After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he spent some time there with them and baptised. John also was baptising at Aenon near Salim because water was abundant there; and people kept coming and were being baptised— John, of course, had not yet been thrown into prison.
Now a discussion about purification arose between John’s disciples and a Jew. They came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you testified, here he is baptising, and all are going to him.’ John answered, ‘No one can receive anything except what has been given from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, “I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. For this reason my joy has been fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease.’
…The United Reformed Church includes within its membership both persons whose conviction it is that baptism can only be appropriately administered to a believer and those whose conviction it is that infant baptism also is in harmony with the mind of Christ. Both convictions are honoured by the church and both forms of baptism are understood to be used by God in the upbuilding of faith. Should these differences of conviction within the one church result in personal conflict of conscience it will require to be pastorally reconciled in mutual understanding and charity, and in accordance with the Basis of Union, in the first instance by the elders’ meeting of the local congregation, and if necessary by the wider councils of the church. Whether the baptism is of an infant or a believer, whether it is by pouring or immersion, it shall not be such to which a conscientious objection is taken either by the person administering baptism, or by the person seeking it, or by the parent(s) requesting it for an infant…(14)
The Baptism section of the Basis of Union is one of the few that has been substantially revised since the original 1972 agreement. This paragraph hints at the issue.
When Congregational and Presbyterian traditions united to create the United Reformed Church, both had infant baptism as the norm, whilst recognising adult baptism as also theologically valid for those not baptised as infants. However, when the Churches of Christ sought to join the young URC, Baptism was a major issue in the negotiations as the Churches of Christ tradition did not recognise infant Baptism. This paragraph explains how this issue was resolved: accepting both stances as legitimate while protecting individuals from being pushed into a position they did not themselves hold.
The paragraph modestly fails to trumpet what an extraordinary agreement this was. Many churches in the Congregational tradition had split in previous centuries because some members came to believe in believers’ baptism and it was widely assumed that it was impossible to have a church where both convictions could live alongside each other. The enlarged URC decided it was both possible and honouring God’s will.
This struggle has echoes in other Church traditions. The passage in John 3 where Jesus and John are both baptising, leading to questions about what sorts of baptism are valid or superior, shows that such debates have a long history.
While URC debates around Baptism may have been intense a generation ago, nowadays this feature of the URC’s life is rarely commented on. Different congregations have chosen their own emphases within the flexibility the Basis deliberately offers and we live at peace together.
This part of the URC story might be a hopeful sign on other questions that have perplexed and sometimes divided the Church. Holding within one Body views that seemed irreconcilable to one generation may seem routine to another.
Creator God, who chose to make us all different, we thank you for our diversity. Give us graceful patience with those who fail to understand our convictions. Make us as keen to test our convictions as we are to test those of others. Show us a vision of your Church with the boundaries you want. We pray in the name of the only Head of the Church, even Jesus Christ. Amen.
John Ellis is Secretary of Capel United Church in Kent
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