Friday, September 18, 2015

Becoming the Story We Tell - Baptismal Ecclesiology

Becoming the Story We Tell

John W.B. Hill

One of the notable features of the last generation of Anglican prayer books (e.g., the ‘79 BCP, the ‘85 BAS) is the new status given to Holy Baptism.  It is no longer located amongst the Pastoral Offices (weddings, funerals, etc) but stands alongside The Holy Eucharist.  For Baptism and Eucharist are “the two great sacraments of the Gospel” (‘79 BCP, page 858).  And this is just one of many indicators of the new agenda mapped out in our current prayer books: a new agenda for this secular age.  We usually identify this agenda as the recovery of a ‘baptismal ecclesiology’.

The trouble with this agenda is that it may have arrived too late.  For most Anglicans/Episcopalians, baptism is more or less meaningless.  How else could we explain the widespread abandonment of the traditional pattern of Christian life, beginning in baptism and leading to participation in the eucharist?

Our impoverished sense of baptism is not something new, of course; it has been developing over centuries.  At our recent APLM conference in New Jersey, I sketched the historical accidents that have slowly hollowed out the meaning of baptism:
·      in the era of Christendom, there was a growing expectation that every citizen would be baptized;
·      this led to a decline in adult candidates for baptism, as infant baptism became the norm;
·      confirmation emerged as a new sacrament whose meaning was wholly taken over from baptism, requiring a redefinition of baptism that did not include the meanings now attributed to confirmation;
·      paschal (Eastertide) baptism was supplanted by emergency baptism (what the old prayer books referred to as “baptism as soon as possible after birth”);
·      baptism came to be seen as a precaution rather than as a response to the gospel;
·      the priestly vocation of the baptized was usurped by the clergy;
·      preparation for baptism disappeared;
·      initiation to communion was eventually no longer through baptism but through confirmation;
·      baptism became the sign of membership in a Christian society;
·      then, over the last century, as the Christian worldview faded and the Church became a promoter of individualized faith, indiscriminate baptism became our default practice.

What we are left with is an impoverished sacramental consciousness.  Developing a robust practice of baptism with a truly catechumenal ministry will only lead to frustration, for even if we succeeded in truly making disciples, they would simply be discouraged (perhaps even scandalized) by the bland consumer religion typical of an average congregation.

So where do we start if we wish to rebuild a baptismal ecclesiology? 

That is the purpose of the new collection of resources introduced at the APLM conference in New Jersey, which the Anglican Church of Canada has provided, called ‘Becoming the Story we Tell’, available at 

Photos from the September 2015 APLM regional conference in Lebanon, NJ.

John W. B. Hill, a Council member of APLM, is an Anglican presbyter in Toronto, Canada, author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice, and chair of Liturgy Canada. He served as keynote speaker at the September 2015 APLM regional conference in Lebanon, NJ.

Stay tuned for more posts related to ‘Becoming the Story We Tell’ and how you can make use of this resource in your faith community. ~ DJK

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