I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
The United Reformed Church observes the gospel sacrament of baptism into Christ as a gift of God to his Church, and as an appointed means of grace. Baptism is administered with water in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. It is the sacrament of entry into the Church and is therefore administered once only to any person.
When the Church observes this sacrament it makes explicit at a particular time and place and for a particular person what God has accomplished in Christ for the whole creation and for all humankind – the forgiveness of sins, the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit and newness of life in the family of God. In this sacrament the Church affirms its faith in the action of God in Jesus Christ; and takes corporate responsibility for those receiving baptism, promising to support and nourish them as it receives them into its fellowship. Baptism may be administered in infancy or at an age of responsibility. Both forms of baptism shall be made available in the life of every worshipping congregation. In either case the sacrament of baptism is a unique part of the total process of Christian initiation. When baptism is administered at an age of responsibility, upon profession of faith, those baptised enter at once upon the full privileges and responsibilities of membership. When baptism is administered to infants, upon profession of faith by their parent(s), they are placed under the nurture of the Church that they may be led by the Holy Spirit in due time to make their own profession of faith in Christ as their Saviour and Lord, and enter upon the full privileges and responsibilities of membership. These two patterns of Christian initiation are recognised by the United Reformed Church…(14)
The Baptism section of the Basis of Union places the United Reformed Church squarely in the mainstream of Christian teaching and, in particular, in the Protestant stream. This recognises only two sacraments out of the seven rituals deemed sacraments by the medieval Catholic Church.
Baptism is intended to be one of the unifying features of Christ’s Church. It helps reconciliation across other differences, as Paul describes when encouraging the Ephesians to see what united them, rather than what divided them. It was one of the earlier successes of the twentieth century ecumenical movement in Britain to achieve a single Baptismal certificate that was recognised as valid by a wide range of Christian denominations.
The pastoral difficulty of these paragraphs often arises from the unequivocal statement that Baptism is “administered once only to any person”. This also reflects common Christian teaching across many traditions. However, in an individualistic age, the idea that the Church not the individual decides whether they can be baptised can seem puzzling and insensitive. Especially if infant Baptism took place in a context where the supposed faith of the parents was questionable, adult believers often seek another Baptism in which they can witness to their own faith. Different congregations resolve this tension in different ways.
We might want to reflect on how we decide whether and when the Church’s stated theology should be bent to suit pastoral pressures. When does choosing to ignore parts of the Basis of Union compromise the integrity of the United Reformed Church, which claims to have the Basis as unifying common ground?
Lord Jesus, who was baptised in the Jordan, I thank you for my Baptism: for the faith that embraced it and for those who have kept their promises. I pray for those preparing for Baptism and entry into your Church. And I pray for Ministers and Elders confronted with hard decisions about Baptismal requests. Amen.
John Ellis is Secretary of Capel United Church in Kent
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