Why do Anglicans... Baptise Babies
Updated: Sep 1, 2022
One of the dynamics of being an Anglican Priest is that people often ask you questions that either you have taken for granted or never really thought of as interesting enough to have an opinion about. In an endeavour to answer some of these questions, I have taken the unusual step of putting the phrase 'What do Anglicans..." into Google and will proceed over a series of blogs to answer the top 10 auto-questions that were generated.
The first question is actually in this list twice, perhaps reflecting how confusing many people find it. Question number one is...
Why do Anglicans baptise babies?
This is a question that has always interested me. There is a lot that is said about a church in its response to the question of who can and should be baptised. In some churches it is an extremely high bar to meet, in others it is something that can be done repeatedly. In some it is a deeply personal things while in others an unmistakably communal one. To begin to answer the question then, we need to tackle the first question - what is baptism.
What do Anglicans believe about Baptism?
"Baptism is the sacrament by which we are made children of God,
members of Christ’s body the Church, and heirs of the Kingdom of God."
For Anglicans, baptism is a sacrament. Best put, this is an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual grace. The outward signs, in this case, are the words of the baptism and the water, while the inward spiritual grace is our adoption as a child of God, being made a member of the body of Christ, the Church.
This is the first point of contention - does the act of baptising someone, adult or child, 'do' anything? For some it does. Within the church, this is known as baptismal regeneration, that by virtue of the act you are saved (it is a little more complicated than that, but that basically sums it up). For others, it does not, the actions merely giving physical expression to a spiritual reality already at work. The sacramental understanding of baptism leaves room for differing understandings here but there is no room to argue that baptising someone forces God to draw them into the fold. God is the only one who acts. Living in this ambiguity, the Anglican Church has always taken the stance that baptism is ultimately a rite of initiation. It is not efficacious, which means it is not effective unless the pre-existing spiritual conditions are there. As a result, we are generally 'liberal' with baptism - allowing many to receive it, even in the knowledge that some will not embrace it as we see baptism not as a final act, but rather as the beginning of the walk of faith.
What other churches believe about baptism
We have already signalled that the Anglican Church has a very broad understanding of baptism, but to have the question asked 'why do Anglicans baptise babies' we have to assume some churches don't. While the vast majority of churches do offer the baptism of children, some churches do not. The challenge is answering why they do not. For some, it is about how they read the bible. There is not an explicit command to baptise children so they choose not to. For others, there are two forms of baptism that can be experienced even decades apart. The first is water baptism, an action of the church, and the second is the baptism of the Holy Spirit - a personal and experiential encounter with God that marks a transition in one's life. In these expressions, by and large, baptism is a public expression of a spiritual experience - which sounds strangely like a sacrament.
Where is the difference
The difference in response to the question of the baptism of children really comes down to what it means to have 'faith'. For those traditions that do not baptise children, faith is something that requires a degree of reason and intellectual assent. There is a need to be able to speak for oneself that you hold certain propositional truths and have a personal relationship with God.
For the Anglican church, we do not place a limit on what and who can assent to this. Sometimes we will come to baptism from a deeply personal experience of Christ's work in our lives. Sometimes we will be baptised because our parents wanted us to be. Sometimes we will say the words of commitment ourselves, and other times Godparents say them on our behalf. Sometimes we fully understand the commitment we are making, at other times we do not understand why the strange person is dunking our heads in holy water.
The key statement that many Anglicans would make is that regardless of the process and presence you have as you come to baptism none of us ever actually know what we are getting ourselves into. We may have the intellectual and rational comprehension of the atonement and forgiveness offered to us. We may have a deeply personal spiritual experience. But none of us knows where it will lead us. Whether baptised as a child or an adult, we simply follow and trust Christ with both our destination and direction.
Why do we baptise children?
In part the answer is historic. God commanded the children of Israel to be brought into the covenant community through circumcision. Nowhere has God decreed that children cannot still enter the community of the New Covenant via baptism. In his first words following the experience of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter declared:
“Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ
so that your sins may be forgiven, and you will receive the gift of the
Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who
are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:38-39)
God consistently welcomes children into the community of faith. If we acknowledge that no one ever really understands what they are committing to when baptised if we acknowledge that faith and the effectiveness of baptism is God's work, and if we know that God's faithfulness and grace overcome even human ingratitude and indifference then you may well end up where we have as well, welcoming all those whom the Lord our God may call into the fullness of the Christian community.