What’s on the Altar Table?

The most prominent element in a liturgical church’s worship space is the Holy Table or Altar, where the prayers are read and the Communion is celebrated. The nomenclature and its ornamentation has a history of some controversy, though most of those arguments are very much muted today.

The Prayer Book consistently refers to the Table or Holy Table, rather than an Altar. This was to appease those who found the term Altar objectionable, cautious as many were to distance themselves from the Roman view of the sacrifice of the mass. For others it was a matter of emphasis: better to speak of God’s Board or Table (where we feast) than of the Altar (where we make a sacrifice). Nevertheless, the altar terminology never entirely left Protestant discourse; we have always recognized the sacrificial aspect of the Holy Communion, and thus you typically will hear people today using the terms synonymously.

Another controversy in the days of the Reformation was what to put on this table or altar. There was a period of time when even candles were banned, for fear of symbolizing the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. This was eventually conceded to be excessive – the use of candles (and indeed nearly all Christian liturgical ornamentation and beauty) long precedes any late medieval abuses thereof. Thus even in “low church” settings it is not unusual to see a pair of candles and a cross on an altar table. After all, many ancient traditions have practical origins: candles on the altar helps the person(s) there to read the books!

The only ornament that remained a requirement in Anglican practice is the “fair linen cloth” to be draped over the holy table. This was in part a continuation of ancient practice, in part a symbol of cleanliness and holiness, in part an act of beauty and decency and decorum. Like the white robes worn by the saints in the Book of the Revelation, and the white pall draped over a coffin at a funeral, the fair linen cloth hides the tabletop (be it expensive and beautiful, or inexpensive and plain), emphasizing the holiness with which Christ clothes us, creating an equality and common ground that we would not otherwise have. One altar may be very ornately carved and another holy table may be a plastic fold-up (spoiler alert, that’s what we’ve got, still!), but the white cloth covers that up and says “whatever’s underneath here doesn’t really matter; what matters is that Christ is served here.”

Grace Anglican Church has had this altar cloth, cross, candle set, and bookstand for most of its history. The cross comes with kind of a funny story. When it was first purchased and arrived, a parishioner set it on the table. The cross being nearly two feet tall and the celebrant being on the shorter side of average, it stood squarely in his face, a strange barrier between him and the congregation. So during that morning’s setup he said “Here’s how we solve this!” – he pushed the table up against the wall and celebrated ad orientem instead of versus populum. Many of my readers know these terms, but some of you may not.

Worship ad orientem means “toward the East” – that is, the priest & people all face East together: toward the altar. Worship versus populum (or is it populorum? I decline to remember which, if you’ll pardon my Latin pun) means “against the people” – that is, the priest and the people are facing one another. Most traditional altars are built against the wall (either literally East or just symbolically East), such that when the celebrant prays here he is facing in the same direction as everyone else. In the 20th century some liturgical reformers decided it was not very hospitable to have the priest’s back turned to the people, so a different ancient arrangement was dredged up from the history books – versus populum – which necessitates a freestanding altar or table that the priest stands behind such that when he is praying, the people can see his face as well as everything on the table.

The Prayer Book tradition has a hybrid setup often called North Facing, as the priest is directed to stand at the “North end” (congregation’s left) side of the holy table to celebrate communion. This has been implemented in a couple different ways, and I’m not really well-versed in this practice, so I’ll not wade any further into this subject lest I teach something incorrect.

All that to say, Grace Anglican Church has been an ad orientem worshiping community for about 10 years simply because of the furnishings! And frankly, I found it a much more comfortable posture for the prayers than facing the congregation – I’m not praying to them and they aren’t praying to me! We’re all praying together, to one Lord.

The bookstand is another common tool found on most altar tables – it elevates and angles the Prayer Book, Bible, binder, or other form of text, so that the celebrant can see it and turn pages more easily. Ours, you’ll see in the picture, has the letters IHS in the center. (So does our cross.) This is often thought to stand for “In His Service” (at least that’s what I thought when I saw those letters as a child), but it’s actually the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ, or Ιησους.

There are other things to be said about the altar furnishings, and other ornaments around it, but that’s all we’ll address for today. Stay tuned for one more bonus article in this Visual Tour before next Wednesday!

The Saint Aelfric Window

This is how I intended to begin my “visual tour” of our chapel – with the image of the man himself, Saint Aelfric. There aren’t a lot of images of Aelfric out there, unfortunately, but this rather fetching stained-glass picture is from the church in Eynsham, the town where he was an abbot for many years.

The quote below the picture is from one of his Easter Homilies. It reads “This mystery [of the Holy Communion] is a pledge and symbol; Christ’s body is truth. This pledge we hold mystically until we come to the truth, and then will this pledge be ended. But it is, as we before said, Christ’s body and his blood, not bodily but spiritually. Ye are not to inquire how it is done, but to hold in your belief that it is so done.” Nearly 500 years before the Protestant Reformation began, Aelfric is a witness to the ancient Christian faith that confidently spoke of the real presence of Christ in the eucharist, yet without resorting to fanciful explanations that the medieval church would eventually fall into, particularly in the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation. His writings, therefore, as well as the earlier Church Fathers from whom he drew, were of great importance to the English Reformers as they sought to correct the recent Roman errors and restore the true teaching of the Catholic Church.

But why is Saint Aelfric the namesake, or patron, of my ministry, this blog, and this chapel? Well first of all Saint Aelfric himself is a difficult historical figure to identify. Historically he was understood to be the Abbot of Eynsham who wrote many biblical commentaries, sermons, and hagiographies in Old English, and the 28th Archbishop of Canterbury. In modern times “Aelfric of Eynsham” and “Aelfric of Abingdon, Archbishop” tend to be identified as two different men. Both lived in the late 900’s and died in the early 1000’s. Both of them are considered the namesake, or patron, of my ministry.

For one, the Aelfric who wrote all those treatises may also be responsible for some of the earliest Bible translation in the English language. Centuries before Wycliffe, significant parts of the Bible were translated into Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, of which the four Gospels, the Psalms, and other fragments survive to this day. Curiously, however, Aelfric was said to have been reluctant to do this; he apparently preferred the Latin Scriptures and liturgy, which were widely understood by all who learned to read and write, but he made his translation out of acquiescence to royal demand. My approach to liturgy and worship, and ministry in general, reflects that sense of caution, acquiescing to the authority of the Book of Common Prayer (2019) as set forth by the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), yet looking back to the long-standing tradition of Anglican worship that was interrupted in the late 20th century. Rather than revert to the “only-ism” characteristic of many traditionalists, it is my aim to follow the present standards with our Great Tradition in mind whenever possible.

The split identity of Aelfric –the Abbot of Eynsham or the Abbot of Abingdon who became the Archbishop– also plays into the context of our church at large. As it stands, the ACNA has its own form of identity crisis: traditional hymnody versus contemporary praise songs, solemn liturgical standards versus charismatic leniency, disagreement over ordination, a wide range of interpretation regarding the wearing of clerical vestments… all making this province a colorful and confusing place. It is my aim to worship and minister in such a way that Christians of all stripes may benefit from the riches of our historic tradition without too much intrusion from the particular preferences of the milieu of today.

Thus the faithful spirit and example of St. Aelfric is a constant companion in my service to the Lord and his flock.

The Saint Peter Window

Today I’m beginning a new series of posts providing a Visual Tour of the Saint Aelfric Chapel, from which I serve and host my little parish, Grace Anglican Church. My intention was to begin a couple weeks ago, on the first Wednesday of the year, and to make this a weekly entry on each Wednesday following, so there are two I’ve missed which I’ll make up between now and next Wednesday.

In the years leading up to the purchase of my family’s first house and the establishment of our own chapel space therein, I had dreamed and hoped for the opportunity to collect and gather a lineup of saints whose images and relevant quotes could adorn one of the walls. The chapel we’ve ended up with has not made that a feasible wish, but I found an alternative: the windows.

Now, this is a sort of a multi-layered pun. First of all, we have a window on either side of the bay, where the altar is located, and during Holy Communion I place a picture of a saint on both of those window sills. One is a picture of Saint Aelfric, the namesake and patron of this blog, the chapel, and my ministry in general. The other is rotated out between several different saints and images throughout the year. Now, many of those images are printings of traditional icons, which (as the Eastern Christians say) are “windows into heaven”. So we have windows in the windows, but for most of the week these pictures, sitting in their picture frames, are up on the altar.

Currently Saint Peter is up:

Saint Peter, is, of course, commonly considered the leader of the original twelve apostles, and generally recognized as the first Bishop of Antioch and then of Rome. He is thus a hugely significant figure for the Roman Church, who claim him and his patronage and (errantly) his primacy over all other apostolic sees. But he’s also a hugely significant figure in the New Testament itself, being the most active character in the Gospel books save for our Lord himself, as well as the author of two epistles.

As for me, St. Peter took on a special significance while I was attending seminary. In part, it was because one of my exegesis classes was on 1 Peter, and so I got to know him through his writing better than I did any other author. But also something that resonated with me was one of his last encounters with the risen Christ. The story is quoted on the picture (or “window”) above, and it’s from John 21:18-22. In that encounter, Jesus foretells the sort of death that Peter would eventually die. Peter, a relatable human to the core, looks over at John and asks “what about him?” as if he’s once again trying to compare himself to others. And Jesus gently retorts “what is that to you? You follow me.” As a human, it’s tempting to compare myself to others to evaluate my worth and my success. As a pastor and priest, it’s all the more tempting to compare myself to other ministers to measure my success and my worth. Jesus reminds Peter, and all pastors, that the fate of other pastors is not important – we all must follow him.

So Saint Peter’s window is up in the chapel for most of the month of January, in which we celebrate his marvelous confession of faith (today in fact) recorded in Matthew 16. As one of the most significant of the Church’s Saints, he’ll also cycle back in a second time for the month of June, in which we commemorate his martyrdom (alongside the martyrdom of Saint Paul, in our calendar).

Seven Weeks of Advent?

Something that I and other preachers often observe throughout the month of November is how the Sunday Communion lectionary transitions so smoothly into Advent from the end of the Trinitytide season. Whether it’s the traditional calendar or the modern, the readings naturally anticipate many of the major Advent themes: eternity, Christ’s judgement & reign, the Kingdom of God, our glorification in Christ. In both cases Advent does not come out of nowhere, but is a natural “next step” in the calendar’s cyclical presentation of the whole Gospel of Christ throughout the year.

But Advent has some pretty tough opponents these days. It normally begins on the coattails of Thanksgiving in the USA, and the commercialization of Christmas tends to drown out the distinction of Advent from Christmas. The hustle and bustle of culture, school, and general “holiday prep” makes it all too easy for the Christian today to miss the season of Advent completely. What can be a beautiful, quiet, and deeply spiritual experience is frequently truncated to a cardboard box with 24 numbers on it and chocolates inside.

I know what we need, MORE ADVENT!

Some eleven years ago now, a group of Episcopalians and Methodists came up with the idea of extending Advent from four weeks to seven, and thus The Advent Project was born. Nothing much came of it, and it never left the confines of liberal Protestantism. Unlike most liturgical innovations from that crowd, however, this idea was based on some rather sound principles: (1) Advent was a 40-week fast in the Early Church, (2) the secularization of Advent & Christmas needs to be combated, and (3) this could be accomplished without substantially changing the lectionary as it stands.

It’s also worth noting that the modern calendar authorized in the Church of England actually sets forth a sequence of “Sundays before Advent” (sometimes nicknamed Kingdomtide) which deliberately explores some pre-Advent themes. The liturgical color of red is put forth there as an alternative to the more traditional green.

The Advent Project’s 7-week plan, however, makes a lot of sense. When the popular secular and church cultures alike have made a mess of something like the season of Advent, why not turn to the Early Church for help? And if we can do that without yet another change to the lectionary, doesn’t that sound like the perfect solution?

Actually this is a silly idea.

But every good idea has its downsides. If you extend Advent to seven weeks in length, that means it begins on the Sunday within November 6th through 12th, meaning that roughly two years out of seven there is going to be a conflict between All Saints Sunday and the First Sunday of Extended Advent. Celebrating All Saints’ on the first Sunday of November is actually a 20th-century innovation, but the sort of congregation that is likely to adopt the 7-week Advent is probably also the sort that observes All Saints’ on the first Sunday of November, and thus there will be this conundrum to face on a regular basis.

Furthermore, the idea that Advent is so special that it needs its own pre-season reveals a telling bias. The traditional calendar has three weeks of Pre-Lent, smoothing the transition beautifully from Epiphanytide to Lent; but the modern calendar has thrown them out, resulting in a jarring shift of gears from Epiphany/Ordinary Time to Lent with only one Sunday (unique to Anglicans and Episcopalians I think) to bridge the gap between them. (That Sunday does, admittedly, use the Transfiguration as a brilliant hinge to make that shift from Epiphany to Lent, but it’s still just one little day with Ash Wednesday following too soon for anyone to prepare themselves spiritually.) The fact that there is interest in restoring dignity to Advent while neglecting Lent indicates what might be considered an imbalanced set of spiritual and theological priorities.

Also, let’s be real, what are the odds that a proposal like this, which has been dead in the water since 2011, will ever catch on?

Let’s see how it works!

Having played devil’s advocate, I want to turn now to providing some positive suggestions on how the spirit of the extended Advent idea can be used fruitfully, particularly in my context, using the authorized 2019 Prayer Book of the Anglican Church in North America.

The Advent Project had a clever idea: take the seven O Antiphons and appoint each of them as the theme or motif for each of the seven Sundays of Extended Advent. If you present them in their traditional order (with just one pair switched) they line up with the modern lectionary quite nicely. The collects in the 2019 BCP are different from those in the 1979 BCP, so many of the original idea-matches from the Advent Project are not applicable. But there are different ways that the same idea can work. Let’s walk through them:

Proper 27 / Third Sunday before Advent / Superadvent I: O Sapientia

SUNG VERSE: O come, thou wisdom from on high, who ord’rest all things mightily…

COLLECT: As the song prays that we might follow in the ways of Wisdom, so too does the collect pray that we purify ourselves as Christ (our wisdom) is pure so that we will be like him upon his second advent.

GOSPELS: Matthew 25:1-13 Parable of the WISE and foolish virgins
Mark 12:38-44 The learned scribes are unwise in their conduct, the poor widow is wise in her generosity
Luke 20:27-38 God is God of the living, not the dead; the Sadducees were not wise to understand this

Proper 28 / Second Sunday before Advent / Superadvent II: O Adonai

SUNG VERSE: O come, thou Lord of might, who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height…

COLLECT: As the song remembers the giving the Law, the collect prays for an abundance of good works (which the Law directed but was powerless itself to bring about).

GOSPELS: Matthew 25:14-30 Parable of the talents, in which one servant fails to invest his talent
Mark 13:14-23 & Luke 21:5-19 Do not be deceived by false Lords (adonai’s)

Proper 29 (Christ the King) / Last Sunday before Advent / Superadvent III: O Rex gentium

SUNG VERSE: O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind…

COLLECT: The song and the collect both pray for the end of human division under the unifying reign of Christ the King.

GOSPELS: Matthew 25:31-46 The King will judge the sheep from the goats for his kingdom
John 18:33-37 Jesus admits to Pilate that he is a king
Luke 23:35-43 This is the King of the Jews

Advent I / Superadvent IV: O radix Jesse

SUNG VERSE: O come, thou Rod of Jesse’s stem, from ev’ry foe deliver them…

COLLECT: The song prays for deliverance and victory, matched in the collect’s reference to putting on the armor of light.

GOSPELS: Matthew 24:29-44 & Mark 13:24-37 At the coming of the Son of Man, his elect will be delivered
Luke 21:25-33 Keep watch and pray that you will escape all these things at the end of the age

Advent II / Superadvent V: O clavis David

SUNG VERSE: O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heav’nly home…

COLLECT: The song prays for the path to misery be shut and the heavenly way opened, and the collect sets forth the Scriptures as a vehicle for blessed hope.

GOSPELS: Matthew 3:1-12 & Mark 1:1-8 & Luke 3:1-6 John the Baptist’s preaching points the way/highway/path to Christ

Advent III / Superadvent VI: O Oriens

SUNG VERSE O come, thou Day-spring from on high, and cheer us by thy drawing nigh…

COLLECT: The song’s language of dispelling darkness and night is matched in the collect’s prayer for repentance and cleansing upon hearing the prophets’ preaching.

GOSPELS: Matthew 11:2-19 Jesus affirms to John’s disciples that he is dispelling the darkness as promised
John 1:19-28 & Luke 3:7-20 John the Baptist proclaims that the Christ is drawing nigh

Advent IV / Superadvent VII: O Emmanuel

SUNG VERSE: O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel…

COLLECT: The song bids us await the appearance of the Son of God, and the collect also prays for him to come among us.

GOSPELS: Matthew 1:18-25 They shall call his name Emmanuel
Luke 1:26-38 He will be called the Son of the Most High
Luke 1:39-56 Fetal John the Baptist recognizes the newly-conceived Jesus

A final personal note of recommendation.

Surely if you dig through the Epistles and Old Testament lessons of the modern lectionary you will find further connections to these themes. But it should be emphasizes that this schema is not how the lectionary was designed to be interpreted. Using these seven O Antiphons in this manner only gives coincidental lines of interpretation. They’re not bad lines of interpretation, but they don’t account for everything, nor do they even begin to exhaust the potential of these Sundays’ themes and lessons.

I have used this Extended Advent concept once, a few years ago, and plan to use it again in 2023. I did not, and will not, rename the Sundays before Advent as if to make an official Pre-Advent season; rather, I treated it like a sermon series, preaching on Jesus in the Old Testament images that those seven antiphons/verses portray. We also sang the corresponding verse of the hymn each week, needless to say. I do recommend other priests and pastors give this a try sometime, too. 2023 is a good opportunity for it because All Saints’ Sunday won’t conflict with the first day of this sequence!

That having been said, there are plenty of other ways to anticipate Advent in the final Sundays of the church year. As early as “Proper 24” (Oct. 16-22) the Collects of the Day give themes that summarize the course of Christian life and discipleship and anticipate eternity – bondage from sin (24), live among things that are passing away (26), and so on – not to mention the lectionary’s meanderings into the later Prophets, and 1 & 2 Thessalonians around the same time. (I suppose Year B is the weak one of the three, when it comes to explicit anticipation of Advent.) The seven-week Advent idea is a nifty one, and can be used gently to draw upon the wisdom and resources of the Early Church without having to tinker with the liturgy we’ve received by authority in our own day. But it’s one approach of many, and I pray that you and yours will be enriched with the blessed hope of eternal life that this time of year directs us toward!

Receiving the newly-baptized

The liturgy concludes with symbols of the baptized persons’ new life being given to them, and the congregation verbally welcoming them into the Church.

The 1549 Prayer Book did this with two traditional acts: bestowing a white garment (with accompanying verbal explanation) and anointing with oil, followed by a final exhortation to the parents and godparents to raise the children accordingly, teach them, and bring them to Confirmation when they’re ready.  The external symbolism was reduced in subsequent Books, the minister instead reading a pair of declarations, affirming the efficacy of Holy Baptism: “We receive this Child into the congregation of Christ’s flock…” wherein the Priest shall make a Cross upon the Child’s forehead, and “Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this Child is regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church…”  Our rite contains the first of these statements, the phraseology having been reworked, and with express permission to make the sign of the Cross with Oil of Chrism.  A second, shorter statement is also provided as an option, which is a holdover from the 1979 Prayer Book.

Additional traditional baptismal symbols (garments and candles) are also permitted at this time, both of which have their accompanying verbal texts in the Additional Directions on page 172. Where the classical Prayer Books contain the minister’s second statement about the regeneration of the candidate, followed by the Lord’s Prayer and a final thanksgiving, the present rite skips straight to that thanksgiving.  Although the emphasis on regeneration has been diminished by way of word count, the prayer contains the same elements.  It should also be noted that the reduction of this prayer’s length already began in the American and Canadian Prayer Books of the 20th century.

comparison across four Prayer Books, assembled by the Rev. Matthew Brench

Most of the classical Prayer Books follow this thanksgiving with a final charge to the baptismal sponsors, but that is omitted in the modern liturgy because the substantial exhortation to them has already been given during the Presentation of the Candidates.  Instead, the celebrant turns to the congregation and bids them welcome the newly baptized.  This, and the congregation’s words of welcome, originate with the American Book of 1979.

The exchange of Peace at the conclusion of the liturgy is both a transition point leading to the remainder of the Communion liturgy and natural outflow from the act of welcoming new members into the Church.

thinking devotionally

A secondary act, primarily symbolic yet still charged with powerful meaning, is tracing the sign of the Cross on the forehead of the baptized person(s).  This may be done with or without holy oil, and (as the celebrant here says) it betokens the banner of Christ under which the newly-baptized is hereafter charged to fight against evil.  For the entry to new life through Baptism sadly entails entry into the age-old war against sin; thus the first thing that the Church does for her new members is give them armor and encouragement.  The alternative text, upon the signing of the Cross, side-steps the militaristic imagery and focuses singly upon the “seal” of the Spirit.  This, too, can be a deeply powerful statement of assurance, protection, and love, if rightly understood.

After the newly-baptized have been marked with the Cross (and perhaps received baptismal garments and candles), the celebrant once again gives thanks to God.  In a way, this prayer reflects the Thanksgiving over the Water on the other side of the font, as it were.  Once again we thank God for bestowing the forgiveness of sin, for adopting the candidate(s) as his own children, incorporating them into the Church, and giving them the grace of new life.  We pray that these good things will last unto eternity, by God’s sustaining (or persevering) grace.

Last of all, the minister invites the congregation to acknowledge what God has done, and welcome the newly baptized accordingly.  The worshipers, with one voice, receive the baptized into their fellowship and give a three-fold charge.  First, the new member(s) are to confess of faith of Christ crucified.  This speaks especially to the call to catechesis: learning the truth attested in the Scriptures and growing in the knowledge and love of God.  Second, they are to proclaim his resurrection, which is largely a call to worship.  Similarly, third, they are to invited to share in “the royal priesthood”, which indicates both a worthiness to be in the presence of God (participating in the life and sacraments of the Church) as well as a responsibility to represent God to the unbelieving world around.  A priesthood, after all, is a form of intermediary, and all Christians are called to be go-betweens on God’s behalf to those who are still lost and dead in sin.  Baptism is much to be celebrated, but it is also just the beginning of a truly new and different life than came before. The sharing of the peace, in this context, is bound to be less a time of reconciliation (see the commentary of the Communion liturgy) and more a time of solidarity and mutual encouragement to face up to the common task before us as baptized persons – God’s people in the world.

Anglican Baptism: dunk or drip?

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.

Matter

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.

Blessing the baptismal water

With the candidate(s), sponsors, and congregation prepared for the Rite of Baptism, one thing remains: the water.  Although a significant step away from the many medieval traditions that came to surround baptism, the Prayer Book tradition has retained a single prayer to sanctify the water in the baptismal font.  This is not superstition, but entirely wholesome.  For one, it matches the liturgy of the other Sacrament ordained by Christ – Holy Communion – in its acknowledgment of preparing earthly materials for the grace-giving work of the Holy Spirit.  From another angle, biblical witness attests many examples of Prophets and Priests blessing physical things before the working of a miracle, or the regular service of the Tabernacle or Temple.

from an historical perspective

The text of the prayer was stable from the 1550’s into the early American Prayer Books.  It began to undergo edits the 20th century: the American Prayer Book of 1928 added the Sursum Corda to the beginning of it, giving it a context more closely resembling the Great Thanksgiving and Prayers of Consecration in the Communion service.  The word “elect” was also removed in that book.  The Canadian Prayer Book of 1962 also took up the Great Thanksgiving format but retained the language of “thy faithful and elect children.”  Both of those Prayer Books also add a trinitarian ending to the prayer, again mirroring the end of the Prayers of Consecration.

The prayer, as put forth in the present Prayer Book, is rather different.  The first paragraph focuses on “the gift of the water” where the original prayers begin with the death and commandment of Christ.  Appeals to the waters at Creation, the Red Sea, and the River Jordan are made, introducing biblical references previous versions of the prayer have never utilized.  However, the latter two images were in the old versions of the Flood Prayer (see above), thus this paragraph represents a re-arrangement of traditional material rather than an entirely new rite.  In the logic of this baptismal Rite, the Flood Prayer is narrowed in on the saving efficacy of the waters of Baptism, and the Thanksgiving over the Water then turns to the water itself.

The second paragraph follows the general outline of the biblical history of water with a treatment of baptismal water itself.  Although the wording is drastically re-worked, the main points of this paragraph link back to the traditional Blessing, namely that through the water “we are made regenerate”, baptizing people according to Christ’s command, to the end that their fellowship with us (and Christ) may continue forever. The final paragraph begins with the celebrant touching the water in some fashion, again matching the Communion liturgy which also requires the celebrant to touch the bread (or patens) and the cup (or flagons).  The blessing, “Sanctify this water”, is the heart of this Thanksgiving prayer, and the two desired effects named in the desired prayer (“to the mystical washing away of sin” and “to receive the fulness of thy grace, and ever remain…”) are both retained here.  Between them is added a third desired effect: “be born again,” which is the typical modern Bible translation for the classical term “regenerate” which has already appeared in the previous paragraph.  A doxology, in line with the form in the 1928 and 1962 Prayer Books, concludes this portion of the rite.

from a devotional perspective

With the preparatory prayers complete, the minister, candidate(s), and sponsors move to the baptismal font.  Traditional church architecture places the font in the nave or the narthex – near the entrance to the worship space, so in large buildings this could be a procession from the altar of some distance and ceremony, hence the option for a psalm, anthem, or hymn.  Liturgical planners and music ministers should take care to vet any sung lyrics for its doctrinal content, that it be consonant with Anglican doctrine as expressed in the Articles of Religion and the Prayer Book liturgy.

There, the minister begins the Great Thanksgiving.  The fact that it the text is identical to the Sursum Corda in the Communion service enables the congregation to participate easily without having to learn new responses.  It also highlights the sacramental nature of Holy Baptism, which is something that many evangelicals who are new to Anglicanism can have trouble understanding early on.  It also brings out the posture of thanksgiving and preparation inherent in the more traditional forms of this liturgy.

Perhaps one of the most striking challenges to understanding the sacramental nature of Baptism, for those coming from traditions who only consider it symbolically (after the baptism of infants, which has already been addressed in the liturgy), is the blessing of water.  Thus, the traditional prayer of thanksgiving and blessing has been expanded in the present form, and broken up into three paragraphs to make it easier to follow the words and logic.

The first paragraph focuses on biblical roles that God has given to water: the place of creation, the salvation of Israel from Egyptian bondage and entrance to the promised land, and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Baptism of Jesus.  More could be said (see the Flood Prayer, for example) but these three images provide the worshiper with key foundations that will enrich comprehension of Holy Baptism.

The second paragraph subtly applies the biblical examples to Baptism itself.  The Exodus story presages death and resurrection in Christ (fulfilled citing Romans 6:4).  The presence of the Holy Spirit in creation and the Baptism of Jesus presage the gift of regeneration (cf. Titus 3:5).  With these benefits in mind, the celebrant naturally leads the congregation to “joyful obedience” to Jesus in bringing people to this Sacrament.

The third paragraph, finally, contains the blessing of the water itself – again calling upon the power of the Holy Spirit.  Three benefits, or results, are named that the worshipers expect from Holy Baptism: cleansing from sin, being born again, and continuing forever faithful in the risen life of Christ.  The first two are gifts provided instrumentally through Baptism.  The candidate is truly about to be washed from all sin actual and original, and truly about to be re-born; these gifts may be abandoned, but they cannot be taken away.  To persevere in the life of Christ forever is also a gift of God, but that grace is only begun in Baptism, not infallibly assured.  Nevertheless, this great beginning is a time of celebration, and so to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we accord all honor and glory.

Praying for the Baptismal Candidates

The 1662 Prayer Book places a series of four short prayers follows at this point:

  1. That the old Adam in this Child may be so buried that the new man may be raised up in him.
  2. That all carnal or sinful affections may die and all things belonging to the Spirit may grow.
  3. That he may have power and strength to have victory over the devil, the world, and the flesh.
  4. That whoever is dedicated to God may also be ensued with heavenly virtues and be everlastingly rewarded.

The first of these four was altered in the American Church by 1928, and even further altered by 1962 in Canada.  The American 1979 Book, finally, replaced these with a litany of brief prayers, the format of which has been retained in the current Prayer Book, but the content is considerably improved.

Seven petitions now stand in the Litany for the Candidates, the first marked as optional as it applies specifically to infants and young children.  The third petition echoes the fourth of the traditional prayers, the fourth petition echoes the first and second traditional prayers, and the sixth and seventh petitions are also akin to the fourth traditional prayer.  The rest of the litany carries an emphasis on the candidates’ new life as members of the Body of Christ.

Where many traditional prayers emphasize the immediate or permanent effect of Holy Baptism, this litany focuses on the anticipated fruit of the Sacrament that the candidate(s) should develop over time.

That these children may come to confess their faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
We beseech you to hear us, Good Lord.

First, when it is infants or young children being baptized, we pray that they would take up that good confession themselves.  This prayer is offered in line with the earlier exhortation to raise the children in the faith and bring them to the Bishop for Confirmation when they are ready.

That all these Candidates may continue in the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship,
in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.

Second, we pray for the candidates to continue in the Church’s life of worship.  This is in opposition to the sad trend in some places where Baptism or Confirmation end up being treated like a graduation and the candidates soon fade away.

That they may walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which they have been called,
ever growing in faith and all heavenly virtues.

Third, an appeal for a life of Christian ethics and virtue is made.  Both child and adult need to continue to grow in faith and virtue, the reformation of life is always an ongoing process.

That they may persevere in resisting evil,
and, whenever they fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.

Fourth, we pray specifically for the struggle against evil and for continual repentance.  Regular participation in the liturgy directs every worshiper to do this, but it is a spiritual discipline that ultimately must take place within the heart of each believer.

That they may proclaim by word and deed the Good News of God in Christ Jesus
to a lost and broken world.

Fifth, the mission of the Church comes to the fore as we pray that the candidate(s) will proclaim the Gospel through both word and deed.

That as living members of the Body of Christ,
they may grow up in every way into him who is the head.

Sixth, weaving together the first three petitions, the liturgy now directs us to pray for the candidates’ membership in the Body of Christ, quoting Ephesians 4:15.

That, looking to Jesus, they may run with endurance the race set before them,
and at the last receive the unfading crown of glory.

Lastly, referencing Hebrews 12:1, we pray for the eternal perseverance of the candidates in the “race” of faith.

It should be noted that the rubric, Other petitions may be added, allows for the congregation to offer their own prayers, or the minister to include the traditional prayers from the historic Prayer Books.

The Flood Prayer

When Martin Luther was revising the Roman liturgy for the German Protestant churches in the 1520’s he abbreviated the baptismal service twice, streamlining its attention upon the baptismal act and the grace of God therein.  But one thing he added to the liturgy is what came to known as the “Flood Prayer,” which carried over into the English Prayer Books in 1552.  By 1662 the prayer had taken a distinct, slightly shorter, form from Luther’s version.  The first American Prayer Book rendered it an either/or option with the Prayer for the Good Effect of Baptism that followed it in the 1662 liturgy, and by 1928 the Flood Prayer was gone entirely.  Its reappearance in the 2019 Prayer Book, albeit in a shortened form, is therefore a retrieval of prior tradition lost in North America.

This is a short version of a prayer known as the Flood Prayer.  Drawing from 1 Peter 3, it depicts the Flood in the days of Noah as an archetype foreshadowing this Sacrament of Regeneration wherein the sinful Adam is drowned.  (Additional references to the crossing of the Red Sea and the Baptism of Jesus are omitted in this version, though these images and types appear in other contexts within the Prayer Book.)  Baptism, this prayer further affirms, washes and sanctifies the candidates through the power of the Holy Spirit, and delivers them from death akin to how the Ark delivered Noah and his family from the Flood.  Indeed, the image of the Church as the Ark is enshrined in other terms: the primary section of a church interior where the people stand or sit is called the nave, derived from the Latin word navis – ship!  The prayer concludes, obliquely referencing Ephesians 3:17, with a desire for the eternal salvation of the candidate(s) as they “pass through the turbulent floods of this troublesome life”. The worshiper is thus reminded that the Sacrament of Holy Baptism is not a novel concept in the New Testament, but an expression of the promise of God that has its echoes as far back as Noah’s generation.  Much less is Baptism a “work” done by man, but it is God himself who works, who saves us through this physical enactment of his ancient promise.

For more on the Flood Prayer, click here and read this!

The Baptismal Profession of Faith

This portion of the liturgy, although novel in its arrangement, is a sublime synthesis of traditional Prayer Book elements into three sets of three Questions and Answers, with a transitionary interlude between each one.

It begins with the renunciation of the Christian’s three-fold enemy: the devil, the world, and the flesh.  In renouncing each of these in turn, the worshipers are taught that temptation to sin comes from real spiritual beings; that the world offers us empty promises at best, or deadly deceits at worst; and that even the desires of our own flesh ultimately draw us from the love of God.  All these evils must be cast aside to walk in the way of Christ.

In response to these renunciations the minister may anoint the candidate(s) with specially-prepared Oil of Exorcism, speaking words of deliverance.  While this act does not necessarily imply that everyone who is not-yet-baptized is in possession of a demon, it does remind us that such is truly possible.  Indeed, with the mission field increasingly at North America’s front door and the rise of Neo-Paganism and other world religions in our communities, the necessity of exorcising adult converts in particular is more pronounced today than in centuries past.

With evil rejected and cast out, the liturgy heeds the warning of Matthew 12:43-45 / Luke 11:24-26, and calls for something to take the place of those former masters: the three renounced evils are matched with three positive affirmations.  In place of the devil and his angels, the candidates affirm Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; the Christian may be mastered by none other than He.  In place of the world’s promises and deceits the candidates affirm the Christian Faith as revealed in the Bible; the only truly infallible source of truth.  And against the sinful desires of the flesh the candidate affirms desire to obey God’s holy will and commandments, returning to the Lord the claim to true knowledge of good and evil that Adam and Eve stole in the Garden of Eden.

The interlude at this point is for the minister to turn to the congregation.  For, as the candidates finally answered “the Lord being my helper”, it behooves the whole church to take part in that ministry of helping.  Thus while the culture has a saying “it takes a village to raise a child” the liturgy reminds us that “it takes a church to raise a Christian” – of any age!

The final trio of questions and answers are, building from the congregation’s commitment to support the candidate(s), addressed to everybody present.  The full text of the Apostles’ Creed is affirmed, according to the division of its three major articles, and thus the candidate(s) and sponsors and congregation are all clearly and explicitly on the same page concerning the Faith alluded to in the previous brief affirmations.

Traditional Background

The Profession of Faith begins, in accordance with the biblical definition of repentance, with the renunciation of evil.  Where the majority of Prayer Book tradition has rolled all three renunciations into a single question & answer, the present volume returns to the 1549 format of renouncing the devil, the world, and the flesh each individually.  The option to exorcise the candidate(s) is also a retrieval of tradition in the 1549 Prayer Book, although the prayer is considerably shorter.  The 1549 exorcism reads:

I command thee, unclean spirit, in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, that thou come out, and depart from these infants, whom our Lord Jesus Christ hath vouchsafed to call to his Holy Baptism, to be made members of his body, and of his holy congregation.  Therefore thou cursed spirit, remember thy sentence, remember thy judgment, remember the day to be at hand, wherein thou shalt burn in fire everlasting, prepared for thee and thy Angels.  And presume not hereafter to exercise any tyranny toward these infants, whom Christ hath bought with his precious blood, and by this his holy Baptism calleth to be of his flock.

The three-fold affirmation of faith in Jesus, the Bible, and God’s will and commandments is most reflective of the questions asked an adult in the American Prayer Book of 1928, which in turn is substantially the same as the greater Prayer Book tradition.

The involvement of the entire congregation “who witness these vows” promising to support the candidates is a modern feature, though the sentiment is very much in line with historic Prayer Book doctrine, as the close of the liturgy will further note. Traditionally, the text of the Apostles’ Creed was read by the minister as questions, to which the candidates or their parents would answer “All this I steadfastly believe” (with the exception of the 1928 liturgy which merely named the Creed, rather than read it in full).  The practice of placing it in the mouths of the entire congregation seems to have begun in the Canadian Prayer Book of 1962, although the breaking up of the Creed into three Q&A sections was introduced in the American Book of 1979.

Presenting the Baptismal Candidates

As is the case in other Sacraments or sacramental rites, the question of fitness for reception is addressed first.  (The question of if the children have already been baptized is in all the classical Prayer Books too, though typically in a rubric before the start of the liturgy itself.) In this case, the twin realities of not having been baptized before, and desiring to be baptized now, are the immediate concerns.  Those who are baptized in infancy or childhood, are not raised in the faith, and later come to believe in Christ, do not need a repeat Baptism.  Indeed, as the Acclamation from Ephesians 4 already affirmed, there is indeed only one Baptism for the Christian. That being true, this does not mean that the church may indiscriminately baptize every child she comes across.  When parents (with godparents, or sponsors) present children for Holy Baptism, they are expected to be ready to undertake the work of raising a Christian child. 

The celebrant’s follow-up words (provided below) to the presentation of infants and younger children by parents and godparents is a speech that is new to the Prayer Book tradition.  This is largely due to the decrease in understanding by the average church-goer regarding the solemn biblical meaning of Baptism, as well as a decreased normalcy in being baptized at all in Western culture at large.  This innovation is not without precedent, however, as the American Prayer Book of 1928 contains a similar introductory speech to the parents and godparents before proceeding to the Promises, or Examination, or Profession of Faith.

Today, on behalf of this child, you shall make vows to renounce the devil and all his works, to trust God wholeheartedly, and to serve him faithfully. It is your task to see that this child is taught, as soon as he is able to learn, the meaning of all these vows, and of the Faith that you will profess as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. He must come to put his faith in Jesus Christ, and learn the Creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and all other things that a Christian ought to know, believe, and do for the welfare of his soul. When he has embraced all these, he is to come to the Bishop to be confirmed, that he may publicly claim the Faith for his own and be further strengthened by the Holy Spirit to serve Christ and his kingdom.

As you can see, the Celebrant’s response to the presentation of a child or infant for Baptism is a carefully presented speech.  The parents and godparents are responsible for:

  1. Making renunciations and vows on behalf of the child
  2. Seeing that the child is taught the meaning of these vows and the biblical faith
  3. Seeing that the child learns the Creeds, Lord’s Prayer, and Ten Commandments such that (s)he may put his/her faith in Jesus
  4. Bringing the child to Confirmation once (s)he has embraced the above on his/her own.