not likely to be much used.
    The C of E also have a service of blessing for a baby which many evangelicals consider a better choice than having others make promises for an infant.
    Surely a more biblical position would be that baptism should follow belief in Christ.
    Infant baptism might have had a place in the 4th c. with high infant mortality but is rarely needed today.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I don’t take the Daily Mail as gospel. The Telegraph carried their own story, including a reference to Welby supporting the revisions. And frankly, the dismissal of the controversy by some has been just as discouraging.

      The Guardian’s Andrew Brown, e.g., notes the alternate rite is only being used in some parishes (the Telegraph says a thousand parishes) and will likely not last. We can hope. But then he goes on to do exactly what the new rite basically does, dismiss the devil as anything other than a metaphor. Still, he seems to nail what’s primarily happening with the revisions: “maintain[ing] the ritual and de-emphas[izing] the doctrine.” Having a form of godliness but denying the power?

      The devil hardly has a place to lay his head in a materialistic, modernist world. We don’t even like mentioning him in church — so we rewrite the forms to avoid doing so. But this, as I said in the piece above, loses the gospel narrative presented in the Scripture and the tradition of the church. Satan isn’t a metaphor. He’s not the name we give an otherwise impersonal evil.

      I hope you are right that the new service will not be much used, but the fact that option is available at all signals a deeper problem in the Anglican church — as does, I’ll add, your reference to a dedication/blessing service. One group gets one service, a second can choose another, and a third can pick still another. The problem in the Anglican communion is that even parishioners in the same jurisdictions do not hold the same liturgical and sacramental assumptions. The communion is one in name only.

      If we are to go with what is “biblical,” then we should chuck all of these rites and their various expressions. The only biblical formula is to be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All the rest is supplemental to the Scripture. But ancient church did not do this, and neither should we.

      Nor should we drop from our practice traditions that illumine our understanding of what it means to truly be faithful Christians. If Jesus believed in Satan we should be reluctant to scrap services because we feel uncomfortable mentioning him.

      • Celia Blay

        Jesus is shown in Scripture both responding to the temptations offered by Satan and using ‘Satan’ metaphorically when he said, ‘I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning’ Luke 10:18 and when he said to Peter, ‘Get behind me Satan’ Matt. 16:23. We ascribe to Satan the power that rightly belongs only to God if we view him as omnipresent.
        The C of E should not be criticised for offering an alternative blessing service as the baptism of infants whose parents are only nominally ‘Christian’ is doctrinally dubious.
        It is better that baptism should follow faith and be a public declaration of new life in Christ.
        The doctrine of ‘original sin’ and the concept of the stain of that sin being washed away in baptism is the foundation of infant baptism. As God is outside time some justification can be found for parents baptising their babies trusting God that they will grow in faith. When people are told that they are Christians because they were baptised as babies although they have received no further instruction is to deny the gospel.

        • Joel J. Miller

          It’s far too grave a thing to be baptized as an infant for parents and godparents to neglect giving further instruction — hence the reason there are baptismal vows about doing exactly that, bringing up the child in the faith. If you are not going to raise your child in the faith, you shouldn’t baptize your child into it either.

          • http://avengah.wordpress.com Matt Davis

            It seems many families only have a baptism to please relatives. It’s better not to bother at all, but these families don’t want to upset Nanny.

      • http://youtube.com/user/BowmanFarm Brian Bowman

        > Satan isn’t a metaphor.

        Why not? The history of the evolution of the concept of the Devil is well documented, coming from the Persian dualism and Zoroastrianism in the 6th century BCE. Chapter 4 (The Devil, the Demons, and the End of the World) in The River of God: A New History of Christian Origins catalogs the development of “Satan.”


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