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This was published in the Summer 2003 issue of The Journal.

Christian Initiation in Interchurch Families

‘This preparatory paper for the Swanwick Interchurch Family Conference 2003 sets out some of the issues that that face interchurch families (both parents and young people) as they consider what to do about baptism, confirmation, communion and church membership. It also gives a brief account of some of the ways some families have dealt with these issues.’ Martin Reardon and Beverley Hollins in "Christian Initiation in Interchurch Families"

(A preparatory paper for the British interchurchfamity conference, Swanwick, August 2003, written by Martin Reardon and Beverley Hollins)

BAPTISM

The theology of baptism
There is widespread agreement between churches on the theology of baptism.

'Christian baptism is rooted in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. in his death and resurrection. It is incorporation into Christ, who is the crucified and risen Lord: it is entry into the New Covenant between God and God's people. Baptism is a gift of God, and is administered in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit ... The churches today continue this practice as a rite of commitment to the Lord who bestows his grace upon his people ... The New Testament scriptures and the liturgy of the Church unfold the meaning of baptism in various images which express the riches of Christ and the gifts of his salvation. Baptism is participation in Christ's death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-5; Co1. 2:12); a washing away of sin (I Cor. 6:11); a new birth (John 3:5), an enlightenment by Christ (Eph. 5:14); a re-clothing in Christ (Gal. 3:27), a renewal by the Spirit (Titus 3:5); the experience a/salvation from the flood (1 Peter 3:20·21); an exodus from bondage (1 Cor. 10:1-2) and a liberation into a new humanity in which barriers of division, whether of sex or race or social status, are transcended (Gal. 3:27-28; 1 Cor. 12:13). The images are many but the reality is one ... Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the Church of every time and place. Our common baptism, which unites us to Christ in faith, is thus a basic bond of unity’.  (Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, Faith and Order paper no. 111, WCC, 1982, paras. 2, 3 and 6).

The practice of baptism
Virtually all churches agree this theology of baptism, but Baptists generally do not recognise the practice of churches who baptise infants as expressing this theology, since an infant is unable to make a personal profession of faith.

Although baptism is normally performed by an ordained minister, no church regards this as essential. This makes it possible for most of the churches in Britain and Ireland that practise infant baptism to recogonise the validity of one another's baptism. This means that a person baptised in one of these churches would not normally be baptised again if he or she desired to become a member of one of the other churches. There is in fact a Common Certificate of Baptism (printed by SPCK) that lists those churches who have agreed to accept it as evidence of Christian baptism.

This, however, should not be understood as evidence that all these churches recognise someone so baptised as being a canonical, formal or full member of their church. Nearly all churches have other requirements also for what could be called denominational membership.

As different churches have revised their baptismal rites in recent years, many of these rites have become more and more similar.

Baptism in interchurch families
Before marriage the Roman Catholic partner is asked 'to promise sincerely to do all in his/her power to see that the children of the marriage be baptised and educated in the Catholic Church. The other partner is to be informed of these promises and responsibilities. At the same time, it should be recognised that the non-Catholic partner may feel a like obligation because of his/her own Christian commitment. It is to be noted that no formal written or oral promise is required of this partner in canon law' (Ecumenical Directory, 1993, 150). 'If, notwithstanding the Catholic's best efforts, the children are not baptised and brought up in the Catholic Church, the Catholic parent docs not fall subject to the censure of canon law' (Directory, 151).

Orthodox Churches require that the children of interchurch marriages that include an Orthodox partner be baptised and brought up in the Orthodox Church. They recognise, however, that this requirement cannot be enforced.

Most other churches do not formally have such a requirement, but some ministers, grandparents and relatives may well try to persuade parents to have their children baptised in their denomination. Where opposing pressure is brought on the parents from both churches and both sides of the family, this can lead to serious tension within the marriage.

Some interchurch family parents are happy to agree that their children will all be baptised in the church of one partner, and not the other. Some have one child baptised in the church of one partner, and the next baptised in the church of the other.

Many interchurch family parents, however, desire to include both their churches in the baptismal celebration of their children, and invite both ministers to take some part in the service. Normally one minister will both say the baptismal words and pour the water or immerse the child, but the other minister can be invited to participate in other parts of the service. Where this happens, and where members of both congregations are present, both parents feel supported in what is primarily their joint responsibility, the Christian upbringing of their children. Where the baptism is celebrated exclusively by one church without any participation by the other church, one parent can feel excluded and to a greater or lesser extent bereft of the child.

Because the baptism and Christian upbringing of a child is so central to Christian family life, it is very important that an interchurch couple consider this very carefully before marriage. But it is almost impossible for such a couple to know how they will feel when the baby actually arrives, nor can they be certain about the circumstances they will be in when the child is born. For this reason many interchurch families would strongly advise couples not to make a firm and final decision about the baptism of their children before marriage. It is important for Roman Catholic partners to recognise that the promise required of them before marriage by the Roman Catholic Church is not an absolute promise, and should not threaten the unity of the marriage. According to the Revised Directory on Mixed Marriages promulgated by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales (CTS 1990) the declaration and promise should be: ' ... I sincerely undertake that I will do all that I can within the unity of our partnership to have all the children of our marriage baptised and brought up in the Catholic Church'.

A shared celebration of baptism
Inspired by the vision of Fr John Coventry, SJ many interchurch couples want their child to be baptised into the one Church of Christ as it exists in their two, as yet separated, churches. They therefore want the celebration of the baptism of their child to be shared by both their churches. Very many such shared celebrations have taken place in recent years, and AlF's experience of this is growing.

A couple wanting such a baptism need to be aware of several factors before they approach their churches about it. The most important thing is that they know why they want it, and that they can get across to their ministers their particular personal and pastoral needs. This is best expressed in human terms. There is no generally accepted theology of a shared celebration of baptism, and quoting precedents from other places in detail can be counter-productive. Some terminology can produce a negative reaction. Asking for a 'joint baptism', for example, can mean to a priest that you want him to pour the water while the other minister says the words, or vice versa. Such a practice is traditionally regarded as invalid and therefore unacceptable.

Couples should also realise that a shared celebration of baptism will be a strange new idea to many clergy. They may tend to react negatively at first; attitudes and circumstances vary considerably from congregation to congregation and diocese to diocese. Couples may have to be patient. Many who have had such a request refused at first, have succeeded later (sometimes years later) when their clergy have seen them to be faithful and regular worshippers.

The form of shared celebrations that seem to be most readily acceptable from the Roman Catholic point of view are baptisms performed by the Catholic priest in the Catholic church. This can include the active (and often quite substantial) participation of an Anglican or Free Church minister, often using words or ceremonies familiar in their own tradition. There have however also been cases of a Catholic priest assisting at a baptism performed by an Anglican or Free Church minister in an Anglican or Free Church, and of an Anglican or Free Church minister being the celebrant of baptism in a Catholic church.

Many interchurch families have been satisfied, often delighted, with such shared celebrations of baptism, especially when representatives of both congregations have been present together. This has also often improved relations between the two local churches. In a few cases where there have been particular difficulties about arranging a baptism in church, two ministers have shared in the baptism of a child at home. This has the disadvantage that it is less evidently a public act, but some representatives of the two congregations can be invited. It has the advantage of emphasising the domestic character of the church.

Dual registration of baptism
Some interchurch families have wanted to go further and have the baptism registered in both churches, to signify clearly that both churches have recognised their pastoral responsibility for the child. This has sometimes proved possible, and sometimes not. The easiest way to achieve such a dual registration in an Anglican-Catholic family seems to be for the baptism to be performed by a Catholic priest in an Anglican church. The Roman Catholic priest can register it as the officiant, and the Anglican as a baptism performed in the parish church. It has also been possible to have the baptism in one church, followed by a 'reception' in the other.

Where one parent is Baptist
A special challenge faces interchurch couples where one partner is Baptist, that is to say, believes that Christian baptism can or should be celebrated only when the candidate makes a personal profession of faith. This belief is held not only by member-churches of the Baptist Union, but also by a very large number of independent, pentecostal and black-majority churches. In these circumstances there is likely to be very strong feeling that can lead to tension between the couple themselves, as well as deeply entrenched positions in their churches and extended families. For centuries many churches have pressed parents to bring their children to be baptised very soon after they are born. Baptist churches have been equally adamant that baptism must be delayed until the candidate is old enough and willing to make a personal profession of faith. In Britain the early teens has normally been regarded as the earliest age.

This challenge makes the interchurch parents consider carefully the meaning and significance of baptism. Two particular considerations may help them come to an agreed solution. Some Baptists, but by no means all, would now be willing to accept that a person baptised in infancy who later makes a formal, public and genuinely personal profession of faith is in the equivalent state to someone baptised upon a personal profession of faith. On the other hand, many churches that practise infant baptism are less insistent than they used to be upon the necessity of early baptism. They recognise that such saints as Ambrose, Augustine and Basil the Great were not baptised until they were adults, even though one or both of their parents were practising Christians. On one occasion a shared service of dedication and blessing has taken place in a Catholic church with the participation of the Catholic priest and the Baptist minister. More consideration needs to be given to this practice. For example, would churches, which normally baptise infants, be prepared to consider a baby, who has participated in such a service of dedication and blessing, as in the same position as a catechumen, and thus having a formal relationship with the church.

It should be emphasised that all shared celebrations of baptism and services of dedication are pushing at the boundaries of ecumenism. No priest or minister is obliged to participate in such a service.

FIRST COMMUNIO

After infant baptism or dedication the primary responsibility for continuing Christian upbringing rests with the parents. Churches that practise infant baptism vary in the order in which they complete the initiation of these children into the Church. The traditional order required a candidate to be confirmed before proceeding to receive eucharistic communion. This, until very recently, has been the invariable rule for Anglicans.

For many years, however, the normal practice in the Roman Catholic Church has been to admit baptised children to First Communion at about the age of seven, to be followed by confirmation later (although in a very few places confirmation has been brought back to an earlier age to precede First Communion). Anglicans have very recently allowed children to receive communion before confirmation under certain conditions.  Many Free Churches have also begun to allow their local churches to decide whether or not to admit children to communion before confirmation or reception into church membership. Giving children communion before confirmation, however, is not by any means the general practice in Anglican and Free Churches.

When children in an interchurch family arrive at the age of First Communion in the Catholic Church, they and their parents are faced with a choice. This choice is not made in a vacuum. It grows out of all the other choices the parents have made for their children previously, about baptism, about participation in public worship, about schooling. If at baptism the decision was taken that the child would be brought up in the church of one parent, rather than in the other, then the child will probably follow the tradition and practice of that particular church. If, however, the parents decided to bring up the child so far as possible to worship in both churches, then a further hurdle may present itself at First Communion time.

A Roman Catholic priest has the responsibility of trying to ensure that children baptised in his church make their First Communion. Where there is a Catholic school, this will often be prepared for at school, and it may be customary to do this in a particular class or age group. Where there is no Catholic school, it will be the responsibility of the Catholic priest to make other arrangements. The decision about First Communion, however, always rests ultimately with the parents.

Traditionally in Anglican and many Free Churches, preparation for communion has been included as an integral part of preparation for continuation, and Holy Communion has been received first by the candidate at or soon after the confirmation service. In most of these churches continuation has taken place in early or middle teens, and has been preceded by a period of preparation the length of which has varied considerably from local church to local church.

Where a child has been brought to worship in the churches of both parents, there has often been a problem. If the child begins to receive communion in the Catholic church at about seven, he or she may wish also to receive communion in the Anglican or Free Church of the other parent at the same age. If this church does not normally admit children to communion before confirmation, then either the interchurch child for a number of years is in the anomalous position of receiving communion in one church but not the other, or, if a special exception is made for the child to receive communion before confirmation, then the other children in the congregation may be upset.

These anomalies have been overcome in many local situations. Few priests and ministers have sought to create serious difficulties for the young children of interchurch families who want to receive communion in the churches of both their parents. There may be several inter-related reasons for this. One may be that confirmation/reception into church membership has customarily been thought of in the West as the point at which people formally decide for themselves on their church affiliation, and clergy have felt that that was the time at which to face young people with this issue. There is a pastoral concern that to face a child with a need to choose the church of father or mother at the age of seven might be catastrophic for their Christian development, bearing in mind Christ's words about young children (Matt. 18:5f; 19:13f). Another reason might sometimes be that the priest or minister does not realise that child is receiving communion in the other church, or chooses to tum a blind eye to it, regarding it as the moral responsibility of the parents.

Whatever is decided, it is important that children are properly prepared for First Communion. Some children who have begun to receive communion in both churches at about the age of seven have been prepared for it by both churches.

CONFIRMATION

There is nothing called 'confirmation' in the New Testament. Confirmation has its origin in the early church where new Christians were initiated into Christ and his Church in a single but complex process. This process required someone to sponsor the candidates, most of whom at least in the early days, were adults. After a period of preparation in the Christian faith, they renounced Satan, professed their faith, were baptised by immersion, were anointed with oil as the seal of the Holy Spirit (chrismation) and signed with the cross by the bishop, and then received communion.

As the church grew and became established, the majority of those being initiated were infants. The same rite of initiation was used, but the profession of faith was made by the sponsor on behalf of the infant. As dioceses became larger the practices in East and West diverged. In the East the same single rite continued, but the chrismation was performed by the local priest, using oil of chrism blessed by the bishop. This is still the practice in the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental churches.

In the West the bishops wished to retain their personal contact with each candidate, and so baptism (performed by the local priest) was separated from chrismation (performed by the bishop). Because of the large number of candidates, especially infants, and the increasing size of dioceses, a new rite, called confirmation, was carved out of the originally single initiation rite. Confirmation was eventually recognised as a distinct sacrament, whose minister was normally a bishop. When the bishop was able to get round his diocese he confirmed children who had already been baptised as infants. As soon as they were confirmed, they could receive communion.

After the Reformation
Anglicans and Lutherans kept confirmation, using it as an opportunity to educate young people in the Christian faith. Anglicans reserved the ministering of confirmation to the bishop, while Lutherans gave the ministry to the local priest or pastor. Anglicans, like Roman Catholics, regard the bishop as the representative leader of the diocese and therefore his presence is a sign that the candidate is in communion with that particular church. Most other Protestants at the Reformation ceased to have confirmation as such, but many had a rite for people to be accepted into full membership of the church, with all its privileges and responsibilities. The Methodist Church now has a rite which includes in one service both confirmation and a formal reception into membership. Many Free Churches have other requirements for membership too, for example, sometimes the church meeting has to agree to receive a new candidate as a member of the local church. Reception into membership is often symbolised by giving 'the right hand of fellowship'.

What is confirmation?
Confirmation has sometimes been called 'a rite in search of a theology'. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that it is a rite to which various theological meanings have been attached, with differing emphases in different churches. Among those meanings are three which can an be held together.

  1. A gift of the Spirit. The gift of the Spirit is generally associated with baptism in the New Testament; but it is not limited to baptism, and it is widely taught that God strengthens/confirms the candidate with the Holy Spirit at confirmation. Many confirmation rites (e.g. Catholic, Anglican, Methodist) refer to the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit.
  2. A personal profession of faith. Confirmation provides the candidates with the opportunity personally to confirm the profession of Christian faith made on their behalf by their parents and god-parents at their baptism.
  3. Church membership. All traditions regard baptism as the time when candidates become members of Christ and his Body the Church. Some traditions see confirmation/reception into membership as the time when candidates accept for themselves the full privileges and responsibilities of church membership. Some people today describe confirmation as a commissioning for Christian mission and service.

Two further meanings have been attached to confirmation with perhaps less theological justification. Their source is rather social and cultural. 

  1. A rite of passage/coming of age. Because confirmation provides an opportunity for young people to make a personal profession of faith and to take upon themselves the full privileges and responsibilities of church membership, it has often been treated as a spiritual coming of age ceremony. While there is nothing wrong with this in itself, it has tended in the past to bring undue pressure on young people of a particular age to be confirmed, whether or not they are ready for it.
  2. The occasion for a candidate to make a particular denominational affiliation. As we have seen, many people have treated confirmation as the definitive moment at which a young person is received as a full member of one particular denomination to the exclusion of others. In some traditions in the past, a candidate, who had previously belonged to another denomination, was required formally and publicly to repudiate that membership. Happily such public repudiations are generally no longer required, as our various churches are learning not to define themselves negatively by their differences. It would indeed be ironic if we were to use a rite dedicated to the gift of the undying Holy Spirit of God as the occasion to affirm our division from one another. Nevertheless many people still see confirmation as a denominational affiliation.

Confirmation in interchurch families
Many children of interchurch families have had a shared celebration of baptism, and been brought up in two churches. They feel that they belong to both. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of them want both ministers to participate in their confirmation, so that they may be recognised as members of both churches.

Until recently most churches have said that this is not possible. However, in some Local Ecumenical Partnerships, Anglicans and Free Churches now hold joint confirmation services that recognise those confirmed as members of both churches. These joint services witness to the increasing communion and growing unity that exists between these churches. The Roman Catholic Church does not admit this practice, thus witnessing to the lack of full communion and unity between Catholic and other churches.

In these circumstances what options are open to the young members of interchurch families as they approach confirmation?

  1. Not to be confirmed at all, thus witnessing to the wrongness of denominational divisions and looking forward to their healing and the possibility of confirmation in a united church. Many young people have taken this option.
  2. Confirmation in one church only, thus witnessing that ultimately there is only one confirmation, and that to be confirmed in one church only does not cut a young person off from participating in the life of the other church. Many young people have taken this option.
  3. Confirmation in one church, followed at a later date confirmation or reception into membership of the other church. This option may appear not to take the divisions of the churches and the once-for-all character of confirmation seriously enough. However, it may make more sense when the rite of confirmation in one church emphasises the of the Spirit, and in the other focuses on membership of the local community of Christians.
  4. To ask representatives of both churches to take as full a part in one confirmation service as possible. This requires considerable persistence on the part of the young person, and exceptional pastoral understanding on the part of the two churches and their ministers. We know of one example of this in Britain.
  5. To have a joint service of affirmation. This too requires persistence by the young person, and understanding by the two churches. We know of one example of this in Britain.
  6. To make an affirmation of faith in the context of two separate confirmation services, receiving a blessing (rather than confirmation) from both bishops. We know of one example of this in Britain.

DUAL CHURCH MEMBERSHIP AND DOUBLE BELONGING

If an interchurch couple, or a young person in an interchurch family, say they want to be a member of both churches, many clergy will say that that is not possible. At the same time many interchurch families and their children have the sense of belonging to both their churches, and this is not purely subjective. Often members of both their congregations and even their ministers reciprocate this sense of belonging 'you are one of us'. We here observe the paradox of the 'already, but not yet' of Christian unity. Membership is about formal and official rights and responsibilities about questions of validity, regulations and canon law. Belonging is about affirming and encouraging a network of relationships about experience and love. Both formal membership and a sense of belonging are important, and it is vital for interchurch families to recognise that the latter is not the poor relation of the former.