Last Friday I had the most extraordinary encounter which I have been thinking of alongside this Saturday’s similarly extraordinary Pentecost Vigil. After an extremely onerous and dull day at work, I was dropped off near Mile End tube station by a colleague. I had intended to take the tube from there to my next engagement at Waterloo, but overcome by nostalgia for the foetid kebab joints and knife fights on the number 25 bus that comprise my memories of living in that part of London, I was persuaded instead to wander into Mile End park and take some sun. Unfortunately I fell asleep under the beating rays and woke up after half an hour looking like a spare rib, and I found myself rather in need of urgent refreshment. So, I retired to the nearest cafe, Roastars, under the “Green Bridge”, and sat down with several pint glasses of water and an iced latte. After a while, a young man with cropped hair and shorts asked if he could sit at my table, and naturally I replied “of course”. I noticed that he was wearing several bangles with cryptic slogans that I guessed must identify him as some sort of evangelical Christian. I suppose the mystery around such random inscriptions as WWJD or GODSTRONG are supposed to draw the curious into conversation with the wearer, and ultimately get them signed onto an Alpha course or something. This guy had two bracelets saying I AM SECOND, which definitely piqued my interest, and when I noticed he was writing out verses from Galatians in I AM SECOND-emblazoned notebooks, I said to myself “I have to find out who this nut is….and if I end up winding him up with my hardcore adherence to catholic doctrine then so be it”.
I shouldn’t have been so judgemental and self-assured. I so rarely encounter real live prots, and so my excitement at a perfect opportunity to counter-evangelise must be excused. Still, the ridiculous, arrogant idea that I was nurturing at that moment that I could convert him instantaneously with a salvo of rebuttals of his heretical non-doctrines and a visit to S. Magnus to seal the deal, should certainly not be excused. It turned out that I probably came away from that encounter having learnt far more profound things from him than I had managed to impart with my attempt to preach the True Faith.
We covered a range of topics; the Eucharist, the Blessed Virgin, invocation of the Saints, infant Baptism, and Confession and, of course, the Sacred Liturgy. Admittedly, although clearly a very devout young man, I have no problem saying that some of the views he expressed are heretical and run counter to the canons of the first ecumenical councils, which I had assumed would be our common ground. Then again, we are talking about a religion that teaches a form of sola scriptura that encourages a “what this Bible passages means to me personally in my life” individualist approach to Holy Writ, orchestrated by a succession of free-lance Pastors whose teaching authority derives more from their tithe-inflated bank balances than their endorsement by any legitimising or regulating system. This is a religion that has no concept of Tradition at all, in which “worship” consists of half an hour of preaching sandwiched between coffee and some soft Christian rock, and where the priestly exercise of Christ’s ministry of forgiveness in the Sacrament of Penance has been replaced by “discipleship meetings” with an “accountability partner”.
Our longest discussion was about infant baptism. I hope I managed to expound clearly the doctrine that the transformative grace imparted by the Sacrament of Baptism is not contingent upon the child’s understanding of what is happening. The Credobaptist Evangelical was not convinced and laid out the reasons – all worthy of consideration – why this is not so. We both claim that our respective beliefs are rooted in scripture, but mine are expressed in what I believe to be a Tradition shaped by the operation of the Holy Spirit, in which I can trust, and in which disagreements can be settled.
I won’t go further into Baptismal theology, as I am shamefully unschooled in anything beyond the very basics, but this discussion reminded me of the last time I witnessed the doctrinal vacuum created when Tradition retreats and subjectivity takes hold. I remember the first time our Parish celebrated Holy Week in the Older Rite, after the Paschal Vigil I received complaints from some parishioners who felt aggrieved at having been denied the opportunity to “renew their Baptismal promises” at the font, and that they were worried not having been able to do so. I sympathise with people who are attached to what, for them, is the only Paschal Vigil service they know, and I can completely understand how one would feel a sense of rupture, especially at so sensitive a time, in the pattern of worship they know, but I believe that these people, and countless other people who are subjected to the aliturgical modern rites year after year, have been persuaded to believe that the validity of their baptism is in peril, and they have been deceived by bad liturgy. Bad liturgy teaches bad theology, and for me, this is a perfect example.
The fact that the “baptismal promises”, the verbal assent to believe in Christ and rejection of Satan, were made on our behalf at our baptism as infants has no effect on our baptismal regeneration. At baptism, our soul is made entirely pure and white, this is what it means to die to sin and rise again to new life in the Sacramental waters of Baptism. While our souls may be sullied by sin as we grow older and attain reason and responsibility, our recourse is not to the “renewal” of those vows, but rather to the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion. The Sacrament of Confirmation is about “confirming”, at the age of reason, our initiation into the Church which is begun at Baptism. The supposed need to renew one’s baptismal promises annually at the Paschal Vigil erodes the teaching of the Church and brings nothing but confusion.
This morning I was looking over the texts of the Vigil of Pentecost, which as you can read below is a Baptismal Liturgy, which consists of the reading of Old Testament prophecies (the origin of which was to instruct the Catechumens), Blessing of the Font and Baptisms, Litany and then Mass in Red Vestments. As I read the collects, I realised how strongly this preparation for Pentecost, historically ranked second only to Easter, reverberates with the related themes of Baptismal regeneration and the operation of the Holy Spirit – our forefathers in the Faith had no need to worry about renewing their baptismal promises: the entire Liturgy sings with them. The many Collects between the prophecies ask for the continual outpouring of Grace on those already baptised.
O Lord God of hosts, who restorest those things that are broken down, and preservest those things that thou restorest : increase the peoples that shall be regenerated in the sanctification of thy name; that all who are washed in holy baptism may ever be guided by thy inspiration. Through.
Collect on the Sixth Prophecy
The character of this Liturgy was shaped by the first centuries of the Church, where entire households of Catechumens were received by Baptism: men, women AND their children. The Church was proclaiming in her Liturgy that there is one font of Baptism, one Fountain of this Grace from which these waters flow, and that all who wish to be saved must die to sin and be reborn: men, women, newborn children, regardless of physical or mental ability there is one font for all of them. This is a startling teaching, impossible to reconcile with worldly assumptions about people in different conditions of life, and it remains so today. There was no need for anxiety about one’s age or ability affecting their baptism because the Church proclaimed the opposite so confidently! So confidently, in fact, that it became impossible to baptise every Catechumen on the eve of Easter, and so the rest had to be baptised at the next Great Feast of Pentecost!
So what do we proclaim with the new non-Liturgies that have become the norm in the West? Ever noticed how those protestant pastors I mentioned above sometimes seem to be obsessed with one thing? The evil of homosexuality, the rapture, national apostasy, and the threat of Islam……These people re-mould Christianity around their own anxieties and obsessions and then impose this creed on their congregations, and they are not accountable. Whenever we liturgical practitioners presume to ad lib, excise, abolish, suppress, reform or tamper with the Liturgy, we behave exactly like those pastors, re-creating the worship of God in our own image to suit ourselves, not the diverse personalities of the plebs sancta Dei. Indeed what we are left with is no longer fit to be called leitourgia for that reason. We make it up as we go along...we make it "high looking" to impress people, or we make it cuddly to indulge certain expectations, allowing the zeitgeist to inform the Sacred Liturgy, and the Church, instead of the other way around. We find ourselves standing before nothing more than a wooden coffee table, and a font that is only a few drops deep. We end up seeking God’s forgiveness from our “accountability partner” and sipping coffee between hollow smiles, telling ourselves how good it all makes us feel to be a Christian.