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On Baptism

May 27, 2013

After a week of travelling with St Cuthbert along St Cuthberts Way I was left with deep questions about what was important enough to divide Christianity in Britian. I was not convinced that either the date of Easter or the way the tonsure was cut was enough to divide godly communities so bitterly.

Bede, and we have to remember that Bede was a Roman Christian, cited a third issue – baptism, but leaves it unexplained. The helpful people on Lindisfane were not able to shed any light on it so I had to make an educated guess –

The educated bit of the guess comes from knowing about the Edit of Milan in 313 when the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the empire. At that point everything changed, what had been at best a faith that was tolerated – but was often persecuted – at the edges of society became central to the Roman lifestyle. For the first time christian churches were built, (actually modelled on the pagan temples of Rome) and priests installed as full time paid people. Because there was no longer a need to hide away from the state authorities, order and uniformity could be imposed on the individual congregations, and because it was the state religion there was no need for a missionary imperative, the overarching principle was of pastoral care with the priest have the care (or `cure` of the parish), maintaining the faith in the community.

But Celtic christianity had its roots in the faith that had been brought to the very edges of the empire – and beyond, before the Edit of Milan. It was very different, it still remained counter cultural, it was still persecuted, which is why Iona and Lindisfane as islands that could be defended were ideal places to establish the abbey/preaching centres. They had buildings that were functional rather than ornamental or symbolic, they had no paid priests and parish churches. Everything was done to win converts rather than to maintain structures.

So how could baptism have been different? Well it was more likely to be about who got baptised than how it was done. For the Roman church the whole community was christianised, so everyone was a christian. This means you were born a Christian, and so baptism came to replace the pagan naming ceremonies as something done to welcome babies into the faith. For the Irish monks this was nonsense, faith was something you gained by a decision to repent and follow the Christ. Baptism symbolised a leaving of the old life and ways – a death in Jesus to enter into his life.

This was something that could have divided the ancient church, it has divided the church since the Anabaptists rediscovered the baptism of repentance that is seen in John Baptists work in the bible. It is fundamental and I shall explore these differences more in next weeks blogs.


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