The Revd Wyn Beynon


A sermon preached on Sunday 18th May 2014 at Stock & Bradley Green and Feckenham

I want to put you in mind of your baptism.

The chances are that you probably don't remember your baptism. Most of us I guess were far too young. I was born in a September and baptised in the November, just around 8 weeks old. But it may be that there are some here who were baptised, as we used to say, in “riper years”.

I've baptised many older children and adults over the years and it is a very special thing to do. Though special in the sense of being a little different, but not more important. Baptism simply is equally important, all by itself, whether of a infant or of an an older person.

You are aware that from time to time I make very caustic remarks about the institution of the Church of England. The institution is “sick unto death”, as the King James version might say. But I say “Hallelujah! Things must die before they rise again.”

During the late twentieth century a shift occurred in the Church of England. That’s no surprise, there are always shifts occurring in the Church! But I’m thinking of a particular shift. Where until then the majority of clergy and bishops would have understood themselves to be Anglican in their theological outlook, low church folk (we used to call them Evangelicals, but that's too diverse a term these days) and high church folk (still called Anglo-Catholics by some) gained confidence in their voices.

The problem that Anglicans set themselves is trying to be inclusive, accommodating and comprehensive. So we want the Church of England to be a broad church, allowing people with very different views and different ways of expressing our faith a space to be themselves. Ignorant people mistake this for woolliness, which it is most certainly is not.

But I want to put you in mind of your baptism.

However in the 1970s too many open hearted Anglicans lost confidence in faith itself and drifted off to be social workers and politicians (OK I'm exaggerating, but only a bit). But those that were left got the church to adopt the remarriage of divorcees, and the ordination of women, and a root and branch revamping of our liturgy. These were huge changes which would have our great grandparents spinning in their graves. Oddly, the remarriage of divorcees was more acceptable to the conservatives that you might have assumed. The liturgical change was largely welcomed across the board. The ordination of women, however, came in with a vast amount of acrimony and the scene was set for where we are now with the recent débâcle over women Bishops.

The low church (or as I tend to call them, Puritans) were gaining in confidence. In 1967 there was a conference held at Keele University  where all the Evangelicals in England came together. Martyn Lloyd Jones was their leader and a non-conformist who urged Church of England evangelicals to leave an increasingly liberal church. Another great evangelical leader was John Stott. He was Rector of All Souls Langham Place and he disagreed strongly with Lloyd Jones and urged the CofE evangelicals to stay and work within the church. And they did. And they have been increasing influential ever since. Many of our clergy, Bishops and Archdeacons are from that sort of background, not least of course our Archbishop. Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha course is the most well known expression of this kind of Christianity within the Church of England.  Archbishop  Justin would, I guess, describe himself as an "open evangelical", working hard to remain true to that particular nature of the evangelical understanding of Christian faith but not being exclusive of other traditions. And I have no problem with that. The Church of England can be whatever it wants. It can adopt a very evangelical theology, or it can adopt a very Anglo-Catholic theology. And both those traditions have done important and good things. It was the Low Church folk like Wilberforce who pushed through the abolition of slavery. It was the High Church folk who, as much as anyone, got social justice on to the Church agenda. We have much to be grateful for.

But I want to put you in mind of your baptism.

But there was something else going on. If you remember the heady days of the 1960s you have, in reality, a kaleidoscope of memories. There was much good, bad and indifferent in all that social upheaval. One of those shifts was in our attitude to childhood. In an increasingly individualistic society children became a problem. Just as the cast of the musical Hair was singing, “I've got life”, and the Rolling Stones became Street Fighting Men and the Beatles urged us that all we needed was love, what was actually happening was that society from privileging ME over YOU in a new way.

So having dependent little people was a problem. Benjamin Spock, rightly or wrongly, was believed to be telling parents to let their children be free of too many disciplines and restraints.  (What he really meant is another argument!) So we taught the child that they were on their own, just little adults who needed not to be educated, but gain qualifications to  be economically useful. In schools that idea turned into "child centred" education, and from that, all the subsequent confusions imposed on schools, teachers and, of course, children.

But I want to put you in mind of your baptism.

Up until the 1960s the Baptism liturgy of the Church of England was that of the Book of Common Prayer where the Church, through the Priest, asked Godparents to speak for their children. The Baptismal revisions of the 60s and 70s reflected exactly the ambivalence that society was showing. So in the late 60s the Baptism revision called "Series One" does NOT actually refer to the child at all! It virtually ignores their presence and speaks just to the parents and Godparents. In the Book of Common Prayer the child is the SUBJECT of baptism. From the 1960s to 2002, liturgically, the child is the OBJECT of baptism.

The good news is that the Common Worship baptism is a liturgy in which parents and Godparents again act vicariously  for their children. "You speak for them today", the Priest says. In other words it's counter cultural. In a world where we speak for ourselves, parents and Godparents speak for someone else. Individualism is put over and against a corporate existence.

When we are baptised we are incorporated. We are put in with each other. The individualism of our age is challenged.

That is an Anglican understanding, and it is enshrined in our liturgy. Evangelicalism has habit of personalising everything to point where no one can have vicarious faith, although scripture is full of the vicariously faithful! The Book of Common Prayer was Anglican. The Church of England was deliberately built on Anglicanism. There have always been Puritans, and we know what a disaster the Civil War and the period of Parliament was back in the 1600s

We are in danger of the Church of England changing its nature. And that's fine. It can be whatever its members want it to be. But let's not sleep walk away from our Anglican roots and foundations. Let's do it deliberately. Or better still not at all.

I want to put you in mind of your baptism.

You were Baptized into Christ. By grace, surrounded by and upheld by the faith of others. You are not on your own. And versions of Christianity that tell you that you are are inadequate, at least. The Church of England and Anglicanism are not the same. But maybe they should be.