Marcus Walker stumbling block baptism liturgy environmentalism
Mission

Diocese of Oxford puts a green stumbling block into liturgy of baptism

On 15th June, the Bishop of Oxford, Steven Croft, issued an ad clerum to the clergy in his Diocese:

Dear xxxxx,

In every service of baptism, confirmation and the renewal of baptismal promises there is a commission where the whole congregation promise to live out our everyday faith.

The commission is a well used and familiar part our liturgy. However it contains nothing about our care for the environment and the 5th Mark of Mission.

The Bishops in the diocese have agreed to authorise (under Canon B5) a new final question in this commissioning, which we began to use in confirmations from the end of May:

Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth?

With the help of God I will.

We want to warmly commend this question for use in parishes where the Commission is used and, of course, to encourage teaching and preparation on this theme as part of preparation for baptism and confirmation.

With kind regards,
Steven Oxford

This hasn’t gone down very well with some clergy in the Diocese of Oxford (who have written to Cranmer’s Tower in confidence [fearing what?]); and wider, such as Fr Marcus Walker in the Diocese of London, who dissents without fear, because he’s of the view ‘There’s no role for green politics in Christian baptism‘:

Baptism and Confirmation are two of the most important steps a human being can make. I say this, I concede, as a clergyman, but what happens at these sacraments is not just a significant religious service, but an event that transforms a person’s life, temporal and eternal.

This is why it’s really important that the Church avoids putting barriers up that would discourage people from encountering this grace. It is difficult enough for the Church to persuade people that the Christian message is true (we’ve all seen the stats). Pushing away those who don’t hold to the ideologies of the current bench of bishops is foolish in the extreme.

Putting up barriers is the important point: the Bible refers to ‘stumbling blocks’ a number of times, and the exhortation not to put them up makes manifest missiological sense:

Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling block before the blind, but shalt fear thy God: I am the LORD (Lev 19:14).

Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their heart, and put the stumbling block of their iniquity before their face: should I be inquired of at all by them? (Ezek 14:3).

And shall say, Cast ye up, cast ye up, prepare the way, take up the stumbling block out of the way of my people (Isa 57:14).

Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way (Rom 14:13).

But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak (1Cor 8:9).

But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication (Rev 2:14).

No doubt the Bishop of Oxford would baulk at the proposition that any of the Church of England’s marks of mission might become a stumbling block; and no doubt if you tried to raise this matter with any of the staff at Christ Church Cathedral, or to enquire politely as to what “safeguard the integrity of creation” actually means, they would block you immediately on Twitter and scoff over communion at your theological ignorance and hate.

The Church of England’s 5th Mark of Mission is “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth”, so what is wrong with asking a congregation or those who present themselves for baptism or confirmation to offer a canonical pledge or affirm their commitment to God’s creation? Isn’t it a manifestly Christian thing to do?

Perhaps illumination may be found from the world of democratic politics. The Conservative election guru Lynton Crosby often told the Prime Minister or CCHQ to ‘Get the barnacles off the boat‘. That is, get rid of all distractions and impediments and potential deflections, and focus on the electoral mission and the core election message: don’t promote initiatives to ban fracking or put calories on restaurant menus when the electorate wants to know about the economy, crime, immigration and ‘Europe’.

Baptism and Confirmation are about making a life-long commitment of discipleship to Christ. This is the message and the core mission: Christ is the focus for the congregation. Anything else is secondary (at least), and the important point that Fr Marcus Walker makes is that environmentalism is a contemporary political bone of contention. It isn’t a matter of Christians not giving a damn about the environment or caring about creation, but of the world looking at a church obsessed with the ‘all the green crap‘, and coercing people by liturgical innovation into being green.

And this might be a stumbling block to some, or ‘to them that are weak’, as St Paul might say.

Well, the weak need to move from milk to red meat, the Diocese of Oxford might reply, as they organise swiftly to shield the Bishop from all criticism and demand a “grown-up” response to his ad clerum.

But where in the spectrum of contemporary political ideology does this liturgical ‘commissioning’ end?

Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of equality, diversity and inclusion?

With the help of God I will.

What happens, then, if a candidate for baptism or confirmation is troubled in their conscience by the potential extent of the ‘inclusion’, and responds ‘No’?

It isn’t a mandatory vow, but part of the commissioning for discipleship. It isn’t that the officiating priest would decline to baptise or confirm the lost sheep, but certainly the lost sheep may feel a little bewildered, if not lost. Is the Diocese of Oxford really prepared to risk this confusion about the requirements of salvation in order to signal its virtuous adherence to the latest political fad? Is it prepared to alienate congregants by erecting what some may perceive to be an idol? After all, one Bishop in the Diocese actually believes and preaches “Evolution is God incarnate; the whole earth is God’s body.” The issue isn’t the Christian’s care of creation or stewardship of the environment, but how this is often conflated with or soon morphs into Thunbergian green-messiah environmentalism.

Isn’t the gospel of Christ hard enough to hear and receive without the Body of Christ covering itself in barnacles?