Old story, new life: Thoughts on baptism

Abp York baptism

I was asked to give a brief talk on baptism and the Book of Common Prayer over the weekend. For context, the conversation at the gathering included, among other things, whether we need to rethink the theology, function, and implications of baptism. Here’s what I said.

In the summer of 2016, I was busy writing a book on Episcopal beliefs and practices. Curious what ideas might be floating around in the church, I crowdsourced several topics on Facebook. Regarding baptism, I asked people, “What do you think is happening when we baptize someone?”

Though I thought I had prepared myself for likely responses, I was shocked. Many people — both laity and clergy — said “nothing happens.” Others said, “It is merely a public recognition of God’s love for us. Baptism can’t change anything.” Granted, a few people did offer answers that were more in line with what our prayer book and our tradition say, but they were the minority voice.

This confirmed what I have long thought. We have a catechetical crisis in our church. Vast swaths of our laity and not a few clergy are unable to articulate even the most rudimentary understanding of either baptism or eucharist. And if we can’t understand or teach the sacraments of new life and nourishment, it’s no wonder our church withers and the world does not hear the saving invitation to know Jesus Christ.

Our catechetical crisis is particularly disturbing because our prayer book could not be more clear about the function and meaning of baptism and eucharist. Indeed, our entire prayer book offers us a remarkable baptismal ecclesiology — a beautiful ecosystem in which all ministry and Christian identity springs from the waters of the baptismal font.

It’s difficult to separate baptism and eucharist, but as this is a gathering focused on baptism, allow me to just say some fairly obvious things our prayer book teaches us about baptism. The catechism says, 

Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God. 


The inward and spiritual grace in Baptism is union with Christ in his death and resurrection, birth into God’s family the Church, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit. 

Let’s pause here and say a few things about four aspects of grace conferred in baptism.

  1. Union with Christ in his death and resurrection. There it is, the Paschal mystery. And, yet, I rarely hear mention of the Paschal mystery, let alone sermons about it. Perhaps, if we want to recover some sense of baptismal identity, we would do well to heed St. Paul’s advice a bit more often and preach Christ, and him crucified.
  2. Birth into God’s family the Church. Here, the question of “Are you born again?” is settled. Yes, we are born again in our baptism. And in that birth, we are adopted into Christ’s body, the church. It is puzzling to me why some of us continue to wonder about the markers of whether someone is inside our outside the church, when our liturgy and our teaching are so clear. (As an aside, we should absolutely care for and minister to those outside the church, following the example of our Lord Jesus. He fed the multitudes. But he also had high expectations of those who had committed to be his disciples.)
  3. Forgiveness of sins. The slate is wiped clean in baptism. To say this is to acknowledge that our slate was covered with sins in the first place. I mention this because a priest I know was recently chastised by her rector for mentioning “sin” in a sermon. “Don’t use that word,” the rector said, “use ‘shortcomings’ instead. It is so off-putting to talk about sin.” If we cannot see our sins, we cannot see our need of redemption. And if we cannot see our need of redemption, it is not surprising that baptism is reduced to a token rite of passage.
  4. New life in the Holy Spirit. Here we are reminded that baptism is both by water and by the fire of the Holy Spirit. How can anyone say “nothing is happening” in baptism when the cleansing fire of the Holy Spirit descends upon the newly baptized, offering new life in the grace of the Holy Spirit?

Not only does our prayer book insist that something life-changing and world-changing is happening in baptism, but the entire prayer book offers an ecosystem founded in baptismal ecclesiology. You can see it manifest nearly anywhere you look.

When the ministers of the church are listed, in order from greatest to least, the order is “lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” Read around the rubrics very much, and it is clear that the laity are foundational ministers. Those in holy orders are called into particular ministries in the church, but they are not the rulers; if anything, they are the servants of the laity.

Our ordination services emphasize the baptismal ecclesiology in that whether one is to be ordained bishop, priest, or deacon, one arrives clothed as a baptized lay person. Gone are the old days of making deacons, ordering priests, and consecrating bishops. Every deacon, priest, and bishop is ordained and consecrated. (Our canons haven’t quite caught up with that baptismal vision yet.)

All those who are baptized are taking on the mantle of Christ’s priesthood, but they are also incurring obligations to practice costly discipleship. It is mind-boggling to me that we quote the  baptismal promise to “respect the dignity of every human being” but we fail to teach people what it means to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” I cannot comprehend how we can ask people to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” without also empowering people to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” And the rector who chastened a priest for mentioning sin has forgotten the promise to “persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.”

To recover a sense of what baptism might mean for us as individuals or as a church — to, as it were, plunge into this great sacrament — we need to understand the complete transformation that confers new life when people are baptized. We need to teach the costly discipleship and abundant joy that comes with life in Christ. We need to be clear about who is in the church and who is not. This is not to exclude people, but quite the opposite; we must, rather, know exactly who we must serve and then invite to know Jesus Christ. 

I am reminded of two baptisms I witnessed last autumn.

Immersion fontTraveling in a major city in southeast Asia, I witnessed the baptism of a young couple. They had been in this city for business, and had come into contact with Christianity. On the verge of converting, they realized that becoming Christian would cause them to be rejected by their families and put their very lives at risk back home. Still, they became refugees and choose Jesus, losing homeland, family, and job. When it was time for their baptism, the whole congregation traipsed outside and we prayed together before they were plunged into a full immersion font. There were no weak symbols, there was no questions about what we were doing, and there was no holding back from the realization that we were witnessing a new birth — utter transformation.

A couple of weeks later, back in the states, I saw a young child baptized. The family weren’t regulars in a church, and they were visibly unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the liturgy. When it was time for the baptism, a shell was brought out, and a few drops of water were poured onto the baby’s head over a small bowl. Photographers were more visible than either celebrant or new Christian. The symbols were, pardon me, watered down. Not only was there no clear marker about what a new life might look like, but I’m not sure the family has been back to church since. Though I am confident God’s grace was present, what we witnessed that day seemed mostly intended as a photo op.

We should see more baptisms like the first and fewer like the second. The Gospel demands it and the world needs it. 

I don’t think we need to tell a brand new story about baptism or baptismal ministry. Instead, we need to reclaim the old story that we have been telling for a long time. It begins in creation, it continues through the Red Sea, it is manifest in the Jordan River, it finds energy in the martyrs of the early church, continues in those who subverted empire to live a Christlike life, and continues to this very day. The story of God’s liberating grace offered in the sacrament of baptism may have been co-opted, but, like us, that sacred story can be redeemed.

Our prayer book sets out just what we need, a rich baptismal ecclesiology, a vision of lives and communities transformed by the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We’ve dipped out toe into this world. Let’s go further. It’s time for us to plunge into an old story and a new life with Jesus Christ.

1. Archbishop of York doing annual immersion baptisms at Eastertide via Psephizo.
2. Immersion font from southeast Asia. Photo by yours truly.

You may also like...

11 Responses

  1. revdavidbailey says:

    I have on two occasions baptized persons before their marriages, and taught them that their baptism was the most important sacrament.

  2. Sarah Lawton says:

    Scott, your characterization of where we’re at as a church has not been my experience, sincerely.

    Your timing is apt for me–I was a sponsor for an adult baptisand just this morning–unusual timing for a baptism, as we usually schedule them around the four big baptism Sundays and plan a catechism program around those. We’re sort of a California-style urban Anglo-Catholic congregation, so we like to stick to our ways (!). But there were good reasons for the timing today.

    I had been talking with this person about baptism and what it means to be a Christian for about five years. When he decided to do it, and it became clear that this date was the right one, one of our priests undertook to meet with him as well to explain and discuss what he was committing to. When Adam said the responses today, it was with a firm and clear voice. For all of the responses. The congregation’s responses were also firm. I gave him a prayerbook, and we looked at it and talked about the daily office, and the psaltery, and the catechism.

    Are we unusual? As Christians in community, we find ourselves giving away money we didn’t expect to, with joy, for all kinds of projects for the neighborhood and the world. We use our space every day to house and feed people, and we give our time to vigil in the public square and sometimes more time for jail when civil disobedience is called for. I mean, it’s not like being a Christian is the normal thing anymore. At least around here, in San Francisco. From where I’m sitting in the choir, the commitment to discipleship seems clear, and so does the baptismal and Eucharistic connection to that discipleship. We follow Jesus. We’re baptized into life and death and resurrection with Jesus, whom we remember and rejoin in the Eucharist.

    What am I missing here? Honest question. I’m not trying to sound like my congregation has got it all together (Lord knows, and Kyrie Eleison, and please pray for us). We are in many ways a congregation of people who have been broken – by AIDS, by grief, by substance abuse, by all kinds of things, including all kinds of sinfulness. Most commonly, we irritate each other, you know? And things fray at the edges. But we come together as we are, knowing that we need God’s loving-kindness and mercy, all of us, every single one of us. Then we try to bring the invitation to love and mercy and forgiveness to our neighbors locally and in world, as best we can, in word and deed. We’re just a small group, but the commitment to a holy and sacramental life of discipleship seems pretty clear. Even though we fall short of the mark quite regularly. What am I missing?

    • Scott Gunn says:

      Sarah, your congregation may well be an exception to the trend. As evidence for the trend, I would point to RenewalWorks data and other sources which transcend individual anecdote. That is, the plural of anecdote is not data, though the anecdotes may well be true.

      My experience — and data — suggest that when congregations have embraced a baptismal identity and have been well formed, growth in numbers will be the result, barring leadership problems or systemic conflict, etc.

      Anyway, I am truly delighted to hear that your church offers a culture of discipleship. Treasure it. It is not common in our church.

      • Sarah Lawton says:

        Thanks for the response. I know anecdata is not data. And I follow the trends, including adult baptism trends. I’m just having trouble with the idea that any of our churches would baptize anyone without doing the preparation about what it means, as a life commitment.

        • Scott Gunn says:

          Sorry if my tone wasn’t clear. I meant it to be congenial — and to affirm the wonderful things happening in your church.

          As evidence for our collective, overall failure to do a good job with baptismal identity and practice, I look at the attendance trends for our church. Annual, steady decline — which will be precipitous in just a few years. The good news (pun intended?) is that it’s easy to reverse!

          As further evidence, I look at the number of congregations which omit the confession regularly, as if we all don’t need to repent every day. There are other liturgical examples. Or the fact that most Episcopal congregations offer zero adult formation. And so on.

          Anyway, thank you for the comment and the conversation. I hope to visit your church one day.

  3. Bishop Daniel Martins says:

    I have no doubt that what you describe is pervasive in TEC. I am grateful that it has generally not been my experience, either in parish ministry or as a bishop. FWIW, I think the single most important indicator of church vitality in the coming decades will be the number of adult baptisms.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      I agree about the importance of adult baptisms as an indicator. I also think that growth in attendance is often an indicator of a congregation that has embraced its baptismal identity. And there’s not much of that in our church, alas.

  4. Catherine says:

    Scott, thank you for your words. I, too, have experienced some of what you have in a lack of instruction prior to baptism (no one ever talked to us before or asked us any questions) and that the word “sin” has fallen into disfavor. Really? In any case, I am working on some educational materials to help us live into our baptismal vows as part of my D.Min project. (May I quote this article?) I have found some helpful essays in “Drenched in Grace,” and find particularly meaningful J. Neil Alexander’s essay on practical ecclesiology and Frank Griswold’s essay on baptismal spirituality. Again, thank you for your contribution to an important topic.

  5. Adam B at CalvaryPGH says:

    I can’t say that I disagree, Rev. Gunn, but I feel like you’re trying to give me an algorithm. Give me poetry instead.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      My aim wasn’t poetry for this talk, but there’s some lovely language in the baptismal service in our BCP. Page 299 and onward.

      Thanks for your comment. Stop by any time.

%d bloggers like this: