Thinking further about Baptism

What Bishop David says in his article.

In the ninth in the ‘Does the Bible Really Say…?’ series, Bishop David Gillett considers the question ‘Does the Bible Really Say…that Baptism Should be Withheld from Some People?’[1]

In his article Bishop David does not directly answer the question contained in the title. What he does instead is contrast the position of the Church of England with that of the Presbyterian Church of Ireland. The latter, he says ‘refuses baptism to those in a same sex marriage and to their children,’ whereas, in spite of the approach taken by some members of the clergy, the policy of the Church of England is that those in same-sex sexual relationships and their children should be admitted to baptism and that where there are two parents of the same sex they should both be listed as mothers or fathers in the baptism register.

According to Bishop David, the welcoming approach of the Church of England corresponds to something:

‘…. deep in the DNA of Christian faith that impels us to receive and welcome all who come to us – our first instinct is naturally to want to extend the loving welcome of God in Christ. Of course, in the baptism service itself, the godparents or the adult candidates will go on to make a profession of faith but this follows on from the wholehearted and sincere welcome which has first been extended – the kind of welcome that Jesus demonstrated when the disciples were minded to be exclusionary in their approach. Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs. (Matthew 19: 13f).’

It also, he writes:

‘… reflects the outcome of the quick thinking which no doubt Philip had to do when the Ethiopian Eunuch made his request for baptism– ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ In this case, as the enquirer was both a eunuch and a Gentile he did not fulfill the usual requirements to which Philip was accustomed. Many would have excluded him from full involvement in the worshiping community. In Philip’s eyes, following Jesus’ example, the Ethiopian’s difference was no bar to full inclusion. (Acts 8.26-40)’

The conclusion Bishop David reaches at the end of his article is that:

‘Many of us are frustrated by the Church of England’s ponderously slow and drawn out process of deciding on full equality for LGBTQ+ people. At times it can seem to many that there is a deliberate policy of delay in facilitating progress towards the eventual acceptance of equal marriage. However, in contrast, there is a clear acceptance that baptism is fully inclusive. Meanwhile we are in the ironic situation where baptism, the foundation sacrament within the Church, is open to all whereas lawfully married same sex couples are barred from both a church marriage and the possibility of ordination.

The hope and prayers of an increasing number from all traditions within the Church – be they catholic, reformed, liberal or evangelical, formal or informal – are focused on full equality for LGBTQ+ people in all sacraments and ordinances from baptism through the whole of life – for themselves, their partners and their ministries.’

How should we respond to what Bishop David says?

The current position of the Church of England.

To start off with, we have to acknowledge that what Bishop David says about the approach taken by the Church of England is factually correct. The House of Bishops has made clear in its statements on civil partnerships and same- sex marriage that being in a same-sex sexual relationship should not be a bar to baptism, and that likewise baptism cannot lawfully be refused to children for whom those in same-sex sexual relationships have parental responsibility.[2]

Paragraphs 23-25 of the 2005 document ‘Civil Partnerships – A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England’ state:

‘The House considers that lay people who have registered civil partnerships ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation and communion. Issues in Human Sexuality made it clear that, while the same standards apply to all, the Church did not want to exclude from its fellowship those lay people of gay or lesbian orientation who, in conscience, were unable to accept that a life of sexual abstinence was required of them and instead chose to enter into a faithful, committed relationship.

The Adoption Act 2003 allows for couples that are not married, opposite-sex and same-sex, to adopt children. The Civil Partnership Act includes legislation about children and reflects an expectation that some people who register civil partnerships will have children in their care. While the House of Bishops recognises many in the Church have reservations about these developments, we believe an unconditional welcome should be given to children in our churches, regardless of the structure of the family in which they are being brought up.

In relation to infant baptism, Canon B 22.4 makes it clear that, while baptism can be delayed for the purposes of instruction (including on marriage and the family), it cannot be refused. The responsibility for taking vows on behalf of the infant rests with the parents and godparents. Provided there is a willingness, following a period of instruction to give those vows, priests cannot refuse to baptise simply because those caring for the infant are not, in their view, living in accordance with the Church’s teaching.’[3]

Paragraphs 15-18 of the Appendix to ‘The House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage’ issued in 2014 draw on the 2005 document and reach the same conclusion. They state:

‘In Issues in Human Sexuality the House affirmed that, while the same standards of  conduct applied to all, the Church of England should not exclude from its fellowship those lay people of gay or lesbian orientation who, in conscience, were unable to accept that a life of sexual abstinence was required of them and who, instead, chose to enter into a faithful, committed sexually active relationship.

Consistent with that, we said in our 2005 pastoral statement that lay people who had registered civil partnerships ought not to be asked to give assurances about the nature of their relationship before being admitted to baptism, confirmation and holy communion, or being welcomed into the life of the local worshipping community more generally.

We also noted that the clergy could not lawfully refuse to baptize children on account of the family structure or lifestyle of those caring for them, so long as they and the godparents were willing to make the requisite baptismal promises following a period of instruction.

We recognise the many reasons why couples wish their relationships to have a formal status. These include the joys of exclusive commitment and also extend to the importance of legal recognition of the relationship. To that end, civil partnership continues to be available for same sex couples. Those same sex couples who choose to marry should be welcomed into the life of the worshipping community and not be subjected to questioning about their lifestyle. Neither they nor any children they care for should be denied access to the sacraments.‘[4]

Bishop David is also correct in what he says about the guidance given by the Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod in 2017 about what should be put in the Baptism register when two people of the same sex have a shared parental responsibility. The guidance says:

‘(a) the columns referring to fathers and mothers must be read as relating to those currently holding parental responsibility for the child, who may or may not be a biological parent (or in exceptional circumstances to those entitled to exercise the power under section 2(5) of the Children Act 1989);

(b)where persons of the same sex share parental responsibility their names should both be inserted in the same gender specific column, namely, Father’s name or Mother’s name.’[5]

However, the fact that Bishop David is factually correct about the position of the Church of England does not mean that that position is itself correct theologically. It may be, or it may or not be. It is to this issue we now turn.

Assessing the Church of England’s position.

In assessing the Church of England’s position we need to be clear at the outset that, according to the teaching of Holy Scripture, marriage is a relationship between one man and one woman, the sole legitimate place of sexual intercourse is within marriage, and that all forms of sexual intercourse outside marriage (including between two people of the same-sex) are what the Bible calls porneia, illicit sexual activity that renders someone unclean in the sight of God (Mark 7:21-23). The calling of Christians is to ‘glorify God in your body’ (1 Corinthians 6:20) and this involves refraining from all forms of porneia, including same-sex sexual activity.[6]

However, the question we need to consider in this article is not simply whether same-sexual activity is sinful, but whether someone may rightly be baptised if they are in same-sex sexual relationship themselves, or if they are a child for whom two people in a same-sex sexual relationship have parental responsibility.

We cannot resolve this latter issue simply by appealing to Jesus’ welcoming children in Matthew 19:13-15 or Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:36-38. Both of these passages indicate in general terms the importance of welcoming those who come forward for baptism, whether they are children or adults. However, neither of these passages address the specific issue we are interested in and, in fact, this issue is not specifically addressed anywhere in the Bible.

How, then, can we resolve it? What we have to do is to go back to first principles and look at the nature of baptism.

A good place to begin is the definition of baptism contained in the Catechism in the Book of Common Prayer. This runs as follows:

‘Question. What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?

Answer. Water: wherein the person is baptized, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

Question. What is the inward and spiritual grace?

Answer. A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.

Question. What is required of persons to be baptized?

Answer. Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and faith, whereby they steadfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that Sacrament.

If we unpack this definition, we find that at baptism a gift is given by God, the gift of death to sin and a new birth unto righteousness (John 3:1-8, Romans 6:1-11).’

In order for this gift to be given and received two things have to happen. (a) There needs to be baptism with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19) and (b) the person baptised needs to repent and believe (Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16). This repentance and faith is expressed formally through the promises made in the baptismal liturgy, but it is something that then needs to be lived out in the whole of someone’s life then and thereafter.

This understanding of baptism raises the obvious question of why it is right to baptise infants who are necessarily incapable of repentance and faith. This question is answered in the Catechism as follows:

‘Question. Why then are infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them?

Answer. Because they promise them both by their sureties: which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform.’

What this is saying is that when an infant is baptised those speaking on their behalf (their ‘sureties,’ today parents and godparents) make promises for them and the child then accepts and performs these promises when they are old enough to do so. In the language of the Book of Common Prayer confirmation service they thus ‘ratify and confirm’ the promises of repentance and faith made on their behalf.

What we now have to decide is how this understanding of baptism relates to the question of whether those who are in a same-sex sexual relationship, or children for whom those in a same-sex sexual relationship have parental responsibility, can properly be baptised.

Why the House of Bishops’ statements are unhelpful.

To start off with, we have to note that the reference made in both of the House of Bishops statements to what is said in Issues in Human Sexuality is unhelpful. These statements refer to paragraph 5.6 of Issues, which discusses lay people in same-sex relationships. This paragraph states:

‘At the same time there are others who are conscientiously convinced that this way of abstinence is not the best for them, and that they have more hope of growing in love for God and neighbour with the help of a loving and faithful homophile[7] partnership, in intention lifelong, where mutual self -giving includes the physical expression of their attachment. In responding to this conviction it is important to bear in mind the historic tension in Christian ethical thinking between the God given moral order and the freedom of the moral agent. While insisting that conscience needs to be informed in the light of that order, Christian tradition also contains an emphasis on respect for free conscientious judgment where the individual has seriously weighed the issues involved. The homophile is only one in a range of such cases. While unable, therefore, to commend the way of life just described as in itself as faithful a reflection of God’s purposes in creation as the heterophile,[8] we do not reject those who sincerely believe it is God’s call to them. We stand alongside them in the fellowship of the church, all alike dependent upon the undeserved grace of God.’ [9]

The problem with this paragraph is that it suggests that committed same-sex sexual relationships between lay people are acceptable in the Church because the people concerned sincerely believe in all good conscience that this is what is right for them. What the paragraph is saying, in effect, is that sincerity is enough to render a form of sexual behaviour acceptable within the life of the Church.

However, as Paul notes in 1 Corinthians 5:8, commenting precisely on the issue of sexual behaviour, the life of Christians has to be marked not by sincerity alone, but by ‘sincerity and truth.’ Christians not only need to be sincere in their behaviour (in the sense of acting in accordance with their convictions), but how they behave needs to be based on truth, the truth of how God created human beings to be. To put it another way, Christian behaviour needs to be marked by a sincere commitment to the objective truth of how people ought to behave.

The Issues paragraph detaches sincerity from truth and for this reason it is misleading. People may indeed sincerely believe that what God wills for them is that they should be in a same-sex sexual relationship, but this belief is contrary to the truth and does not render their behaviour any less sinful.[10]

We cannot say, therefore, that we can baptise people because their same-sex sexual behaviour really doesn’t matter since they believe that it is OK. We have to acknowledge that, whatever they think about the issue, their behaviour is sinful and that this sin matters.

What we also cannot say is that it is right to baptise the children of same-sex couples because Canon 22:4 gives no option in the matter. The bishops are right about what the Canon says. It is clear that the baptism of children may be delayed for instruction, but cannot be refused. However, this does not mean that the Canon is right.

So how should we assess whether it is right to baptise those in same-sexual relationships or the children for whom they are responsible? Should the nature of their relationship be viewed as in itself an absolute impediment to baptism?

Should a same sex-sexual relationship be seen as an absolute impediment to baptism?

Two different approaches to this issue are taken by those who accept the biblical teaching that same-sex sexual relationships are sinful.

Approach A

The first approach holds that the existence of a same-sex sexual relationship is an absolute impediment. This approach begins from the Anglican conviction, derived from the Bible, that baptism needs to involve repentance and faith. As we have already noted, this means that those who come to baptism need to not only ‘steadfastly believe the promises of God, made to them in that Sacrament’ but also ‘forsake sin’ since that is what repentance involves.

Those who are in a same-sex sexual relationship have not forsaken sin since they are still involved in it. Hence when they say in the baptism service that they repent ‘of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour’[11] they are not telling the truth. Their relationship show that they have not yet truly repented.

What follows from this is that someone in a same-sex sexual relationship may indeed receive the ‘outward visible sign’ of baptism. but their lack of repentance means that they will not receive the ‘inward spiritual grace.’ Furthermore, not only will they not receive the spiritual benefits promised to those who receive baptism rightly, but the perjury involved in saying that they repent when they do not will actually make their situation before God worse. Rather than their sin being taken away it will have been added to.

In addition, if a church allows someone to say that they repent of their sin while they are in same-sex sexual relationship this must mean that either the church holds that their relationship is not really sinful, or that this sin does not need to be repented of, neither of which are positions that a church should take. If a church says, as it should, that same-sex sexual relationships are sinful, then this means that a church must not baptise someone who is still in such a relationship.

With regard to the children for whom those in same-sex relationships have parental responsibility, the argument put forward by those who take this approach is that children share in the same covenant relationship with God as their parents. In the words of Archbishop Cranmer ‘they are participants in the same divine promise and covenant.’[12]

For those children whose parents are in a right relationship with God through repentance and faith this shared covenant relationship brings spiritual blessing. However, those in same-sex sexual relationships are not in a right relationship with God due to lack of repentance. It follows that baptising children for whom they are responsible would not only not make those children’s spiritual condition better, but would actually make it worse, since they would then be implicated in the false promise of repentance made on their behalf.

Furthermore, since those living in same-sex sexual relationships will bring up children to believe that such relationships are not sinful, these children’s alienation from God will be increased as they grow older and come to accept this belief for themselves. If a church does not address the issue of the sinfulness of same-sex relationships by saying no to a request for baptism it will be conniving with this downward trajectory.

The last point that needs to be noted, is that those who take this approach would never simply tell those in same-sex relationships to go away. They would do their best to welcome them and their children and they would use the period of instruction allowed under Canon B22:4 to work with them to help them reach a position where they were no longer in a same-sex sexual relationship and so the impediment to baptism would no longer exist.

Approach B

The second approach holds that the existence of a same sex-sexual relationship is not an absolute impediment to baptism.

To take the issue of the baptism of adults first, those who take this second approach would agree that same-sex sexual relationships are sinful and that those in such relationships should be encouraged to cease being in them. However, they would say that there are number of reasons why this fact should not prevent people who are still in such relationships being baptized.

First, it is argued, those who are in same-sex sexual relationships need to be baptised (just like anyone else) and that they can be baptised in the sense that they can receive baptism with water in the name of the Trinity and make the baptismal promises.

Secondly, because only God can see the secrets of people’s hearts, we are not in a position to say that someone who is in a same-sex sexual relationship (or anyone else) is not sincere in their desire to be baptised, or their willingness to make the baptismal promises. Having made sure that people have been instructed about the meaning of baptism and the seriousness of the promises they will make, we have to take people at their word, as we do, for example, when people make their wedding vows.

Thirdly, we cannot say that because someone has not yet turned away from sin in one area of their life then any profession of repentance that they make is therefore insincere. All of us that we have areas of our life in which we do not yet live as we should (see 1 John 1:8-10). However, this does not mean that our repentance and faith are not real. None of us are without sin now and none of us will ever be without sin this side of eternity. If repentance involving total freedom from sin was a prerequisite for baptism then no one would ever be reach the stage where they could be baptised. It is therefore unjust to single out a special category of sexual sinner and say they cannot be baptised while other sinners can be.

Fourthly, looking at the same point from a different angle, it is sometimes suggested that if adults who are in a same-sex sexual relationship are baptised this means that the Church is in some way endorsing their sexual behaviour. This is not the case. Baptism is not a merit mark for godly behaviour. The reason people are baptised is not because they are good and therefore deserving of a reward, but because they not good and need God’s grace given in baptism in order to become good.

if the members of a church think baptising someone in a same-sex sexual relationship is an endorsement of their behaviour then this a reason for giving them further instruction about the meaning of baptism. It is not a reason for not baptising the person concerned.

Fifthly, as John Bunyan makes clear in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the Christian life is a journey from this life to the next in which we are meant to grow in holiness of life through the grace of God and prayers, guidance and support of our Christian brothers and sisters. If we feel (as we should) that someone in a same-sex sexual relationship, or anyone else, needs to grow in holiness of life then we need to get them started on the Christian journey and this means encouraging them to be baptised rather than refusing them baptism.

Moving on to the issue of the baptism of children, those who take this second approach would say that there are also a number of reasons why it is right to baptise children for whom those in same sex sexual relationships have parental responsibility.

First, these children need the gift God offers in baptism just as much as any other child. They too need to die with Christ and rise to new life in him. This means we have an obligation to baptise them if this is at all possible.[13]

Secondly, there is no reason why it is impossible to baptise such children:

  • They can receive baptism with water in the name of the Trinity;
  • The baptismal promises can be made on their behalf by their sureties;
  • They can ratify and confirm those promises when they reach the years of discretion and live a baptised life of repentance and faith.

Thirdly, it is not the cases that baptising a child involves affirming the status of the relationship between the adults who are responsible for them. Infant baptism is about the relationship between a particular child and God, not the about relationship between the adults who are responsible for them.

Fourthly, just as the moral unworthiness of the minister who performed a baptism would not hinder its spiritual efficacy [14] so also the moral unworthiness of those speaking for a child at their baptism would not hinder its spiritual efficacy either. What matters for the efficacy of baptism is that the promises are objectively made and that the child concerned ratifies and confirms them when they are old enough to do so.

Fifthly, the idea that a child would be implicated in any sin committed by those adults who took part in their baptism goes against the clear biblical teaching that people are responsible for their own sins and not for the sins of others. ‘The soul that sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son; the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself’ (Ezekiel 18:20).

Finally, we cannot know for certain how any couple with parental responsibilities (whether in a same-sex relationship or otherwise) will bring up a child. However, what we do know is that if baptism is refused a child will definitely not be brought up to ratify and confirm the baptismal promises for themselves since they will never have been made.

It should be noted that taking position B, like those taking position A, would use the time of instruction allowed under Canon B22:4 to explain to those seeking baptism why same-sex sexual relationships are incompatible with faithful Christian discipleship.

It should also be noted that approach B would not involve accepting godparents who were in same-sex sexual relationships. Canon B 23:2 states: ‘The godparents shall be persons who will faithfully fulfil their responsibilities by their care for the children committed to their charge and by the example of their own godly living.’

Those in same-sex sexual relationships cannot not provide an example of ‘godly living’ and for this reason must be regarded as disqualified from being godparents.

The issue of what goes in the baptism register.

For those who take approach A, the issue of who should be listed as parents in the baptism register simply does not arise.

For those who take approach B, the question of what should go in baptism registers when two people of the same sex have parental responsibility is a legal rather than a theological issue. However much they may feel that children should have two parents of the opposite sex, the fact is that there are same-sex couples who have shared parental responsibility for children and who are therefore legally their mothers or fathers. What goes in the baptism register merely reflects this legal reality. It does not endorse the family situation involved.

Conclusion.

The current position of the Church of England is to baptise both adults in same-sex sexual relationships and children for whom parents in same-sex sexual relationships have parental responsibility.

As we have seen, the argument put forward by the House of Bishops that the sincerity of the convictions of lay people in same-sex relationships justifies the current practice is unconvincing. We have to start from the basis that, whatever those in same-sex sexual relationships believe, such relationships are objectively sinful.

As we have also seen, those who start from this basis take two different approaches to the question of whether those in same-sex sexual relationships, or the children for whom they are responsible, can rightly be baptised.

What those in the Church of England need to do is think carefully about which of these positions is the correct one so that an agreed position can be developed which reflects biblical truth. Both approaches involve potentially serious spiritual consequences if they are wrong, and so we cannot say it does not matter which one the Church of England follows. The truth about the issue matters and so we need to reach agreement about what the truth is.

It should be noted, however, that even if approach B is the correct approach the reasons for holding it have absolutely nothing to do with theological acceptance of same-sex sexual relationships or support for same-sex marriage.

This means that contrary to what is said by Bishop David, there is nothing ‘ironic’ about the fact that baptism ‘is open to all whereas lawfully married same sex couples are barred from both a church marriage and the possibility of ordination.’ The Church of England would being perfectly consistent if it continued to say in accordance with approach B that it will baptise people who are in same-sex sexual relationships and those children for whom they have a parental responsibility, but that it will not ordain or marry them.

[1] David Gillett, Does the Bible Really Say…that Baptism Should be Withheld from Some People?’, 12 July,

2019, at https://viamedia.news/2019/07/12/does-the-bible-really-say-that-baptism-should-be-withheld-from some-people/.

[2] Human biology means that no child has two biological parents of the same sex, what is possible however, is for two people of the same sex to have legal parental responsibility for a child.

[3] House of Bishops, ‘Civil Partnerships-A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England’, 2005, at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-11/House%20of%20Bishops%20Statement%20on%20Civil%20Partnerships%202005.pdf.

[4] House of Bishops, ‘House of Bishops Pastoral Guidance on Same Sex Marriage,’ 2014 at  https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/news/house-bishops-pastoral-guidance-same-sex-marriage.

[5] The Legal Advisory Commission of the General Synod, ‘Baptism of Children: Parental Responsibility and Same Sex Couples,’ 2017, at https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2017-12/registration%20of%20baptisms%20final.pdf.

[6] For the evidence to support this point see Brown, Gagnon and Ian Paul, Same Sex Unions – The Key Biblical Texts (Cambridge: Grove Books, 2014).

[7] ‘Homophile’ here means ‘homosexual’

[8] ‘Heterophile’ here means ‘heterosexual.’

[9] The House of Bishops, Issues in Human Sexuality (London: Church House Publishing, 1991), p. 41.

[10] It is interesting to note that the subsequent paragraphs of Issues in Human Sexuality (5.7-5.10) the question of respect for conscientious conviction disappears in relation to bisexuality, promiscuous same-sex relationships and paedophilia. These are seen as wrong in all circumstances with nothing being said about the possible conscientious convictions of the people involved. What Issues never explains is why conscienceshould be respected in relation to some forms of behaviour and not others.

[11] Common Worship, Holy Baptism, the Decision.

[12] Thomas Cranmer, Reformatio Legum Ecclesiasticarum 2:18 in Gerald Bray (ed), Tudor Church Reform (Woodbridge: Boydell Press/Church of England Record Society), 20005). p.201.

[13] It is because it is important to baptise children if at all possible that the rubric for infant baptism in the Book of Common Prayer and Canon B22 both prohibit a minister from refusing to baptise an infant within their cure. This would include refusing to baptise a child because of their family circumstances.

[14] See Article XXVI.

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