My slow and careful study through the Prayer Book has brought me to the Baptism service. In general, followers of this blog may have noticed a lot of entries about the Daily Office in 2020 and the Communion service in 2021. I did have a nice “plan” to work through the Baptismal material in December, Confirmation material in January, and continue on through the majority of the rest of the Prayer Book rites over the course of 2022, but I’m already “behind schedule.” Be that as it may, wherever I am in this process, I’m still sharing snippets of information – insight, encouragement, and advice – online here as I go, so we can all learn together.
Before we get into any specifics of the Baptism service, it’s helpful to take a big-picture view of where this liturgy has been in the past. Sometimes trends over the centuries can shed light on the peculiarities of the present (or any previous) day. Five Prayer Books are standing in parallel here: the English Prayer Books of 1549 and 1662, the American 1928, the Canadian 1962, and the 2019 Book of the Anglican Church in North America.
We begin with the context. One of the stand-out differences here is that the modern tradition is to place the Baptism amidst a Communion service. This was introduced in 1979, and reflects the practical reality that Communion is now the standard Sunday service in the vast majority of Anglican churches. It’s interesting to see, though, that the recommended “home” of the Baptism service has changed before. The 1662 Prayer Book does not make any direct suggestion about the timing of the service, other than that it’d best be on a Sunday or Holy Day so the maximum number of people will be present to witness it. The American and Canadian Prayer Books took their cues from the original: embed the Baptism within Morning Prayer or Evening Prayer!
So, just as the Wedding service begins with the immortal words “Dearly beloved…” so too does the Baptismal liturgy begin. There are several exhortations in the Prayer Book that begin this way, actually. In any case, this short opening speech or exhortation provides a brief outline of the purpose and necessity of Holy Baptism, and why we’re here to celebrate it. The 2019 version is a bit longer than its predecessors, as it’s combining elements from past versions of the liturgy that are not maintained later on.
The Flood Prayer follows in the English Prayer Books, which I’ve written a little about before. It was dropped in North America, but the 2019 Book has actually restored it, just later in the service.
This part of the comparison chart may be the most jarring. The 2019 Prayer Book continues with the Scriptures and Sermon, following a usual Communion liturgy, where the classical Prayer Books provided a special reading and set of preparatory prayers. Some elements here, I think, would be of use to us if we reclaim them in the 2019 BCP context. The short “Explanation of infant baptism” that follows the Scripture lesson in the English and Canadian Books, for example, would make a great starting point for the Sermon. The Prayers, too, are rich resources that the preacher could use, quote, or even teach on.
In defense of the 2019’s changes and losses at this juncture, however, it should be pointed out that the 21st century West is a Post-Christian society. The baptism of adult converts should become increasingly common, and the gearing of the Baptism liturgy toward small children and infants is not especially helpful to that end. It might be more helpful, at this section of the liturgy, to compare the 2019 order to the 1662’s Baptism of Those of Riper Years. Personally I haven’t looked closely at that yet, that’s just an observation that I think would be helpful to look into for those who are concerned about the details.
This is where the 2019 Prayer Book shines more brightly compared to the previous section. The Flood Prayer is brought back to North America, the classical Exhortation & Examination includes the full three-fold renunciation unheard since 1549, and also follows up on those renunciations with an Exorcism, also unseen since 1549 (albeit that Book placed the exorcism earlier in the service). The prayers for the baptismal candidates are thus longer and more robust, and the Flood Prayer serves double duty as a transition from prayers for the candidate(s) toward the actual baptismal act itself.
Last of all, the Baptism itself is where Prayer Books have changed the most over the years. This is where it really pays off to include the Canadian Prayer Book because it more smoothly connects the liturgy to the Daily Office in which it is recommended to abide.
In a strange twist of irony, the so-called “catholic traditionalist” 1549 Prayer Book does not include an explicit blessing of the water, while the “fully reformed protestant” 1662 Book does. (Hence why stereotypical labels like these are unhelpful!) It is interesting to see, however, that the 1549 Book explicitly orders a triple Baptism (right, left, then face-first into the font), where its successors haven’t been so specific. And for those who are squeamish about babies in water, there have always been provisions for the pouring of water instead (which was also normative for adults who can only lean their heads over a typical baptismal font). Another unique change from 1549 is the naming of the child – I think enough ministers complained that they couldn’t remember the name three minutes later that the naming was moved to the baptismal act itself. (I jest! It’s probably mainly for theological reasons: in baptism we receive our Christian name. The 1662 catechism says as much.)
The sign of the Cross is made on the forehead of the newly-baptized, but the use of anointing oil was not mentioned after 1549 until 2019.
Again the 2019 Book has lost some of the traditional material, most notably the post-baptism statement: Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this Child is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks unto Almighty God for these benefits, and with one accord make our prayers unto him, that this Child may lead the rest of his life according to this beginning. However, this is not as great a loss as some might make it out to be, for this statement is a call to prayer, and the actual prayers (labeled “Thanksgiving and Prayer”) that follow are strong equivalents across the board.
Another concern that has been raised about the 2019 Prayer Book is the lack of attention to the doctrine of Regeneration. Where the classical Prayer Books use that word frequently, ours uses it only once. It must be understood, however, that a significant part of this dynamic is conformity to Bible translation. Where older translations say regenerate newer translations say born again (or from above), and that phrase is found several times throughout the 2019 liturgy. The Additional Directions on BCP page 172 clearly assert the biblical and traditional precedent for the doctrine of regeneration, so there ought to be no contention or confusion on this point. Holy Baptism is “the washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5).
One final note is that this comparative study has ignored the American baptismal rite of 1979. This is because that rite represents too significant a deviation from the historic content, and presents theological emphases too askew from the traditional Anglican position, to make it worth considering alongside the others. The 2019 Prayer Book’s theology of Baptism is to be understood in light of our solid common history, not from our recent errors. The Preface to the Prayer Book on page 4 specifically notes that “Baptismal theology… came perilously close to proclaiming a gospel of individual affirmation rather than of personal transformation and sanctification.” Fruitful comparative study of the 1979 Book may still be had, but it is my (and our Prayer Book’s) opinion that 1979 represents a liturgical-theological dead end from which we have turned back.