Baptism divides the Christian Church, and a good online friend of mine, Tom Torbeyns, has been quizzing me about the Anglican understanding. So here goes:
The first thing to acknowledge is that the Anglican Church is both catholic and reformed in nature, which actually provides two views of what baptism means. I’ll concentrate on infant baptism for the purposes of this article, as it seems the most contentious aspect. Firstly, the view held by traditionalists within the Church, i.e. those who’s views were formed prior to the English Reformation:
You may want to refer to my article on Original Sin for exactly what baptism is needed for. Secondly, the Book of Common Prayer is crystal clear on what infant baptism achieves:
Let us pray.
ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who of thy great mercy didst save Noah and his family in the ark from perishing by water; and also didst safely lead the children of Israel thy people through the Red Sea, figuring thereby thy holy Baptism; and by the Baptism of thy well-beloved Son Jesus Christ, in the river Jordan, didst sanctify Water to the mystical washing away of sin: We beseech thee, for thine infinite mercies, that thou wilt mercifully look upon this Child; wash him and sanctify him with the Holy Ghost; that he, being delivered from thy wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church; and being stedfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally he may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with thee world without end, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
ALMIGHTY and immortal God, the aid of all that need, the helper of all that flee to thee for succour, the life of them that believe, and the resurrection of the dead: We call upon thee for this Infant, that he, coming to thy holy Baptism, may receive remission of his sins by spiritual regeneration. Receive him, O Lord, as thou hast promised by thy well-beloved Son, saying, Ask, and ye shall have; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: So give now unto us that ask; let us that seek find; open the gate unto us that knock; that this Infant may enjoy the everlasting benediction of thy heavenly washing, and may come to the eternal kingdom which thou hast promised by Christ our Lord. Amen.
Pretty straightforward – baptism is for the “mystical washing away of sin”, “sanctification”, “deliverance from wrath” and bringing the child to everlasting life. The child is regenerated, i.e. born again, and brought into the family of God. Declarations of faith are made FOR the child by his sponsors, much in the way a parent can speak for his or her child until he reaches an accountable age. It is a hope and an expectation, sometimes frustrated, that the child will grow in faith within the Body of Christ through familial nurturing, both from his birth-family and the wider family of the Church. When the child is older, he will make his own declaration of faith in his Confirmation, at which time the strengthening of the Holy Spirit is requested.
At the reformed end of the communion the promises given during baptism are seen as delayed, and conditional upon the child’s eventual personal faith. In reality of course, whatever view one holds, the procedure and outworking of baptism is the same.
But what of the unbaptised baby?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Anglicans have no such document) says:
1261 As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,”63 allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism.
Calvin, for the Reformers, said:
“But this controversy will at once be disposed of when we maintain, that children who happen to depart this life before an opportunity of immersing them in water, are not excluded from the kingdom of heaven. Now, it has been seen, that unless we admit this position, great injury is done to the covenant of God, as if in itself it were weak, whereas its effect depends not either on baptism, or on any accessaries.”
Institutes Book IV Chapter 15 Section 22
However, the Westminster Confession of Faith (the “Calvinist handbook”) hedges its bets with the following:
“Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word” (10.3).
Elect infants are those chosen by God for salvation from the foundation of the world in Reformed theology.
I remain convinced, along with the historical, pre-Reformation Church, that infants should be baptised into the family of God, that their baptism is regenerative, and that infants dying before baptism are saved in the mercy of God.