Why does the Church of England website give an inadequate account of baptism?

Yesterday I was in an email discussion with someone about the Church of England’s view of baptism and my attention was drawn to the material on baptism on the Church of England website.

As we all know, websites are now the first port of call for anyone wanting to find out more about a particular organization, in this case the Church of England. This means that if an ordinary member of the public wants to find out what the Church of England believes about baptism they will naturally turn to the information on baptism on the Church of England website. If they do this, however, they will be misinformed.

There are two sections on the Church of England website dealing with baptism.

The first section is entitled ‘Adult Baptism.’ Its account of what baptism is states:

‘Baptism is a response to God’s love – a desire and a commitment to respond to God’s call to follow the example of Jesus Christ. It is also a celebration, a time to come together with family and friends; remembering that you are loved by God, are part of a wider community and have a place with God’s people.’[1]

The second is entitled ‘Christenings for Children.’ This provides a link to a site called ‘First Steps on an Amazing Journey’ which gives two accounts of what baptism is. The first, in the subsection ‘What is Christening?,’ declares ‘During a christening your child will be baptized with water. It’s the start of an amazing journey of faith for your child and a special day for all your friends and family.’ The second, in the subsection ‘What happens at a Christening?,’ declares that baptism with water is ‘a sign of a new beginning and becoming a part of God’s family.’ [2]

The problem with these accounts of baptism is not that what they say is wrong, but that they fail to give a full account of what baptism is about.

The authoritative Church of England account of what baptism is can be found in Article XXVII of the Thirty Nine Articles. This states:

‘Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christian men are discerned from other that be not christened, but is also a sign of regeneration or new birth, whereby, as by an instrument, they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church; the promises of the forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God, by the Holy Ghost are visibly signed and sealed; faith is confirmed, and grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God. ‘

The first key point about this account of baptism is that it views baptism in ‘instrumental’ terms. What this means is that in baptism God conveys something to the person who is baptized through the work of the Holy Spirit. When it says that through baptism certain things are ‘by the Holy Ghost are visibly signed and sealed’ this means that God actually bestows them on the person baptized just as traditionally the signature and seal on a legal document bestowed money, property or other benefits on its recipient.

If we ask what the things are which God bestows the answer is that God bestows new birth (John 3:5, Titus 3:5), membership of his people, the Church (Romans 11:17-24, 1 Corinthians 12:13), forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), adoption as God’s children (Galatians 3:26-27), confirmation of faith and an increase of grace.

When the article says that ‘faith is confirmed and, grace increased by virtue of prayer unto God’ the point is that the recollection of what God has already given at baptism leads to prayer to God for further blessing which in turn leads to God granting an increase in faith and a growth in grace in the life of the believer.

It is also important to note that according to Article XXVII the benefits of baptism are only effective in the lives of those who receive baptism rightly. ‘Rightly’ here does not mean that the right acts have been performed in the sense of the candidate being baptised with water in the name of the Trinity. What it means is that those who have been baptised must receive rightly what God has given to them and what this involves is explained in the Prayer Book Catechism in which the question ‘What is required of persons to be baptized?’ is given the answer ‘Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in the Sacrament.’

Baptism gives the person baptised God’s gifts of new life, membership of the Church, forgiveness of sins and adoption as God’s child, but in order to be fruitful these gifts have to be received and the way they are received is through repentance and faith. In the case of an adult being baptised repentance and faith are present at the time of baptism and in the case of an infant they follow on from baptism as the infant is brought up as a Christian and learns how they need to respond to what God has done for therm.

What is currently said about baptism on the Church of England website simply does not do justice to the teaching about baptism given in Article XXVII and the Prayer Book Catechism . Specifically, it does not make it clear that God is the primary actor in baptism and that baptism is the instrument through which he acts, it does not say anything about new birth, the forgiveness of sins, the confirmation of faith, or the increase of grace and it is silent about the need for baptism to be rightly received. Furthermore, there is no link to the Church of England’s historic statements of faith so that visitors to the website can read the Church’s official teaching about baptism for themselves.

If it is said that these are ideas which are just too difficult for website readers to make sense of, the answer is that there are plenty of people around who understand accepted Church of England teaching and can convey it accessibly in contemporary terms (as generations of Anglican clergy have done when preparing people for baptism and confirmation). It is just a matter of asking them to overhaul the website material.

In summary, this section of the Church of England website needs to be revised to give a more accurate picture of what the Church of England actually believes about baptism and questions need to be asked about who vets what is put up on the website.

Endless trouble is taken over the authorization of liturgical material because this is the public expression of what the Church believes. Why isn’t similar trouble taken over authorizing what is on the Church’s website since this is just as much a public declaration of the Church’s faith?



[1] https://www.churchofengland.org/weddings-baptisms-funerals/baptism.aspx.

[2] https://churchofenglandchristenings.org/for-parents/.

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