June 6, 2020

Rowan Williams on Baptism (1)

Cumberland Falls KY (2015)

Rowan Williams on Baptism (1)

Today we begin a series of reflections on Rowan Williams’s book, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer.

My congregation celebrated its 180th anniversary yesterday. That’s quite a historical legacy. When I serve as interim pastor this winter, I’ve been thinking about doing some preaching and teaching that goes back to the basics of what it means to be a Christian and part of a Christian community. I think this book will provide a good place to start my preparation studies.

Rowan Williams is a Welsh Anglican bishop who served as the Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002-2012. In this book, taken from a series of talks at Canterbury Cathedral, he discusses a “few simple and recognizable things that make you realize that you are part of a Christian community.” The four fundamental elements he talks about are baptism, the Bible, the Eucharist, and prayer.

We begin today with some beginning reflections about baptism.

• • •

So baptism means being with Jesus ‘in the depths’: the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need – but also in the depths of God’s love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be. (p. 5)

Christians have always marked the beginning of the new life in Christ with the rite of baptism. Rowan Williams discusses some of the biblical background for this. The first Christians recalled Jesus speaking about the baptism he was to undergo at his death, and so baptism became associated with “going down into the darkness of Jesus’ suffering and death” (p. 2).

Furthermore, additional reflection saw links with the story of creation, when the Spirit hovered over the original watery chaos and brought forth order and life. Baptism = new creation, new life. Christians in the East portrayed the chaos in their icons by portraying Jesus in water filled with images of demonic river gods. Up and out of the chaos, Jesus is anointed by the Spirit and declared God’s beloved Son.

So it is not surprising that as the Church reflected on what baptism means, it came to view it as a kind of restoration of what it is to be truly human. To be baptized is to recover the humanity that God first intended. What did God intend? He intended that human beings should grow into such love for him and such confidence in him that they could rightly be called God’s sons and daughters. Human beings have let go of that identity, abandoned it, forgotten it or corrupted it. And when Jesus arrives on the scene he restores humanity to where it should be. But that in itself means that Jesus, as he restores humanity ‘from within’ (so to speak), has to come down into the chaos of our human world. Jesus has to come down fully to our level, to where things are shapeless and meaningless, in a state of vulnerability and unprotectedness, if real humanity is to come to birth. (pp. 3-4)

In his baptism, then, Jesus was immersed both into the world of deathly powers, but also into the affirming love and calling of God.

And so, Williams reasons, the person who is baptized takes his place with Jesus — deeply in touch with the chaos of the suffering world all around, and also awake to the chaos within his own heart. In a striking quote, Williams reminds us that being baptized does not separate us from the world around us, but plunges us more deeply into its need:

To be able to say, ‘I’m baptized’ is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. (pp. 5-6)

Yes, in baptism we are washed and made new. But this happens by taking our place in the muddy waters where we identify with the chaos within and around us.

Yet this is but one side of the story. Jesus came up out of the water and heard the Father’s voice, saw the descending Holy Spirit, felt the embrace of divine love.

So what else do you expect to see in the baptized? An openness to human need, but also a corresponding openness to the Holy Spirit. In the life of baptized people, there is a constant rediscovering, re-enacting of the Father’s embrace of Jesus in the Holy Spirit. The baptized person is not only in the middle of human suffering and muddle but in the middle of the love and delight of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. (p. 7)

To be baptized, then, is to enter the depths of human life as it was meant to be: immersed in the world’s pain, embraced by God through his loving Spirit.


  1. To be baptized, then, is to enter the depths of human life as it was meant to be: immersed in the world’s pain, embraced by God through his loving Spirit.

    Don’t both of these things happen automatically with birth?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      The submerged part, perhaps not the “Up and out of the chaos” part [and baptism is an aspirational rite]

  2. senecagriggs says

    Perhaps also public affirmation of your commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.

    • In many churches, such an affirmation is made at confirmation. Unfortunately, many of the young people who are usually the confirmands seem to go through with the rite to satisfy the expectations of their families, rather than out of a sense of personal conviction. For most of these young people, there doesn’t seem at present to be any strong correlation between having been confirmed as an adolescent and an ongoing commitment to adult participation in institutional Christianity, however things might have been in the past.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        > go through with the rite to satisfy the expectations of their families


        On the other hand, this used to bother me more than it does today, as I cannot imagine how one would engineer any cultural schema which would avoid that dilemma.
        Also, young people do not really know what they are doing.

        • Also, young people do not really know what they are doing…. LOL

          ….actually not until after age 26 as I observe with my kids…. and I was a dummy in my young days too…

        • Also, young people do not really know what they are doing.

          1) Do their seniors?

          2) What’s the point of having them go through an affirmation of faith if they don’t know what they’re doing, or what it means? I say do away with confirmation, which as many have said is “a sacrament in search of a theology,” and just accept their baptism, whenever it occurred, as sufficient for membership and full inclusion in the church. If they or anyone else at any point want to make an affirmation of faith, or repeat an affirmation however many times, there are rites in most of the new mainline Protestant worship books for exactly that purpose. Confirmation as it exists and has traditionally been practiced is theologically and psychologically rootless.

      • senecagriggs says

        Most Evangelical congregations that I am aware of do not have “confirmations” per se for youngsters/teens.

        • Burro (Mule) says

          Some have altar calls, which are psychologically congruent. Often, adolescents participate in these to fulfill family expectations. Arminians repeat the performance as needed, making them more congruent to confession.

          The CR congregation I grew up in had public professions, confirmations in all but the name.

        • Senecagriggs, you’re correct that many evangelical congregations do not have Confirmation. However some evangelical congregations within “Mainline” denominations do. Over the years I have been on staff at several evangelical United Methodist congregations that have had Confirmation classes followed by a service of Confirmation.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            The dividing line seems to be Liturgical vs Non-Liturgical church.
            Liturgical churches tend to have Confirmation (and pedobaptism),
            Non-Liturgical churches do not.
            (Or at least won’t admit to it — remember “Baby Dedication”?)

    • I accept the practice of believers’ baptism, but can find no theological or biblical support for saying it is a “public affirmation of your commitment to Christ.” It is not my testimony but rather my reception of God’s new life in Christ. It is the means by which we enter the new life and God’s family. It is something I receive not something I do to say what I’ve received.

      • senecagriggs says

        In my church’s younger years – we had public baptisms at the ocean – it was viewed similar to the baptisms in the N.T – where they were publically baptized in the nearest body of water in front of whomever.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Calvary Chapel?
          “Full Immersion Ocean Water Baptism By The Sea” was one of CC’s trademarks in their early days; even ended up an early CCM song under that exact title.

        • Always fun to watch when I am at the beach….

    • *sits quietly in the corner reading Volo’s Guide to Monsters until the baptism debate dies down*

      • Can I add Sanctifying grace to the mix and throw in a little Original Sin?

        • Original sin I *will* fight for, but that’s not on the table today. 😉 And i had my fill of baptism fights long ago…

  3. This is an excellent book. So is William’s “Being Diisciples”.

  4. Clay Crouch says

    What I appreciate about Holy Baptism in the Anglican tradition (and I imagine in others, as well) is that it is a service for the entire congregation. We are not simply spectators. We are reminded of and called to renew our own baptismal vows, and promise before God to encourage and nourish the newly baptized in their faith journey.

    • That’s why I would say to Seneca and others that the “testimony” aspect of baptism is not primarily that of the individual believer proclaiming his/her commitment to God, but of the entire church testifying to the new life and new creation.

      • But that which the entire church giveth, the entire church can taketh away.

        • Clay Crouch says

          I’m not sure what you mean.

          • Pretty sure he’s referring to unhealthy churches. They can help burden your “new life” by turning it into a living hell.

          • Excommunication in it’s various manifestations. The church now gives salvation and grace and can take it away from anyone the leadership finds undeserving.

  5. New creation, new life. Yes. And this explains why we, at the church I currently attend, treat baptisms as a celebration. Lots of cheering and clapping.

    I love baptisms.

    • senecagriggs says

      We cheer and clap too. Sometimes, the testimonies before hand are so emotional. I’ve been moved to tears at times.

  6. Christiane says

    “Love’s hidden thread has drawn us to the font,
    A wide womb floating on the breath of God,
    Feathered with seraph wings, lit with the swift
    Lightening of praise, with thunder over-spread,
    And under-girded with an unheard song,
    Calling through water, fire, darkness, pain,
    Calling us to the life for which we long,
    Yearning to bring us to our birth again.
    Again the breath of God is on the waters
    In whose reflecting face our candles shine,
    Again he draws from death the sons and daughters
    For whom he bid the elements combine.
    As living stones around a font today,
    Rejoice with those who roll the stone away.”

    (Malcolm Guite)

  7. Norma Cenva says

    I say let each be convinced in his or her own mind regarding their faith’s traditions of baptism.
    And above all, live and let live.

  8. Steve Newell says

    It’s interesting to see how different Christian traditions view baptism and whose baptism is “legitimate”.

    For example, I was baptized in a Southern Baptist Church as a youth. As an adult, I joined the Lutheran Church (LCMS). They accepted my baptism as a proper baptism since it was performed under the name of the Holy Trinity. Now if my kids, who were baptized as infants in our Lutheran Church, wanted to join a Baptist Church, their baptism would be viewed as illegitimate and would be required to be baptized under SBC rules.

    ” There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Eph. 4:4-5

  9. Michael Bell says

    A church requiring a second “believers baptism” because the first “believers baptism” had not been performed by immersion, was what brought me to Internet Monk in the first place.