The Church Today?: An analysis of what is and of what ought to be

by David Perry

A paper read to North Holderness Clergy Chapter in January 1976

1. The world in which the Church lives and moves and has its being is fundamentally different from the world of the Middle Ages and the Reformation. In the Middle Ages the world and Christendom were coterminous. This is no longer the case. The Church is now spread worldwide and is one religion among many. In third world countries it is often a tiny minority. Christendom itself (thinking especially of the western world) is now pluralistic. For example England now contains a Buddhist monastery. In some cities there may well be as many worshipping Moslems as Christians. The schools now deal with religious education, not Christian education. We have a secular government. Religious toleration has been in law for a long time.

Therefore the church is in a missionary situation directly comparable to that of the Church in the early centuries.

2. The practice of indiscriminate infant baptism to which the Church of England is legally committed and which is also observed by most of the other denominations (apart from those in the Baptist tradition) was only serviceable in the totalitarian 'closed shop' Church-State of the Middle Ages and the Reformation. Political survival of the emerging nations in the reformation period demanded the blanket imposition of 'cuius regio, eius religio'. Citizenship and baptism were indivisible.

3. Christendom 'worked' because, and only because there was no alternative to being a Christian. Where there is no choice there is no need to make a choice. Moreover it worked in a way, which upset the proper relation between Gospel, Church and World. The distinction which we can all recognise, even if it is difficult to define, between nominal Christianity and a real life of faith was expressed in medieval Christendom by the notions of hierarchy, i.e. that priest is superior to layman, and the two standards, i.e. ten commandments and attendance at mass for the majority and the counsels ('evangelical precepts' - N.B. the terminology!) of perfection for the elite minority. The result in the post-Christendom era is a legacy of sacerdotalism and a stultifying vagueness about what it means to be a Christian.

4. Ecclesiastical Log Jam: We have had many years of ecumenical effort. Goodwill and respect between the denominations have never been greater but, in a thousand different contexts a brick wall is reached, a brick wall of denominational structure. The deep longing for intercommunion and a common ministry which arise inevitably when Christians of different denominations grow to know and trust and love each other, is frustrated by denom-inational disciplines which are either obeyed, causing simple frustration or disobeyed in the equally frustrating knowledge that the exception merely proves the rule.

5. There is a desperate danger that in these days of inflation the governing structures of our denominations will become every more tightly and neatly organised to secure denominational survival, e.g. financial reconstruction within the C of E (Central Stipends Authority, destruction of localised geographical nature of the church by pooling of glebe and endowments, imposition of a planned economy from Millbank. Consequence: a vicious centrifugal spiral - the more successful the denominations are in their individual battles with inflation, the stronger their will to self-preservation at all cost.

6. Evidence for Denominational Blinkers: a report on the deployment of clergy presented to the York Diocesan Synod in November 1975 gave not the slightest hint that co-operation between the denominations might be part of the solution to the problem of maintaining an effective Christian ministry in the last quarter of the 20th century. Interestingly enough, the report did contain a comparative table showing the deployment of clergy of different denominations, which make it clear that other denominations 'manage' on far fewer clergy, thus implying that the C of E has plenty of scope for dwindling before it need concern itself with a fundamental appraisal of the way in which the whole Church ministers to the nation.

7. How to Escape the Log Jam? It is hopeless to start with any discussion of the ministry of the clergy - too much money and vested interest is tied up in their present deployment. Also it is the wrong starting point.)

8. The Starting Point must be the restructuring of the Laity, related to a right theology of

the Church in the world as it is, i.e. for the greater part not yet even evangelised. The false and irrelevant doctrines of the laity produced by the medieval Church in the days of high Christendom must be decisively rejected and a laity structured on New Testament norms and faithful to the experience of the Church in the pre-Christendom period be brought into existence.

9. Reappraisal of the Role of Baptism within the Economy of the Church

The futility, irrelevance and inadequacy of infant baptism as practised by paedo-baptist churches must be made plain, not by compulsory abolition but by restoring the sacrament to its proper context, i.e. as the consequence and not the entry visa to an encounter with the Gospel.

This proposal is not a sudden heresy. It is to take seriously a commonplace of theology and church history that the normative initiation rite of the church is "adult baptism" or, better, "believers' baptism" or, better still, "baptism following a catechumenate".

Evidence that Anglicanism regards 'adult baptism' as the norm: . .

a) SPCK publishes a leaflet entitled "What Baptism means" in which it says, "Baptism is the act by which a man or woman, having openly declared a trust in Jesus Christ and a desire to follow him is joined to the Christian family, the Church. .... Although Baptism normally requires a personal act of faith and commitment.... ."

b) Diocese of Toronto resolutions, following a debate on initiation (19/9/75) includes the following, "That the clarification of the meaning of baptism through liturgical reform and re-emphasis and through the reaffirmation of the normalcy of adult baptism is a diocesan goal."

c) The printing of the series 2 services of Baptism: the adult rite was printed first, to demonstrate that it is the normative rite.

10 If it is the normative rite, why don't the churches make it normal in practice? There are two chief obstacles: .

a) St. Augustine: the churches, one and all, must explicitly repudiate the doctrine that the unbaptised child or indeed person of any age is beyond the mercies and providence of God. Such a repudiation would begin to dissolve the non-sciptural and non-Christian superstitious dross which has obscured the sacrament for centuries.

b) Christendom Thinking - As stated earlier, Christendom only 'worked' because there was no alternative to being a Christian. Where there is no choice there is no need to make a choice. Hence the understandable ease with which the two-day-old infant could be made to say through its godparents "I desire to be baptised" and "I renounce Satan and all his works" and "I believe the apostles creed". Evangelism was not needed, since everyone was supposed to live in a hermetically sealed Christian world. By authority and obedience the child would grow up as a Christian, since it could not grow up as anything else. (This outlook is explicit in the Prayer Book Catechism). BUT we are no longer living in monolithic Christendom. We live instead in a plural society, which offers tremendous choice. In a world of competing religions and philosophies evangelism becomes once more of paramount importance. We return to the situation of the early Church. In the pre-Constantine Church and for centuries after people of all ages were consciously evangelised, catechised and baptised in that order and brought within the fellowship of the Church.

The ancient liturgies of baptism, right throughout the medieval period, with their preliminary ceremonies of making catechumens, witness to this fundamental truth about the economy of the Church - Baptism requires the preparation of the candidate.

11. We can see clearly the reason for the paralysis of mission and evangelism in England today. We are no longer so arrogant as denominations as to deny each other's baptisms and try to recruit blindly into our own denomination. But, since we are polite to each other and since most people have been christened, we have no basis on which to operate, save under the general notion of recovering the lapsed, particularly those who have had some explicit connection with our particular congregation.

12. The Solution: Commitment to Conscious Christianity expressed in practice by the restoration of the Catechumenate


a) Catechumenate is integral to mission and evangelism; it is as firmly rooted in the history of the church as the episcopate! (Frantic defenders of the baptism of unprepared infants are intensely blind to the massive evidence for the Catechumenate within the life of the Church; it has yet to occur to an Anglican scholar to write a definitive work on the history of the rise and fall of the Catechumenate.)

b) The Catechumenate would heal the breach between the Baptists and the rest. For Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches it means no more than the rediscovery of a treasure they already possess.

c) Parents would have the responsibility of enrolling their offspring as catechumens and need no longer get hung up on the fate of children who die unbaptised.

d) The Catechumenate creates a laity, all of whom have consciously opted in to membership of the Church.

e) The Catechumenate sets the Church free from national and local cultures, i.e. baptism is one baptism throughout the world and not a conventional feature of western civilisation. It makes clear the truth which we are so often being reminded of but to which we are institutionally blind, i.e. that the Englishman just as much as the tribal peoples in remote parts of India and Africa needs to be evangelised and to respond by passing through the waters of baptism. Mission would be easily understandable as one and indivisible and not, as so often at present, as the concern of specialist societies operating well away from home.

f) The rift between baptism and confirmation and analogous rites would be healed, since only one occasion is required to effect the transition from catechumen to communicant.

g) The Catechumenate awakens parents to spiritual responsibility for their children. The presumption and complacency which is endemic in infant baptism ("We've had him done, so he's all right now") is dissolved into a serious concern that we transmit our faith and commend it as best we may to the next generation.

h) The Catechumenate provides incentive in learning. Sunday schools, etc. become essential parts of church life, instead of sources of optional edification for the children of parents who, for the most part, take no part in the worshipping life of the Church.

i) Because denominations recognise each others' baptisms, we would find coming into existence just one laity, not an Anglican laity, Methodist laity, etc. Through the unification of baptism and confirmation the laity would all be communicants (at present the C of E has ?5 million communicants, ?25 million non-communicants).

j) With every Christian a communicant, the one united laity would make short shrift of any theological claptrap which would hinder them from full communion with each other.

k) The laity would be the normative part of the church, and clericalism as opposed to ministry would wither away.

1) The Catechumenate would help to prevent a serious rift between the charismatic movement and mainstream church life by eliminating the temptation to Anabaptism which is strongly felt by those who, through the movement, come for the first time to a living awareness of the Gospel.

13. The Re-creation of the Laity as one, holy, catholic and apostolic, would inevitably lead to a new understanding and practice of ministry. This could happen quite gracefully if all the denominations, having regard to the real history of the church through the ages could agree that forms and structures of ministry are not sacrosanct but contingent, matters of discipline rather than doctrine, i.e. they require to be the objects of sanctified commonsense in the light of contemporary needs. One hopes one has seen the last of stupid debates about what would happen to Christ's flock if all the bishops dropped dead overnight!

PREDICTION: Just as the recovery of the Eucharist in every denomination has been heavily dependent on the model provided by the pre-Christendom Church, so will renewal in mission and unity be dependent on the rediscovery of baptism in its original context of the Catechumenate.

David Perry Skirlaugh Vicarage 9th January 1976