The baptism of infants

John Masding on the history of infant baptism in the Church

 

Baptism was commanded by our Lord in his parting words, as St Matthew records them; and St John tells us that, although Jesus did not himself baptize, his disciples did. So from the beginnings of the Faith the effectual sign that has marked the change in the shape of the lives of Christians (Rom. 12.2 Tyndale/Coverdale/The Great Bible 1539, as printed in 1549 BCP), the metamorphosis, as the Greek has it, has been Christian baptism.

Baptism has been ever deemed so necessary to the Christian, although it was allowed that martyrs might be considered to have been baptized in their own blood, that in the early Church there was much debate about whether, in emergency, a woman might baptize.

St Augustine was able, too, to take from the long-prevailing practice of infant baptism, that is to say, the baptism of those who could have committed no sin, his knock-down argument for the existence of original sin – since otherwise there would have been in such baptism nothing to be forgiven and washed away in the waters of regeneration.

Free

Because baptism is regarded, and always has been so regarded, as generally necessary for salvation, it must be, like grace itself, free. It would appear that in the corruption of the Church fees and charges were sometimes levied, in the supposed name of local custom; and so the Baptismal Fees Abolition Act 1872 made it plain that no fee could be demanded. The asking of a fee would be an ecclesiastical offence. Since a certificate is unnecessary, the table of fees prescribes a certificate fee: but the usual coloured card, so often given, and attractive, is not such a certificate.

However, should the minister so desire, a collection may be taken, and, if it is, it is jointly at the disposal of the incumbent and PCC; so that it would not be lawful to take a collection in church for, say, a children’s hospital,

unless both had assented beforehand. In passing, one may note that the same is true of marriages and funerals, of confirmations, and of the Women’s World Day of Prayer.

It is unlawful for a minister to refuse baptism. A parishioner always has the right of baptism in his or her parish church, and, in a parish where there are several parish churches, each of which should have its own register, in one of them. A parish church may have more than one font, and the choice is the minister’s, although if he is wise he will discuss the matter with the family. No font may be used as a flower bowl.

Parents and godparents

The minister may, it seems, delay baptism (if it is safe to do so) for the purpose of instructing parents or godparents. The law is less than clear on the subject of what delay is reasonable, and it is here suggested that reasonableness in all the circumstances must be the test. Such a delay must not amount to refusal. Baptism may be conducted by a bishop, as often in the early Church, when dioceses were the size of our parishes; and in any event a priest or deacon – not a reader or churchwarden – should, according to canon law, officiate.

Writing as one who has conducted thousands of baptisms, I have observed varying degrees of enthusiasm for what is taking place, and varying participation, by godparents, parents and congregation. The reciting of the Lord’s Prayer is perhaps an acid test. As a Trustee of the Prayer Book Society, I must also point out that the modern services of baptism have made things more difficult, with the demands put to, and promises expected from, the parents as well as the godparents. Let

us be very clear. The parents’ consent in bringing the child to baptism is enough. The Book of Common Prayer has responses in the Order of Baptism for godparents, the gossips of even older language, but none at all for the parents. Neither is the charge at the end of the service specifically, or at all, directed to them.

Compelling

When I administered Holy Baptism in one of the chapels of Durham Castle, the Master of University College kindly providing a vast silver bowl in lieu of any regular font therein, there was a French family as well as an English one. The Book of Common Prayer has been elegantly and well translated into French, yet another advantage of its use – it does what it does, and does it well.

Christian grandparents may well, with the assent of the not-really-sure, or atheist, parents – or perhaps one believes and one does not – be able therefore to bring a child to baptism, so long as the requirement for at least two godparents, normally three or more, is met.

Baptism should not be carried out with a grudging and resentful air by the minister. I heard of one who, finding the collection he had taken, in the service rather than at the door, small, hurled it after the departing congregation.

Baptism is to be a wonderful, attractive and compelling, family occasion, with lots of the elements of our native religion, yes; yet magnificently exemplary of the free grace of the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. If the minister is able, invited, to go to the family home afterwards, let him rejoice. Having baptized a little two-year-old girl, whom I sat on the edge of the font, and who said ‘Thank you’ after my Amen, I went to tea next door afterwards, and she kept bringing little friends up to me, and saying, ‘He baptized me’. There is rejoicing in heaven... ‘suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not.’ ND

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