- Revd Richard Power
An Encouraging Booklet about Baptism
A review of Mark Pickles book 'Doubt not... but Earnestly Believe.' A fresh look into the BCP Baptism service.
Of all the parts of the Book of Common Prayer, it is certain phrases in the Baptism service that have proven most controversial among modern Evangelicals: “Sanctify this water to the mystical washing away of sin”; “Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate”. In his booklet, ‘Doubt not but Earnestly Believe’, Revd Mark Pickles argues unapologetically that the BCP service gives voice to historic Reformed orthodoxy on the sacraments and contains pastoral wisdom for today that we must not ignore. The author walks us step-by-step through the BCP liturgy for infant baptism, making the case that the Church today would greatly benefit from the provision of the BCP service in contemporary language. The booklet is no dry academic treatise. As the title implies, the author’s purpose is not simply to unpack the sacramental theology underlying the Prayer Book service, but also to draw out its pastoral value and its significance for the ministry and mission of the Church.
In unpacking the liturgy of the BCP Baptism service, Revd Pickles highlights the power of its simplicity. It places great emphasis on the reading of Scripture and on prayer. It speaks plainly of original sin and of our need to be delivered from judgment and wrath. It gives clear witness to the gospel, the washing away of our sins through Christ’s death, and the union between Christ and his people. It places the necessity of our faith and obedience in the proper context of God’s redemptive commitment to us in Christ.
Nevertheless, the author is not unaware of the significant obstacles to the provision of a modern Baptism service rooted in the principles of the Prayer Book. Our cultural landscape is vastly different from the Christendom context of 1662. The Prayer Book’s language is unhelpfully archaic to modern ears and assumes a level of biblical literacy that no longer prevails. Perhaps most significant of all, Revd Pickles notes a “sacramental indifference” among many of today’s Evangelical Anglicans which has left them feeling uneasy with the Prayer Book’s language of sacraments as effectual means of grace.
A significant portion of the booklet is devoted to exploring the relationship between the sign (baptism in water) and that which is signified (spiritual regeneration by the Holy Spirit). How are we to understand the phrase in the BCP service, “Seeing now that this child is regenerate”? Revd Pickles places the language of the Baptism service in the context of historic Anglican and Reformed sacramental theology.
Most helpful is the observation that the Puritans, while finding fault with other aspects of the Prayer Book, never raised a scruple over this phrase. The author argues that we must understand the phrase in the same way we understand Scriptural passages such as 1 Peter 3:21 (“Baptism.. now saves you”). In line with the 39 Articles, the person who receives the sacrament rightly (by faith) receives in the one sacrament both the sign and that which is signified. Because of this “sacramental union”, Scripture itself can speak in ways that ascribe to the sign (baptism in water) that which belongs properly to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. Revd Pickles concludes, “Evangelical unease about the BCP wording used in the Baptism service may thus stem from a lack of awareness of our Reformed theological heritage and, more importantly, ignorance of how Scripture itself speaks of the sacrament.”
I found the booklet thoroughly encouraging, as a baptised Christian, as an Anglican, and as a parent. The Baptism service reminds us of the significance of our own Baptism and of God’s sure promises to us. As parents, it reminds us that children are not born to us in a religious void, but in the context of God’s covenant promises. What an encouragement (and challenge) that our first call as parents is to have confidence in God’s covenant faithfulness for our children and to “nurture” them in the faith. “Doubt not but earnestly believe!” Throughout the booklet, the author also has a constant eye to the importance of the Baptism service in the Church’s mission. Baptism enquiries are still one of the “great gospel opportunities that local Anglican churches have to share the gospel". Revd Pickles encourages ministers both to warmly engage with enquirers and to carefully instruct them in the truths of the gospel. It is to further this work of evangelism and discipleship in our churches that the author calls for a contemporary BCP Baptism service which is biblically clear and theologically robust.