The climax of the Rite of Holy Baptism is threefold: the Naming, the Baptism, and the Reception.
The 1549 Prayer Book asked the child’s name earlier, during the Presentation of the candidate(s), but the established pattern ever since then has been stable: the minister asks for the child’s name, and immediately performs the baptismal act.
Classically, three components are essential to the formula of a sacrament: Word, Intent, and Matter.
Word & Intent
The baptismal formula put forth here is the standard Western liturgical text. Eastern Churches have minor variances from this, the Greek Orthodox Church for example putting forth the following: “The servant of God (Name) is baptized in the Name of the Father. Amen. And of the Son, Amen. And of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” At each invocation the Priest immerses him (her) and raises him (her) up again. After the baptizing, the Priest places the child in a linen sheet held by the Godparent. The front matter “I baptize you” verses “Name is baptized” is different, but the trinitarian formula is the same. Most clearly, this is in fulfillment of Christ’s words of institution reported in Matthew 20:19.
Over the course of the Church’s history, the occasional controversy has arisen regarding the baptismal formula, especially with regards the validity of Baptism performed by Arians or other heretical sects. Some people then, as well as some churches today, followed the example of Acts 8:16 and 19:5 and baptized people in “the name of Jesus” only – is this valid? This is where the matter of sacramental intent comes into the picture. The testimony of the Church’s great theologians, especially in the early centuries, admits that Baptism in the Name of Jesus can be valid if the faith of the one performing the baptism is orthodox – he is simply making an error. If the full trinitarian formula is used, then the intention to baptize the candidate into Christ’s Body the Church is reasonably assured. On that basis, even if one is baptized in a heretical sect in the Triune Name, that person does not need to be re-baptized in the true Church; but if a heretic baptized someone only in the name of Jesus, that person does need to be baptized properly.
In more recent years, additional controversy has arisen in the Roman Church regarding the phrase “We baptize you” instead of “I baptize you.” This, they declared, was invalid, and thousands of people have been tracked down for emergency baptism. Such strictness with the part of the formula not explicitly ordained by Christ is not, however, in keeping with the Church’s historic witness (much less with the Eastern Church’s current practice, which is not explicitly rejected by Western churches). Ministers who edit the front matter of the baptismal formula are acting disobediently and ought to be corrected, but the change of “I” to “we” does not invalidate Christ’s Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
As in other cases, conformity to the liturgical norms is not a matter of mere pickiness with details (as some Protestant brethren assert) nor or is it an absolute necessity for validity (as some Roman brethren assert), but such conformity is key to the principle of common prayer, of orthodoxy – the meeting-place of “right praise” and “right doctrine”. This applies not only to the words of the liturgy but also to the physicality of the liturgy, as shall be considered next.
The Greek word for baptize means “wash.” Water is necessary. A child dedication in a Baptist or non-denominational Church, therefore, is not equivalent to Baptism. A personal and public declaration of faith, likewise, is not equivalent to Baptism. As with bread and wine in Holy Communion, Christ instituted that water be used for the washing of regeneration in the New Covenant, and to omit or replace water with another substance is to reject his command and invalidate the offer of grace.
The controversies, past and present, surrounding the waters of baptism have instead concerned the mode or method. The 1549 Prayer Book ordered three-fold immersion: Then the priest shall take the child in his hands, and ask the name. And naming the child, shall dip it in the water thrice. First dipping the right side: Second the left side: The third time dipping the face towards the font: So it be discreetly and warily done. Subsequent Prayer Books dropped the specific instructions for three-fold dipping and further admitted “if they certify that the Child is weak, it shall suffice to pour Water upon it, saying the foresaid words.” The language in the present Prayer Book, “the Celebrant immerses the Candidate or pours water upon the Candidate three times” is largely the same rubric; the difference is that the pouring of water should be thrice (with the name of each Person of the Holy Trinity) and dipping the person into the water may be either a full or partial immersion.
Opinions have varied over the course of history regarding the appropriate contact between the water and the candidate: from full immersion, to partial immersion, dipping in water, pouring water on the head, or finally to a mere sprinkling of water. Historically, all of these have been considered valid; only certain sects or denominations have developed legalistic attachments to particular choices of mode. Chapter 7 of the late-first-century document known as the Didache, for example, puts forth the following order of preference: “But if you have not running water, baptize into other water; and if you can not in cold, then in warm. But if you have not either, pour out water thrice upon the head ‘in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit.’” As Christians moved further North, baptizing infants in cold running water naturally became less desirable, and the favored modes changed accordingly. With the improved availability of clean heated water in modern times, full immersion has risen in popularity in North America and Europe, and the warmer climes of the Global South have made it convenient to follow suit. The Prayer Book tradition’s sensitivity to availability and health on this matter provides enough leeway to protect us from legalism on the one hand yet sets a standard wherein the visual symbolism of the act is preserved: baptism is the washing of regeneration.
Reflecting on the liturgy as we have it
The naming of the candidate is not merely a matter of logistics, reminding the minister of the person’s full name right before it is spoken in the baptismal act. Rather, this is itself a meaningful act. The parents (or other sponsors) actually name the candidate. For much of European history, this has doubled as a legally-binding moment when a child receive his or her name and is recorded in the official registers. Baptismal records in church archives is how much genealogical work is done, as well as verification of inheritance rights and other family-related matters. Although the context is different, this carries significance for adults as well: being named at this time is the capturing of their identity, which is about to be given to God and baptized into his Name. Some may even take on a new, or additional, “Christian name” at this time, betokening their newfound identity as a Christian.
Water then is poured upon the candidate(s), and the minister speaks the baptismal formula. “The Name” of the trinity, as the biblical uses of the word imply, is a richly-layered invocation. It refers to the power and presence of God. It refers to the divine authority invested in the minister’s act. It also refers to the identity of God and the unity of the three Persons of the Trinity. In all these senses, the fullness of God is brought to bear on this poor sinner, with water blessed by the Spirit, to bring about new life that is ripe for eternity.