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

Doh! Archbishop of Canterbury forgets what it means to become a Christian January 6, 2014

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.

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