Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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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 parish.

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 sign 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? [1]

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 liturgies. [2]

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 spiritual contamination.

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 7.1). 

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 produces virgins.

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 ...  [3]

In other words, "What God has put together, let no man break asunder".

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. (Romans 6.4)

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.
[1] Christian Theology, Blackwell, 1994
[2] A New Christianity For A New World, HarperSanFrancisco, 2001
[3] A New Dictionary of Christian Theology, SCM Press Ltd, 1983

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