|Rites of Passage
Church of England clergy are
unusual in that their congregations extend beyond the few who worship in
church to include everyone within the boundaries of each parish. They
are therefore obliged to baptise, marry and bury anyone who lives in the
Many churches in Britain are today almost empty. Only
when one of the "hatch, match and dispatch" ceremonies takes place do
any numbers of parishioners pass through their hallowed doors. Those who
attend usually have no idea of the deep roots the rites have in the
past. They are merely the right thing to do as in "My father and
grandfather before me ..."
Everywhere else these rites of passage are usually
confined to "the faithful" - that is, to those who belong to a
particular congregation. In Africa and some other parts of the world
there is intense competition between Christian churches to dominate the
rites of passage marketplace.
But the truth is that ever-increasing numbers
everywhere in the West are establishing their own versions of the rites
of passage. Traditional Church ceremonies are becoming irrelevant except
to those who belong.
If the Church is to once more mediate the deep meaning
conveyed by rites of passage, it may be that it has to revise
drastically its traditional teachings.
Only a few decades ago a Church presence at the rites
of passage was regarded as part and parcel of "the way things are".
What, if anything, has changed since the days when the Church's rites
were central to the Western way of life? It is not that long since the
refusal of an official burial service was a sign of eternal damnation.
Baptism is the only one of the three Christian rites of passage which
has its origin specifically in the New Testament. It is not uniquely
Christian. Symbolic washing with water to signify purity was a common
part of life throughout the Roman Empire of the time.
The gospels portray "John the Baptiser" as having baptised Jesus.
Baptism signified "repentance", a turning away from sin towards God.
Presumably Jesus thought he needed to repent just like anyone else when
he was baptised. At any rate, by the time of Paul the practice was
already firmly established in Christian communities.
For example, Paul likens baptism to Hebrew circumcision in his
Letter to the Colossians (2.12-13). He takes baptism for granted. For it
is appears to mean
- a union with the risen Jesus and a new way of life (Romans 6.4);
- a cleansing from the effects of sin (1 Corinthians 6.11); and
- the abolition of man-made differences (1Corinthians 12.13).
Paul's teaching may have been idiosyncratic. For within three decades
the focus of baptism appears to switch from renewal and acceptance to
initiation and admission. The author of Matthew's Gospel puts into
Jesus' mouth the call to
Go, then, to all peoples everywhere and make them my
disciples: baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the
Holy Spirit. (28.19)
It is almost universally recognised that these are the
author's words, probably reflecting a community norm of his time and
place. They are certainly not the words of Jesus.
Few notice a subtle but substantial shift of orientation from the way
Paul addresses baptism to its presentation in the gospels and the Acts
of the Apostles.
For Paul, baptism is (like circumcision before it) essentially a
of radical change in the individual. In the gospels and Acts it becomes
a sign of both repentance and of admission to the Christian fellowship.
It was, however, this latter emphasis which became the norm -
although the theology of personal commitment to Jesus remains in theory.
It leads inexorably to the practice of infant baptism.
The latter was originally justified by Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage
in 248, as a way of getting rid of original sin in a child. But it very
soon became a way of admitting the children of Christian parents into
the company of those saved from damnation. It preempted the possibility
of a child not being acceptable to God.
It was not long before the Church developed a theology of baptism
which held that the baptism ritual not only admits a person into the
Christian fellowship but also does something to him or her. This
teaching was challenged in the European Reformation of the 16th century.
As A E McGrath writes,
A long-standing debate within the Christian tradition centres on
whether sacraments are causative or declarative ... In
other words does baptism cause forgiveness of sin? 
But neither the traditional (Catholic) nor the Reformed position
challenges the underlying teaching that baptism has for many centuries
signified primarily admission to the Church.
Another important reason why baptism is today severely devalued in
the eyes of ordinary people rests in the traditional theology which
underpins it. Basically, it is justified by a belief in the inherent
corruption of each and every one of us. Bishop John Spong writes:
This sense of universal evil into which presumably all are born
still underlies the sacrament of baptism ... The language of being
made clean in the waters of baptism ... and the implied threat that
apart from baptism there is no salvation ... are still present in most
Whether or not Christians are correct about original sin inevitably
inherited from our predecessors, increasingly few non-Christians can
accept this kind of thinking. For them, if sin can be defined at all it
is personal and social. It cannot derive from some sort of genetic or
Marriage has become similarly distorted over the two millennia of
Church's history. There is, of course, nothing specifically Christian
about marriage. It is as old as humanity and is found in as many forms
as there are cultures.
Perhaps a unique aspect of Christian marriage is the strongly
negative spin put on it by the Church. Matthew's Gospel portrays Jesus
as approving celibacy, and the Church has always assumed that he was
unmarried. Paul is specific: marriage is second best (1 Corinthians
It is not surprising, therefore, that until very recent times
monastic celibacy has been widely thought of by Christians as winner in
the holiness stakes. Nor should we wonder that Jerome (345-420) is
reputed to have said that the only good thing about marriage is that it
Much more subtle is the Church's long-standing hijacking of authority
over marriage. The institution has always been regarded as a contract
between two people. Almost all societies today perceive it that way and
legislate accordingly. In other words, and man and a woman marry
themselves. All the Church does is bless the marriage. By no stretch of
the imagination can that blessing be seen as intrinsic to the marriage.
And yet the Church takes upon itself to condemn and ostracise those
who end a marriage contract - authorised, many would say
uncharacteristically, by Jesus in Mark 10.9. As in baptism, an
essentially all-embracing rite becomes an occasion to exclude rather
than include. An expressive sign becomes a banishing order. Witness
Helen Oppenheimer's statement:
Marriage ... is not a simple contract to be ended by the mere
decision of the parties themselves, but a "contract conferring status"
... the Christian doctrine of marriage is that this "pairbond", found
in various forms in all human societies, belongs to God's creation ...
its character as a relationship
is part of its proper nature ... 
In other words, "What God has put together, let no man break
Just as baptism has become either a knee-jerk response to tradition
or an nice-to-have add-on, so also is marriage as a Christian rite being
rapidly abandoned and forgotten by Western societies at large.
Marriage itself, however, is very much alive and kicking. A majority
of couples still wish to commit for the long-term, particularly if
children are involved. Only the Church's traditions prevent those who
are committed to "living together" being accepted as married. Even the
lack of a civil contract is often provided for by legislation which
protects the partners in such relationships.
Just as marriage has always been there, so also has burial always
been a universal rite of passage. It's interesting that there is no
Church penalty for an irregular burial service. Perhaps that is because
traditional burial rites are really for the living rather than the dead.
At any rate, there is very little Christian theology or teaching about
this, the final rite of passage.
Most Church burial rites emphasise strongly Paul's teaching about
life after death. Put simply, it is that just as Jesus rose physically
from the dead and ascended into "heaven", so also will those who toe the
divine line proceed there after death: Paul specifically links baptism
with the death and resurrection of Jesus:
By our baptism, then, we were buried with him and
shared his death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from death
by the glorious power of the Father, so also we might live a new life.
Distress of the bereaved at a funeral no doubt
encourages some sort of affirmation about a vaguely-defined "life after
death". But it is difficult for anyone to state conclusively that death
is followed by some sort of personal existence. More importantly,
however, the idea of a physical resurrection so dear to Christian
ideologues is deeply incongruent with the way most people live out their
lives in the West today.
They may be mistaken, and the Church may be correct.
But whatever the case, this particularly important rite of passage has
nevertheless been robbed of its once-deep relevance to the living who
participate in it.
All three Christian rites of passage will probably endure. But they
are likely, given the continuation of present trends, to be confined to
the minority who remain within the official Church in its many forms.
It is equally likely that non-Christians will carry on with their own
ways of celebrating the important points of life. If so, the rites of
passage will be congruent with the cultures from which they derive. In
other words, they will be ever-further removed in form and content from
past norms of the Church. Current popular songs will replace Rock of
Ages at Christian funerals.
The challenge for the Church, then, is to find ways of moving into
the lives of ordinary people so that their most significant life
experiences can be celebrated in the light of Jesus of Nazareth.
Given the more or less absolute rigidity of the Church about matters
of ritual, this is unlikely to happen. Only those who are at the very
fringes of the Church or outside it altogether are likely to be able to
bring new life to Christian celebration of the rites of passage.
Only time will tell if that can happen and in what community context
it will take place.
 Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1994
 A New Christianity For A New World, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001
 A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press Ltd, 1983