When I complained on Twitter last week about the excessive amount of media coverage given to George Windsor’s baptism, somebody replied with the understandable opinion that it was a welcome change to see Christian sacraments featuring in the news.
I can see his point, although as the week went I on I became convinced that the coverage was bad rather than good news for Christianity. The reporting reinforced prominent misconceptions about baptism, including the idea that it is about conforming to tradition rather than making a radical statement.
The media told us that George was baptised in a “private” ceremony. My idea of “private” does not involve an event that is pictured on the front pages of the next day’s newspapers, but I suppose it’s literally true in that the ceremony was not open to everyone. George was surrounded by people as wealthy and privileged as he will one day be. Media comment focused on the details of the clothes he was wearing and his godparents’ ancestral backgrounds.
I don’t doubt the sincerity of Justin Welby’s prayers, nor of the worship through which the baby was welcomed into the Christian church (although George himself is too young to have much say in the matter). He was splashed with water from the River Jordan, where John the Baptist immersed Jesus two thousand years ago.
That was a rather different event, when people voluntarily walked into a river to repent of their sins and to ask God’s forgiveness. Following Jesus’ resurrection, his disciples continued to practise baptism in water, while also experiencing baptism in the Holy Spirit, a more internal matter of cleansing and rebirth.
It is not known whether the early Christians baptised children as well as adults (the question is the subject of a never-ending debate amongst historians and theologians). What is clear is that baptism was a dangerous business. Being baptised helped to mark people out as Christians at a time when they were marginalised at best and executed at worst.
Christianity gradually became less radical, accepting dominant norms of slavery and gender roles. Then in the fourth century, the emperor Constantine sucked the power out of this once subversive movement by making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire and thereby domesticating it. As church leaders were given positions of power and privilege, they found themselves defending ideas they had previously been against (think of Liberal Democrat ministers in the UK government and you’ll get the idea).
With the beginning of Christendom, the church and state became allies, offering support and sanction to each other. All parents were expected to have their children baptised. Baptism, far from being a sign of rejecting the powers of this world, became a symbol of acceptance.
Among the groups who reacted against this were the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century. Emphasising that following Jesus is a matter of personal choice, they baptised each other as adult believers. In many countries by this time, refusing to hand over your child for infant baptism was a criminal offence punishable by death. Anabaptists were martyred in their thousands.
Some Anabaptists survived by fleeing to North America and a few continued to live in Europe. Their influence on other radical Christian movements, such as Quakerism and some strands of the Baptists, is debated but should not be underestimated. Quakers and the Salvation Army developed a different, but equally radical, interpretation of baptism, rejecting the use of water and focused on inward, spiritual baptism alone. The early twentieth century saw the birth of the Pentecostal movement, which emphasises baptism in the spirit as well as in water for adult believers.
To be fair, many supporters of infant baptism see it as a case of welcoming a child into a community rather than simply going through the expected procedure. They also believe they are preparing a child to make a decision for themselves at a later date, despite applying the water in infancy. I am not persuaded by their arguments, but their approach is very different to the popular conception of “christening” as something that is about celebrating birth rather than about joining the church.
It is this misconception that was reinforced by George Windsor’s baptism last week. George is starting out on a life in which – despite enormous wealth – he will be required at every stage to do exactly what is expected of him. Baptism for him looks likely to be the first step on a journey of commitment to the powers of privilege and earthly power.
In baptism, said the apostle Paul, we die and rise with Christ. We dedicate ourselves, in all our fallible humanity, to Jesus Christ. All baptisms are royal baptisms, because they mark out the participants as citizens of the Kingdom of God. Loyalty to that subversive kingdom means rejection of the kingdoms of this world.
Baptism is not about conformity. As early Christians, Anabaptists and Quakers knew to their cost, baptism is an act of rebellion – and it leads to trouble.
The above article appeared as my latest column for the website of the Ekklesia thinktank. Please see http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/news/columns/hill.