The Governing Body of the Church in Wales met on the 11th and 12th of April. After a little hiatus due to the fact that I crossed over the threshold from the world of laity to the world of clergy (which prevented me sitting in my appointed role on Governing Body as a lay person), I was back. The overall consensus was that the agenda for this meeting was thin and that proceedings were generally uneventful. The lack of engagement at the podium was testimony to this. There were a few exceptions, notably a presentation from Darren Millar AM on the Church in the Public Square. But the reason it’s taken me the last few weeks to calm down is because of the debate everyone had been waiting for: the Admittance of Children to Holy Communion.
In September of 2016, the Bench of Bishops of the Church in Wales produced a letter along with some accompanying documents (Theological Background, Church Guidance, and Congregation Guidance) giving the edict that all the baptised would now be admitted to Holy Communion. This was a radical step for an anglican province; admittance to Communion is traditionally given at Confirmation.
Whilst some disagreed with this move, the overall majority felt that this was a welcome one, including myself.
In September 2017, a private member’s motion was presented to allow further discussion of this new policy due to the unintended consequences of such a change in policy. The Governing Body’s summary magazine, Highlights, details the discussion. The motion was passed and so that brings us to the latest Governing Body meeting on the 11th/12th April.
Members were asked to submit written contributions to be circulated before the meeting. I gladly obliged, and you can see all the written contributions, including mine, here. When the floor opened up for debate, I decided to be one of the first to stand to speak as I know some find it daunting to get the ball rolling. The few who went before me underlined their support for the change. Then it was my turn, and this is what I said:
Your Grace, [Chair], Members of Governing Body:
This debate is focussed around the wrong sacrament. You will note that I had made a written contribution in preparation for today. Today I wish to add to that written contribution in verbal form in light of the other contributions, written and otherwise, we have received.
Firstly, I want to affirm and ask you to rejoice with me that one of the key subjects that came up in the written contributions was that of teaching and preparation. There seems to be a consensus among those who contributed prior to this debate that teaching is absolutely crucial for those children who are to receive communion. However, I want to make the case that proper teaching and preparation needs to come much sooner when parents are seeking to baptise their babies.
In theory, the Church in Wales places great emphasis on teaching and preparing parents: Taken directly from the clergy handbook, it says in section 4, All are called to make Jesus Christ known to men and women as Saviour and Lord… You are to teach the faith that comes to us from the Apostles and proclaim it afresh. Suitable preparation for Baptism… is a primary responsibility for clergy. The importance of children, young people and all who are new to the Christian faith should be a priority for the Church and for its clergy.
Again, on the Church in Wales website, there is a page on Baptism which details the vital need for good preparation and the expectation that parents will follow through on their declarations and promises.
In practice, however, this requirement for proper teaching and preparation is not done justice. I know this to be true from the countless phone calls and emails I’ve had from parents wanting their second, third, fourth child “done” and when asked what they did for their first child’s baptism in the way of preparation, they replied that they just turned up to church one Sunday and came back a few Sundays later for the service. There are many other conversations I’ve had which I won’t bore you with today, but they all conclude in the same way: little or no preparation.
It’s a big responsibility when an older believer decides to partake in the sacrament of Baptism. How much greater then is the responsibility of parents and godparents who are committing to nurturing the spiritual soul of another human being made in God’s image until such time that they can confirm their own faith?
Some say that the parents have a right to have their children baptised. In Canon Law, this is of course true, but this “right” to be baptised can actually cause damage to the Church because it comes from a hangover of Christendom – an archaic and unhelpful way of consolidating Christian power. We don’t live in the days of Christendom anymore.
I’m even more amazed that we as a disestablished Church could perpetuate such a notion. This idea coupled with the lack of teaching and preparation has done untold damage to those who have left churches thinking that their children have been turned into Christians simply because some water has been poured over their heads.
In my sending parish, I remember a couple who were practicing Muslims asking for baptism for their child. They had no intention of converting, but some sort of folk religion Christianity had invaded their lives. I remember another time at an infant baptism where, when the family were invited up to receive the bread and wine, the mother replied “No thank you, I’ve got enough thanks” as she pulled out a half eaten hamburger in McDonalds wrapping paper from her handbag. She wasn’t joking or messing around.
Secondly I want to affirm the Church’s commitment to welcoming children into the church. However, a good and proper welcome can be given without the need for baptism. That welcome is called “The Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child” and it’s not a new idea. It’s my belief that this service is actually sufficient for what the majority of parents seeking baptism are looking for.
A lot of parents I meet have no interest in Jesus Christ or the Church nevermind becoming committed to them. What they want is a ceremony. And I’m happy to give it to them in a Thanksgiving Service. Because Jesus took children in his arms and blessed them. That was Jesus’ welcome of children. If it’s good enough for him, then it’s good enough for me.
That’s the start of the journey. If we offer thanksgiving services as a matter of course then it will provide ongoing reason and opportunity to teach the faith to those with little or no church background, and, who knows, we may have more genuine baptisms in the future.
Thirdly and finally, I want to talk about church growth. It’s quite clear that baptism is not a good indicator of Church Growth in the Church in Wales. In 2016, there were 6192 baptisms in the province, down 8% on the previous year. The figures don’t tell us which of those were believers baptisms and which were infant baptisms. But it does make me wonder, 2 years on, what percentage of those people are still worshipping even semi-regularly in their church.
Even though I’m repeatedly told that we shouldn’t make windows into men’s souls and that God’s grace is bigger and that many people come back to faith and the Church later on in life, I’m still yet to see myriads upon myriads of middle aged people flocking back to our parishes. I can only conclude that the fruit produced when using God’s grace as the cop out for a low-bar baptism policy is the exception rather than the rule.
I want to finish by telling you about a small parish church nestled away between Cardiff, Caerphilly and Newport. And it’s a parish that the Archbishop will be familiar with because it was where he served his curacy. A few years ago, St. James’ Church in Rudry was at risk of closure.
But since 2014 the church has experienced year on year growth. Next Wednesday, the vestry meeting will receive the Parish Report which contains the following lines: The growth at all services has been extremely high. There were increases of 62% at Easter, 128% at Pentecost, 221% at Christmas and 65 % at the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost. Overall average Adult attendance has increased by 44% and children’s attendance by 150%.
The church seats 50 people and regularly we now have people sitting on the floor in the aisle and the sanctuary, or standing in the tower and sometimes even outside. It’s certainly a good news story and I’m very proud of all the people who make up the church family there.
But let me say this: that growth has not come by baptising infants without question, or indeed admitting children to receive communion, even though many of them do so. It’s been through consistent and explicit teaching of the historic Christian faith expressed in historic anglicanism. It’s the active promotion that all regular attenders should be part of a house group or something similar. It’s been the proper, careful, considered preparation of those who ask for baptism (and indeed we have had baptisms of infants, older children, young people and adults over the last year) and they have been fully integrated and assimilated into the church community.
In other words, there is a direct correlation between the level of expectation on the part of the clergy and the level of commitment amongst the wider church family. Low level expectation equals low level commitment.
Governing Body – the Christian life does cost a lot and it’s a great commitment. We have a moral, spiritual, theological and pastoral obligation to properly teach and inform people what they’re getting themselves into when it comes to the sacraments.
To properly empower and grow the Church, people need all the information, and we must give it to them. And for those of us as ministers, we have an obligation to counsel people as to the appropriate decisions people should make concerning these things based on what we have gleaned from our teaching and preparation work.
That’s a fundamental part of what it means to be ordained, and, as the third chapter of the book of St. James reminds us, those of us who teach will be judged more strictly. And it is for all these reasons as to why I claim that admitting children to receive communion isn’t the problem. Rather, I am calling for a complete review of how we conduct the sacrament of baptism in this province.
As you can imagine, generally the speech went down like a lead balloon. One thing I lament over about the Governing Body is that sensationalism (and humour) often trumps scripture. If you can pull heart strings or tell an amusing joke, that seems to carry more weight than actual theological reflection or concern.
Even though I had, in my written contribution, supported the change in policy and declared it verbally, the way in which some of those who spoke after me subtly hinted at my contribution sounded as though they had completely forgotten or ignored these facts. Thankfully, others did support what I offered to the Governing Body and backed it up with their own theological reflection and anecdotal evidence. The main thrust of the rebuttal against my argument, from what I understood, were the following:
…that the Governing Body should not dictate policy on baptism preparation.
This is interesting because the Governing Body is responsible for decisions that affect the Church’s Faith, Order and Worship. It also has powers to make regulations “for the general management and good government of the Church, and the property and affairs thereof.” (from Chapter 11 Section 33 of the Constitution of the Church in Wales). It is not good government for there to be a sorely lacking baptism policy in one parish and a robust one in another. My plea was for the Governing Body, more than anything, to ensure that there was at least a basic policy which bound clergy to prepare people properly. The lack of preparation has caused an awful lot of problems for me as an ordained minister and has allowed people seeking baptism for their children to expect more than I am prepared, in good conscience, to allow them. By that, I mean baptism on demand with no interest in church attendance or preparation.
…that Jesus didn’t say anything about teaching.
Excuse me? “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit; and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” I think that’s pretty clearly not the case. Even if one argues that in this particular verse (Matthew 28:19) teaching comes after the baptism, discipleship itself is following the way of Christ and, furthermore, we cannot teach if the people we are baptising have no meaningful connection or relationship with the church in which they want the event to take place.
The most annoying and painful suggestion, however, (with the idea that we should give satanists communion if they held out their hands – no joke – coming a close second) was the following:
… that God’s grace was absent in my thinking.
As the Reverend Adrian Morgan said in his remarks, God’s grace isn’t to be taken advantage of. I most certainly believe that God’s grace works through baptism in ways that we cannot imagine. I am fully aware that it is not my place to know who is or who isn’t part of the invisible Church. If someone comes to me seeking baptism for their child, then I take that seriously every time; seriously enough to ensure that I build relationships with those people and show them God’s grace by empowering and enabling them with all the information they need to make an informed choice. A lot of the time we are battling a lot of folk religion, myths and legends, and it is appropriate for us to correct people when that presents itself. Good, proper teaching is a crucial impartation of God’s grace. But, as I said in my speech, we have used the grace of God as a cop out – and it hasn’t done us any favours whatsoever.
I am reminded of the words of Bonhoeffer:
The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of organised religion is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available at all too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale; we baptised, confirmed and absolved a whole nation without asking awkward questions, or insisting on strict conditions. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving. We poured forth unending streams of grace. But the call to follow Jesus was hardly ever heard. Where were those truths which impelled the early Church to institute the catechumenate, which enabled a strict watch to be kept over the frontier between the Church and the world, and afforded adequate protection for costly grace? … To baptise infants without bringing them up in the life of the Church is not only an abuse of the sacrament, it betokens a disgusting frivolity in dealing with the souls of the children themselves. For baptism can never be repeated.
~ D. Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1957), pp.47;179
… and no one can accuse Bonhoeffer of withholding God’s grace from those who sought it from him.