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Sacraments 3    Baptism

“When’s the christening?” they say. And then the vicar comes along and talks about “baptism” – and you can almost see them wondering whether they’ve got the right vicar.

Baptism is one of the two major sacraments of the Church of England, stemming identifiably from Christ himself1.

Growing up in the 21st century it’s hard to picture things in the early church when baptising (it means “washing”) babies was unheard of. It was adults who were baptised – and confirmation2 was part of the same thing. And it was a big do – you declared faith in Christ. So your baptism was the outward and visible sign of the inward and spiritual fact that now your life was totally different from the way it was before. A dramatic moment like Jesus with John the Baptist3.

These days, following a tradition dating back to the 3rd century, baptisms are usually of babies4 and to most they hardly mean the same thing at all as baptisms long ago. Nowadays even superstitions are dying away – so people don’t think that a child will go to hell if it dies unbaptised. And they don’t say “I won’t have that child in my house until he’s been baptised!5. But some are bewildered about why they’re doing such a thing. One doesn’t make a child a member of a tennis club! So this must mean more than that.

Of all sacraments, baptism’s outwards signs are the most powerful. Water to wash the person clean. The cross as a sign of being a member of Christ. A lighted candle, given to illuminate the person’s pathway through life with the light of Christ. In some churches oil is used – and other ceremonies like clothing with a new white robe.

You are made a member of the church when you’re baptised… but you take responsibility for it when you are confirmed6.