Baptism: Sin, Sacrament, Sacrilege and Salvation
by Philip Jones
‘Baptism, where it may be had, is necessary to salvation’ (Church in Wales Prayer Book 1984, rubric)
Protestantism started from a deep consciousness of sin. Of course, human beings commit grave actual sins, but the problem is worse than that. The whole human race, the human condition per se, is innately sinful. It suffers from original sin, also called birth sin. Article 9 sternly teaches that ‘in every person born into this world, it [birth sin] deserveth God’s wrath and damnation’, even though a new-born baby is incapable of actual sin.
The remedy for this seemingly hopeless condition is faith, faith in the redeeming love of God. Article 11 is reassuring: ‘that we are justified by faith only (sola fide) is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort …’.
Yet the comfortable doctrine created a difficulty. If human beings are saved by faith alone, then baptism and the other sacraments are prima facie superfluous.
Article 27 seeks to reconcile baptism with justification sola fide. It suggests that baptism is to some extent dependent on the faith of the recipient: ‘they that receive baptism rightly are grafted into the Church …’. Baptism certifies the faith of the believer: ‘the promises of forgiveness of sin, and of our adoption to be the sons of God … are visibly signed and sealed; faith is confirmed and grace increased by virtue of prayer‘.
This may suggest that baptism is for adults only. It should only be administered when the candidate is of sufficient age and understanding to make a personal act of faith. However, Article 27 affirms that ‘The baptism of children is … to be retained … as most agreeable with the institution of Christ’. From its first publication in 1549 until 1662, the Book of Common Prayer made no provision for the baptism of adults, only infants. (Ronald Knox, a Catholic convert, once scoffed that ‘Quakers and Baptists are the only truly logical Protestants’.)
Whatever their ambivalence about baptism, the 39 Articles are unequivocal in their condemnation of relativism: ‘They … are to be had accursed that presume to say, that every man shall be saved by the law or sect which he professeth … For holy Scripture doth set out … only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved’: Article 18.
Sacrament and Sacrilege
The rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer lay down 2 rules about baptism:
(1) it must not be repeated and
(2) subject to emergencies, it should be administered in church.
Canon law (i.e Roman Catholic law) is clear that baptism cannot be repeated because it imprints an indelible character on the recipient (Code of Canon Law 1983, canon 845(1), also canon 849). To attempt to repeat a valid baptism is sacrilegious, because it denies the indelible character of the original baptism.
However, conditional baptism is allowed if there is a ‘prudent doubt’ about the validity of an earlier baptism (canon 845(2)).
The rubrics follow Catholic doctrine in providing that a child baptised privately ‘is lawfully and sufficiently baptised, and ought not to be baptised again in the church’. The priest had to check that the child was indeed baptised: ‘if they that bring the infant to church do make such uncertain answers to the priest’s questions, as that it cannot appear that the child was [validly] baptised’, then the priest must baptise conditionally: ‘If thou art not already baptised, N, I baptise thee etc’.
The public baptism service formerly required the priest to check that the child was not baptised already, before administering the sacrament (rubric).
Baptism may be validly administered by anyone, not just an ordained minister. As the Court of the Arches pointed out, ‘if lay baptism had been considered as one of the errors of the Romish Church, it would have been corrected [at the Reformation]’ (Kemp v Wickes (1809) 161 English Reports 1320, p.1326). The Court later affirmed that ‘The law of the Church is beyond all doubt that a child baptised by a layman is validly baptised’ (Mastin v Escott (1841) 163 English Reports 553, p.586).
Home baptism seems to have been widespread until as late as the 19th century. High infant mortality is one obvious explanation. In the middle ages, priests were required to warn expectant mothers to ‘have water ready prepared to baptise the child if necessity shall so require’ (Lindwood Provinciale Book 1, Title 11, chapter 2). However, in the case of Bennett v Bonaker (No.2) (1829) 162 English Reports 1066, the Court of the Arches noted disapprovingly that ‘It has become … a sort of fashion to have … children christened in their houses instead of at church and … too many of the clergy comply with [this] practice …’ (p.1075).
Unofficial baptism is valid in principle, but, as the rubrics indicate, its validity may be doubtful in practice if administered by an unauthorised and uninstructed minister and without reliable witnesses. It may also be corrupted by superstitious or pagan practices.
Moreover, baptism confers membership of the Church. The baptised is thereby ‘grafted into the body of Christ’s Church’. For this reason baptism should be administered publicly, in facie ecclesiae, ‘on Sundays or other Holy Days at or immediately after public worship when the most number of people come together’ (canon B21). Even after a private baptism, the child ‘shall be brought to the church and there, by the minister, received into the congregation of Christ’s flock’ (canon B22(8)).
Possession of a baptismal font was once regarded as the legal test for determining that a building is a parish church and therefore a place of public, rather than private, worship. The font is traditionally located by the door, at the opposite end of the building from the altar, to symbolise the sacramental entry into the Church.
Canon F1(2) follows tradition by laying down a general rule that the font ‘shall stand as near to the principal entrance [to the church] as conveniently may be’, though a faculty may permit the location of the font elsewhere in the church. Canon 81 of 1603 required ‘a font of stone … to be set in the ancient usual places’.
(There is an amusing twist here. The older ecclesiastical law insisted that the font be made of stone, but also insisted that the altar or ‘communion table’ should not be made of stone. The modern law allows that the altar may be made of stone, and that the font need not be.)
Ecclesiastical law makes provision for the sanctity of baptism. Canon F1 provides that the font must be ‘decent’ and have ‘a cover for the keeping clean thereof’. Moreover, the font must be used exclusively for baptism, ‘and for no other purpose whatsoever’.
The mediaeval Church was not concerned only with cleanliness: ‘The baptising font must be kept close under lock, for fear of witchcrafts‘ (Lindwood Book 3, Title 25, chapter 1). Water used for emergency baptism ‘[should] for the reverence of baptism either be poured into the fire or be brought to the church to be poured into the font, and let the vessel be burned or deputed to the church’s use’ (Title 24, chapter 1).
Access to the altar is via the font, but the baptised must still make the journey from the font to the altar. Canon law holds that baptism is a necessary precondition to valid reception of all other sacraments. Baptism is the ‘gate’ (ianua) of the sacraments (1983 Code, canon 849). In the Catholic Church, of course, there are six other sacraments besides baptism, but in the Church of England only one, ‘the Supper of the Lord’ (Article 25). English law is clear that only the baptised may be admitted to holy communion (cf canon B15A).
However, the legal relationship between baptism and marriage is confused. The report The Canon Law of the Church of England (1947) proposed a new canon that ‘No minister shall allow matrimony to be celebrated in his church between two persons neither of whom has been baptised: and if … one of [them] has not been baptised … shall refer the matter to the Bishop … [for] his order and direction’ (p.126). This canon was rejected for fear that it infringed the common law right of unbaptized parishioners to marry in their parish church.
It is argued that this fear was misplaced. It ignored the font at the entrance to the church. The common law right originated at a time when marriage was still a sacrament, therefore accessible only by baptism, and when only baptised persons were married in church. The Prayer Book marriage service clearly assumes that the couple will both be baptised, for it provides that they ‘should receive the holy communion at the time of their marriage, or at the first opportunity after …’. The Marriage Act 1753 required marriages to be solemnised in the parish church, but excepted Quakers and Jews from this requirement, because they were not baptised. This implies that church marriage is for baptised persons only.
Moreover, ecclesiastical law (like canon law) formerly denied Christian burial to the unbaptised (cf canon B38(2)). It is illogical that an unbaptised person should be entitled to a church wedding but denied a church funeral. (However, the illogicality has been cured. An unbaptised person may now have a church funeral.)
The Prayer Book Catechism seems to affirm the Catholic doctrine that baptism, not just faith, is necessary to salvation. Baptism makes the recipient ‘an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven’. It brings ‘A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness’.
Private baptism ‘in tyme of necessitie’, i.e if the infant was in danger of death, was retained in the Prayer Book. This also implies a link between baptism and salvation. Baptism is considered necessary, even though the dying infant is too young to have committed any actual sin.
The fault-line between justification sola fide and salvation through baptism was exposed in the famous Victorian case of Gorham v Bishop of Exeter (1849-50). The Rev Mr Gorham apparently doubted that baptism ipso facto imprints an indelible character. He held that ‘the grace of regeneration [rebirth] does not so necessarily accompany the act of baptism, that regeneration invariably takes place in baptism … [regeneration] may be granted before, in or after baptism … baptism is an effectual sign of grace … but only in such as worthily receive it …’ (Phillimore Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd edition 1895, p.496).
The Bishop refused to institute Mr Gorham to a benefice because of these doubts. He was supported by the Court of the Arches. However, the Privy Council controversially overruled them both, and ordered Mr Gorham’s institution. Its conclusion was that English law does not deny the indelible character of baptism, but does not insist on it either. There is liberty of belief in the matter.
The Catholic Church does not, of course, hold that faith is irrelevant to baptism. On the contrary, the recipient of baptism is required to co-operate in the work of salvation. This is the reason for the promises required at public baptism, to ‘renounce the devil and all his works, … and constantly believe God’s holy Word, and obediently keep His Commandments’.
Canon law therefore makes it a condition of baptism that ‘there be a realistic hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion: if such a hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be deferred (differatur)’ (canon 868(1), avoiding the word ‘refused’).
Modern English law has again followed canon law in emphasising the importance of co-operation with baptism. In the 20th century, clergy became concerned that baptism was becoming a mere social convention, an occasion to celebrate the baby’s birth and show it off to family and friends, but with no intention of observing the baptismal promises and bringing the child up as a Christian.
Canon B22(3) of the revised Canons of the Church of England therefore requires the minister to instruct parents in their responsibilities. Canon B23(2) provides that godparents must be ‘persons who will faithfully fulfil their responsibilities both
 by their care for the children committed to their charge and
 by the example of their own godly living’.
A clergyman is protected from disciplinary action if he refuses or delays baptism from concern that co-operation with the sacrament will not be forthcoming. The parents may refer the matter to the bishop, who must first consult the clergyman and then ‘give such directions as he thinks fit’ (canon B22(2)). (This is discussed further in the post ‘Baptism and Godly Living’, which is filed below.)
Modern ecclesiastical law rightly provides for the co-operation of parents and godparents in the child’s baptism, but, like the older law, it assumes that parents will want to have their child baptised in the first place. The 20th century concern may seem anachronistic now. The children who were baptised then, whether for social or religious reasons, now decline to have their own children baptised at all. When congratulating devout elderly churchgoers on the birth of a grandchild, the author of this blog has learned not to make any reference to christening, for fear of the embarrassed silence that often follows.
Parents may decline baptism out of indifference, or outright rejection of religion, but a more insidious reason may be advanced: the children should be free to decide for themselves whether they want to be baptised and go to church, when they are old enough to do so.
Such parents are asserting their right, and maybe their duty, to decline baptism for their child, in order to preserve the child’s right to choose whether or not to be baptised later on. This sounds plausible because it is in harmony with the prevailing secularist conception of human rights, according to which religious belief and practice are no more than an individual lifestyle choice.
Such a muddle-headed concept of religious freedom is, of course, highly conducive to secularism. It implies that there is something wrong with infant baptism. And very few people who are denied baptism as infants are likely to seek it in later life.
If baptism really is necessary to salvation, no loving parent would refuse it and leave the child to make its mind up later. No more than refuse inoculation against a dangerous disease in the hope that the child will not catch it. But in a secular, pluralist society, either there is no such thing as salvation, or everybody is saved regardless of faith and baptism. The Protestant fear of sin and Catholic hope are both lost.
What can ecclesiastical law do if parents do not want to have their children baptised? In practice, virtually nothing. We have to admit, of course, that parents cannot and should not be forced to have their children baptised (in the way that they can be forced to send their children to school).
Canon B26(2) exhorts ‘All parents and guardians [to] take care that their children receive [religious] instruction’, but the revised canons do not seem to impose any duty on them to have their children baptised. Ecclesiastical law formerly required the clergy to ‘often admonish the people that they defer not the baptism of their children …’, but this rubric was removed by the Prayer Book (Further Provisions) Measure 1968, s.3(2).
Though ineffectual in practice, ecclesiastical law may at least inform the confused and secularist-dominated debate about religious freedom:
(1) Baptism, above all, proves that religion is corporate and public, not merely individual and private. Nobody can baptise himself. Baptism is administered by the Church and it confers membership of the Church. It therefore proves that the Church exists. Though uncertain of its precise effect, English law is clear that baptism is ‘ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel’ (Article 25). If baptism is Divinely ordained, then so is the Church which administers it. Therefore the Church cannot be reduced to a mere private contract between individuals.
(2) If baptism is ordained of God, if it is God’s Will for everybody, then there cannot be a human right to choose whether or not to be baptised. Such a right blasphemously subordinates Divine ordination to mere human choice. It reduces baptism to the level of a political or consumer choice (which party to vote for in the election, which bank to get a loan from).
(3) However, a person does have a right not to be baptised against his will. The distinction between a right (1) to choose whether or not to be baptised and (2) not to be baptised against one’s will may seem a fine one, even non-existent. However, it is argued that the distinction is critical, because it brings the human right into alignment with the Divine ordination of baptism. It is also consistent with the rite of baptism, which assumes the cooperation of the recipient, either personally or vicariously through parents and godparents.
(4) Of course, an infant cannot be baptised against its will. The Divine ordination of baptism, and the affirmation of Article 27 that infant baptism is ‘most agreeable with the institution of Christ’ make clear baptism is the infant’s right. It is therefore the duty of parents to give effect to the child’s God-given right to be baptised, not to deny it in favour of a non-existent right to ‘choose’.