Over the past 10 years I have witnessed a pretty steady stream of Evangelical Christians coming into the Anglican Church. These men and women have a desire for liturgy, tradition, and a connection with the historical Church while at the same time wanting to retain Biblical teaching and preaching, and thus Anglicanism is a perfect fit for many of them. And while many are ready to embrace the Anglican theology of the Eucharist, there is often reticence when it comes to infant baptism. For many Christians today, baptism is about making a public affirmation of belief, about dying to the old self and being raised with Christ. How then, can the Anglican Church justify baptizing infants who are unable to make such a profession of faith?
As 21st Century Americans, we are rugged individualists. For us, the starting point of everything is the individual. The ancient Jews, on the other hand, had a much more communal view of the world. For them, a person’s individual identity was secondary to their communal identity as Jews, and circumcision was the sign of membership in that community. If we look back at the history of circumcision, we see that it starts with Abraham in Genesis 17. God tells him, “This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised.” So while circumcision was initially done to adults in the first generation, by the second generation it was done to babies. For the Jews, their concept of community belonging was so strong that they could not imagine intentionally leaving their children outside of that community for any extended length of time.
The early Christians had this same understanding of community, and thus baptism quickly replaced circumcision as the entry rite into the Church. Although we see primarily adults being baptized in the New Testament (we are told that the jailer in Acts 16 was baptized with “all his family,” which may have included children), the practice of baptizing infants developed quickly in the following generations as Christians sought to bring their children into their new community.
For Anglicans today, baptism is more about belonging than belief. It is about bringing a child into the family of God. When this happens, a child’s parents make promises on his or her behalf. They promise to raise the child in a Christian home and teach him or her what it means to be a follower of Christ. They promise that they themselves are believers in Jesus Christ and will do all that they can to pass their faith on to the child. For this reason, we will not baptize any infant or child who does not have believing parents who are active church members, as they would not be able to make these promises in good conscience. Once the child is old enough, he or she will then have to opportunity to come before the congregation and the Bishop to confirm the promises made on his or her behalf at baptism, making a public affirmation of their faith in a rite known as Confirmation.
It is important to note that Anglicans do not see baptism as salvific in and of itself. It is not a magic wand or a “get out of hell free” card. As with any sacrament of the church, faith is required to make it efficacious. For some people, that faith comes first, for others it comes later. But faith is not necessarily a prerequisite. Think of it like adoption. I have some friends in Colorado who have adopted three children from China. Before their adoptions, they were in orphanages and without a family. My friends could have chosen to leave them there, to wait until they were old enough to select their own family. But instead, they decided for them. They adopted them and brought them into their family as children. As those children grow, they will learn what it means to be a part of that family. At some point they will be old enough to choose for themselves whether to remain a part of their new family or leave, but until that day they will be loved and cared for as full family members. Our baptisms are like that. We are born as spiritual orphans, but the church brings us in, gives us a family and teaches us what it means to be a child of God. At some point we all need to make a decision for Christ, but until that day we are fully members of Christ’s body on earth.
That being said, baptism at All Saints will continue to be a family decision. While we do practice infant baptism, we also support parents who choose to wait until their children are older before they are baptized. We can even do full immersion baptism if people would like. If you would like more information on baptism at All Saints, please don’t hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.