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An evangelistically-effective baptismal policy?

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Posted by Tom Woolford, 23 Feb 2018

Tom Woolford discusses the results of his survey on baptism policies and their effectiveness in bringing and retaining families in the church.

One of the privileges of ministering in the Church of England is that, unlike our free church brethren, non-church people still come to us of their own accord for matches, hatches, and dispatches (weddings, christenings/baptisms, and funerals). Whatever we might feel about that – from its being a joyful expression of what it means for us to be the national church, to its being anachronistic and unbiblical, folk superstition – surely everyone in parish ministry is determined to make the most of such opportunities to bring the gospel to bear on parishioners’ lives; even to see some come to Christ for the first time, or renew their commitment to him, through the occasional offices.

Though Canon B22.4 mandates that “No minister shall refuse or delay” to baptize “any infant within his cure,” it contains that famous concession, “save for the purpose of preparing or instructing the parents or guardians or godparents.” That concession gives rise to the range of baptismal policies that exists in the Church of England. A minister can choose to interpret preparation and instruction as anything from the parents’ marriage and 12 months’ regular church attendance to a brief chat with the vicar the day of the ceremony. As with common law, any reasonable interpretation must be considered valid until it is ruled otherwise in court or by emendation. Canon B22.2, meanwhile, provides for parents’ appeal to the diocesan bishop, whose express direction to a minister off the back of such an appeal is what could precipitate a disciplinary procedure should the minister refuse. Given the expense and uncertain outcome of such a CDM procedure; given the potential rift it would cause within a diocese (and the national church); and given the ease with which alternative arrangements can be made (another parish church suggested, or the bishop can conduct the baptism him/herself in the parish church), diocesans invariably do not formally, and almost never informally, seek to discipline clergy for their baptismal policies, however lax or strict. Hence it was that the Rev’d Tim Hayes, who back in 2015 delayed the baptism of an 11-month-old boy until such time as his parents were married, was publicly backed up – not censured – by the Diocese of Chester. Out of the 98 responses to my survey, only 2 reported being informally told off by a diocesan authority for their policy (and only 1 of the 34 conservative evangelical responders). Within bounds (that remain largely untested), Church of England bishops seem to allow an incumbent and their PCC to set whatever baptism preparation policy they see fit.

It was with an aim of working out what kind of baptismal policy might bring about the greatest ‘return’ in terms of numbers of largely non-church families coming to Christian faith and commitment to the Church that I conducted an online, informal survey. The results of this survey are at very best only provisional – I am not a social scientist, and my methods will doubtless have been far from meeting any kind of required standard. But with 98 responses (34 of which were from conservative evangelical incumbents, 21 from other charismatic or open evangelical traditions, 20 catholic and 22 broad/central churchmanship), there is sufficient data on the basis of which to make a couple of very rough observations.

You (probably) can’t change your baptism policy to win more for Christ
This first comes as something of a disappointment, if not a surprise: there is no one baptismal policy that will bring substantial numbers of new families into the regular life of the Church. I would love to provide The Perfect Baptism Policy – a silver bullet that will re-Christianize this sceptered isle, but it doesn’t exist. The reason is plain to any incumbent who has tinkered with his or her policy in an attempt to win more souls for Christ from it: increasing the requirements for preparation and instruction prior to an infant’s baptism both increases the chance of ‘retention’ and decreases the number of baptism enquiries. It is close to a zero-sum game.

For instance, conservative evangelicals have, on the whole, the most stringent preparation requirements. 94% run a mandatory preparation course, of which 91% are more than one session long; and 71% require a certain amount of church attendance. Booking the date of the baptism itself is, in 82% of cases, delayed until such preparation requirements are underway or completed. Of those families which meet the requirements, somewhere in the region of 7% become regular churchgoers – the highest self-reported retention rate. But conservative evangelical churches conduct the fewest number of baptisms per year – less than a third as many as liberal catholics – and therefore, through baptisms, make meaningful contact with considerably fewer families in the parish.
The typical liberal catholic parish’s preparation is much more modest. Just over half (55%) require attendance at a preparation course; and two-thirds of those courses is a single session long (64%). Just 19% require prior church attendance as part of baptismal preparation. The date of the baptism is fixed prior to any such requirements being met in 75% of cases. These policies yield a much higher number of baptisms each year (an average of 28), and over double conservative evangelicals’ parish engagement (2 baptisms/1000 of population in the parish per annum compared to 0.75 for conservative evangelicals) – with its attendant potential for future opportunities down the line. The self-reported retention rate, however, is lower, at around 5%.

The two extremes of baptismal preparation in the end therefore yield a similar average number of new families added to the regular congregation each year: 0.87 for conservative evangelicals and 1.1 for liberal catholics. Any numeral gains resulting from a tweaked baptismal policy are likely, therefore, to be slight overall; though the evidence suggests that requiring some church attendance yields a definite, though modest, improvement (of conservative evangelical churches, those who did not require church attendance had a retention rate of 4.6% from their 11 baptisms per year; those who did, a better 8.1% of their 7.8 baptisms per year). One change that could easily be made is to follow-up. 90% of catholic parishes make deliberate contact with baptism families after the ceremony, compared to only 62% of conservative evangelicals. I can think of no good theological reason why we should lag behind on this measure.

Chart of the survey results

You can change your baptism policy to be more theologically consistent
What might bring about the best number on pews resulting, in part, from baptismal preparation is, however, only half of what goes in to formulating a baptism policy. In addition to this pragmatic (though perfectly valid) consideration is the theology of baptism itself.

Conservative evangelicals are likely to have a more stringent baptismal policy because of what they believe about the sacrament. 82% of conservative evangelicals are ‘Calvinistic’ instrumentalists (baptism is the instrument by which, through faith, God brings a child into the covenant family and seals his/her regeneration; the remaining 18% are ‘Zwinglian’ symbolists). That means that there is a spiritual cost that attends baptizing people who do not, despite their baptismal promises, grow up in the faith and fellowship. 41% of conservative evangelicals believe that baptism administered to non-church families’ infant children gives the baptisand false assurance that hinders, rather than helps, their coming to saving faith later; while an additional 38% believe that baptized unbelievers will face a more severe eschatological judgment than the unbaptized. It is therefore, according to this theology of baptism, positively cruel to baptize children for whom we have no reasonable expectation of their being raised in the love and discipline of the Lord. This being so, 91% of conservative evangelicals encourage non-church families to consider a non-sacramental ‘Thanksgiving’ service instead, where no obvious spiritual perjury would be committed by the parties involved.

At the other end of the spectrum, those in the catholic tradition tend toward an ex opere operato theology in which baptism imparts sanctifying grace to the soul (45%); or to a symbolic view, that baptism is a pledge of faith and liturgical marker of the beginning of the Christian journey (25%; an additional 20% ‘don’t know’ what they believe about the sacrament). Neither of these views dictates that baptism be spiritually detrimental to those who never go on to profess faith: just 20% believed baptism might engender false assurance, and 10% that there might be eschatological consequence. Accordingly, there is no necessity to disbar those whose sincerity is doubtful, nor is there incentive to offer thanksgivings instead – just 15% do so.

In conclusion, it is refreshing to see that each tradition exhibits some consistency between its baptismal theology and practice. As we might expect, greater thoroughness of preparation (church attendance and course provision) leads to both fewer baptisms but a higher retention rate. If a church makes its policy more restrictive and its preparation more onerous, parents will start to go elsewhere. Short of coordinating baptismal policy across a deanery or diocese (which has been suggested by my diocesan, +Julian Henderson, and enacted in at least one deanery in the diocese), there will always be this pay-off. If church growth were the only important factor to consider, an open policy appears to be the most effective. If, however, one believes baptising children whose parents are insincere in their promises will likely prove spiritually damaging for the child and his/her family, one would sooner have a more restricted policy and fewer baptisms. Moreover, trebling the number of baptisms would add a considerable workload: evangelicals might well argue that that time and energy is more effectively spent on other evangelistic ministries. Finally, If the number of parents presenting their children for baptism continues to decline, so too will the ability of liberal catholic churches to build their congregations through baptism provision. This will only increase the need for churches to seek to grow by other means.

For more on the evangelistic opportunities created by the Church of England’s baptismal policy, listen to Andrew Atherstone’s talk from JAEC 2014. The talk also forms a chapter in The Effective Anglican.

Tom Woolford is the curate at All Hallows Bispham.

Photo by (c) Gary Henderson reproduced under Creative Commons

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