Category Archives: Baptism

Baptism Liturgy – “What would Apple Do?”

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Brother Ivo recently heard of one of the UK’s leading Advertising “Gurus” who, whilst training  his staff, challenged them to nominate the most successful brand in the world.

The youngsters reflected and then began to offer suggestions; Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Google and Apple: all were discounted by the Guru , who eventually offered his view.

In marketing terms he declared, the most successful world “brand” was the Catholic Church.

Everybody across multiple cultures could identify its “logo” he argued; they knew who its “CEO” was: they had a fairly clear idea of its core values, and could readily identify its buildings and staff. Its “customers” were faithful and prioritised that loyalty to a very high degree. Nobody dies for customer loyalty to Sony or Mercedes.

As an orthodox Christian, Brother Ivo does not tell this story and draw the comparison for any other purpose than to offer an interesting perspective on how a sophisticated professional eye has looked upon the position of the Church in the world and judged the success of the faithful more favourably than many of us would judge our own efforts to relate to those with whom we live.

Brother Ivo called this story to mind in the context of the current  theological spat that is developing over some proposed experimental revisions to the Anglican Baptism service. The language of the liturgy is being changed in this version of the service and with it, there can be no doubt, the emphasis of the presentation has shifted.

”Archbishop Cranmer” was initially sanguine about the new text but has been mindful of the arguments presented, not least by the Bishop of Willesden,  and has changed his view. His explanation of the issue and the basis for altering his opinion is interesting, not least because he was open minded enough not to take fright at the first hint of change, and to acknowledge that liturgy has always mutated.

Brother Ivo is not sure that Cranmer has got this right. He is not sure he has got it wrong either, and is given particular reason to think carefully, because one of the earliest opponents of the new text is Bishop Michael Nazir Ali, for whom Brother Ivo has considerable respect.

Paradoxically, it was a day spent studying with Bishop Michael some time ago that gives him pause to think that the three much respected opposing  authorities quoted here may still be over reacting to what is, after all a pilot scheme which will be reviewed before being adopted, adjusted, or abandoned.

During an afternoon training session with Bishop Michael he invited questions,  and was asked about this problem of adapting to the modern world. As he worked through his thinking on the subject the phrase which Bishop Michael used and re-used was that of “working with the grain” of humanity.

It was a phrase that stuck in Brother Ivo’s mind and has informed his practice ever after. and it surely is the sub text of any liturgical change.

On a previous training day another speaker had pointed out the futility of seeking to engage an inner city hoodie with the opening statement “Jesus wants to wash you in the blood of the lamb”, and the contrast between that and Bishop Michael’s approach illustrates Cranmer’s point that sometimes one has to be relaxed about changing language that once resonated with a population whose ears were tuned to a different cultural wavelength.

ArchBishop Cranmer and Bishops Peter and Michael know this,  and may well be right that this is a revision too far.

Brother Ivo simply asks the question whether this is the right moment to make that call.

One appreciates that creeping incremental change can be insidious, undermining and eventually harmful. This might be the point to say “Thus far and no further”, but it may not be.

If one has a fear of watering down the Gospel message , that fear probably has a wider and deeper cause than any individual experiment. Make that case specifically, cite this in the evidential review by all means, but would it not be worth seeing the consequences of the revised liturgy first?

Brother Ivo might have a slightly different perspective than the more august commentators as he is a Baptism visitor. He takes the service sheet into the homes of parents seeking baptism for their child/ren and has the conversation on this subject on a regular basis. It was from such practical experience that the ”Liverpool Synod motion” advancing the case for this liturgical experiment  arose. Reading the explanation of how the Liverpool Synod came to reach its proposal Brother Ivo finds it very hard to conclude that they have advanced their ideas other than “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God” – as a fine liturgist once put it!

Like the authors of the paper Brother Ivo deals with a wide range of baptism parents. What tends to happen is that he reads the old language , and then uses it as a teaching aid, re-interpreting it on the spot into language which  he judges the parents will best appreciate. He sometimes finds himself talking in not dissimilar terms to the revised text. Were the revised text before him, he would almost certainly use that as the starting point and then take the conversation in the other direction.

Without wishing to be unduly frivolous about a serious subject, it will probably  make little difference to what happens in the most important relationship/ discussion – that between Baptism preparer and parent – whether they are offered fish with chips or chips with fish! They will get both whatever may be on the menu.

Of course those in the wider congregation will not get that explanation, but they may engage better with the revised language. One seriously doubts that anyone has ever said – ” We’ll now you’ve set that in an Elizabethan paradigm it all makes proper sense”!

It will rightly be said that that Elizabethan or any other past language harkens back to Paul, clearly it does; but let us not necessarily assume that Paul is the textbook case for conversion. If Paul speaks passionately of the image of the risen Christ crucified it was only because everything else in his case had failed. He had heard the teachings of Jesus and was unconvinced. He would probably have been aware of Gamaliel’s view  that if the new teaching was blessed by God it would prosper and if not it would fail. Paul had been his student – but he ignored his mentor. He had seen the faith of Stephen as he laid down his life for Christ, and was totally unmoved. Fired up by his own self righteousness he was moving in for the kill towards the Damascus Christians.

The presentation of “Christ crucified” was the “nuclear option” for Jesus when he appeared  to Saul of Tarsus on the Damascus road, for such was the pig headed obdurance of this persecutor of the Church, that nothing less would have convinced him. In conversion terms Saul of Tarsus was probably  as close to a basket case as one could possibly get. You would not want him on your Alpha course.

Kylie and Jason of Toxteth might be somewhat less recalcitrant, and considerably more biddable at a lower level of dramatic intervention.  It could be worth a try.

The Disciples had all been baptised; none of them had been baptised into the faith of “Christ crucified”.

Interestingly whilst accepting  “Christ crucified” is a foundational component of our faith, standing  alongside “God Incarnate” and “Christ’s Atonement”,  it is clearly not always guaranteed to hold one to faith.. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel after the great commission we read that there were still disciples who doubted, which, given that the risen Christ crucified  was standing with them, might give us pause for thought that any individual concept is always crucial in securing the acceptance of faith. Interestingly the equally important and unique concepts of “God Incarnate” ” and Atonement are equally absent from both the old and the new sections under discussion. Are their absences from the Baptism Service promises symptomatic of the Church going to hell in a handcart?

Brother Ivo provokes with his title by asking what would Apple do?

The answer is surely that every responsible “brand” needs to be very clear and jealous of its core values, whilst transmitting them to their customers and establishing loyalty..  When Coca-Cola altered its formula some years back its customer feedback quickly caused it to abandon the innovation. The decision was however “evidence based”.

Surely Apple or any other responsible commercial organisation jealous of its individual identity would approach any possible change touching an expression of its core value with a well planned trial. It would see if those who have one form of service had a differentiated response to faith than those who had the alternative approach. It would ask, itself, “Do we help or hinder loyalty by this change?”

Apple knows that the best advertisement it possesses is the enthusiastic way its consumers speak of its products. This is fostered by the knowledgeable welcoming staff in their stores who know their stuff and are always ready to address questions and solve problems. They avoid geek speak. Their products are meticulously engineered to be friendly; a three year old can work them as can a silver surfer.

None of this happened by accident. Nothing is assumed or left to chance, every  identified  glitch is celebrated as one more step on the way to achieving  perfection. They know that it pays to pay attention to detail, and to listen to customer feedback. That is how they have created the near evangelical customer loyalty which is the envy of most businesses and organisations and perhaps churches.

Does that sound like the modus operandi of a Church near you?

If not, why not?

The Liverpool Synod has  identified a problem. Wouldn’t Apple take that identification seriously and examine whether a better answer might be found? If their market share were falling do you think their response would be to simply assert that their products were always good enough for aunt Ethel in 1998?

Suppose one knew for a fact that those introduced more gently to the Church through this attempt at more accessible language were more likely to come to faith and stay within a Church as a result of this approach, would one not celebrate and adopt it?

At the end of Matthew’s Gospel the great commission is put in an interesting twofold form.

We are to baptise and teach. There is no element of “teach, examine, and only then baptise”.

Many of us know that baptism is often the start of the journey for both parents and child. We broadcast our seed widely, promiscuously even, and we know that some falls on stony ground, sometimes it takes root much later in changed circumstances. We can never predict.

Apple would not be content with rejection by subjective appraisal. They would test the ideas but identify set the parameters of success in advance, If this experiment of different liturgical language proceeds, it surely make sense to do so with a smaller but better resourced pilot, one that is followed up with a proper study of those within it so that we can understand if it improves understanding and subsequent engagement or not. We should also be looking at comparable congregations using the present unreformed version.

There ought to be a University Religious Studies faculty interested in researching the consequences of such initiatives, and able to construct suitable terms of reference for the study.

In an entirely different concept Brother Ivo was once counseled – ”If you can’t reach, you can’t teach” and this is a useful contribution to this debate.

We need to know how best to reach, and to use the modern jargon ,we need to rediscover how to build the kind of customer loyalty that put the Church into its pre-eminent position in brand recognition.

We might be making too easy an assumption that if only we speak the same language as those whom we hope to reach, we s will improve our chances of engagement. That is as yet unproven, either way but it is a feasible proposition nevertheless: if the Liverpool Synod have considered the idea, prayed about it, revised their thoughts and offer them in good fellowship for trialling then we ought not to lightly discount their experiences in a mission area where many opponents never go.

Of course we shall always want to talk of the deeper truths and teach the dramatic nature of the Gospel message of Christ crucified, but the entry level of our language probably is  important to that initial engagement and “working with the grain”.

What would Apple do?

Brother Ivo’s guess is :-

1 Test the proposition

2 Find the Facts

3 Only then, draw conclusions

Isn’t that the sensible way forward?