Climate commitment at baptism services a step too far for some

(Photo: Unsplash/Kaleb Tapp)

The Bishop of Oxford's move to introduce a new question into services of initiation in response to what he called "the environmental and climate crises" is proving controversial.

Bishop Steven Croft announced at Oxford Diocesan Synod on June 11 that he was authorising a new question for candidates at baptism and confirmation services.

Bishop Croft and his assistant bishops in Oxford Diocese, covering Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes, are now asking candidates as part of their commissioning as Christian disciples: "Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth?"

Each candidate answers: "With the help of God I will."

Bishop Croft said: "I've introduced it already at two Oxford confirmations over the last two Sundays. I will be writing to clergy inviting them to include it in local baptism services where appropriate and to teach people what it means as part of baptismal preparation."

He added: "We should be full of hope as we respond to the environmental and climate crises. Change is possible. Humankind can do this."

The Guardian newspaper reported a Greenpeace spokesperson welcoming the Oxford decision: "The diocese of Oxford is moving away from fossil fuels, which is essential, but this liturgical change goes deeper.

"Today's lesson is that, in a climate and nature emergency, you need to make environmental considerations central to your project right from the beginning and keep them in mind all the way through."

But in an article in Saturday's Daily Telegraph headlined, "There's no role for green politics in baptism", leading Church of England traditionalist, Rev Marcus Walker, argued against Bishop Croft's move.

"The question of how we engage with environmental concerns has become a major political issue recently, one controversial enough to have even caused long-standing conservatives to reconsider their loyalty to the Crown in anger at the way some members of the Royal family proselytise about 'The Environment'," he said. 

Rev Walker, Rector of St Bartholomew's the Great in the City of London and one of the founders of the Save the Parish campaign, advised Bishop Croft "not to mess" with baptism and confirmation liturgy.

He warned "those cheerleading the move to ask yourself what if the boot were on the other foot and you were being forced to assent to a political position you dissent from as a condition of baptism".

He said the Church should "be grateful for anyone willing to commit themselves to Christ and to welcome them with open arms".

The CofE's Canons (rules) say a minister conducting a service "may in his discretion make or use variations which are not of substantial importance" in any authorised form of service.

Bishop Croft is using that provision to justify introducing his new, sixth question in the commissioning part of confirmation services he conducts, but he has no power to require parish ministers to use his variation in baptism services.

Prudence Dailey, a traditionalist lay member of the CofE's legislative body, the General Synod, for Oxford Diocese and former chairman of the Prayer Book Society, told Christian Today: "The Bishop of Oxford has said that parishes will be 'encouraged' to use the new question as part of the baptismal rite, but there is no suggestion that they will be obliged to do so.

"One vicar in the diocese suggested to me that most will probably not use it, although there are of course plenty of ultra-Guardianista clergy who will absolutely love yet another opportunity to be woke. My advice to anyone wanting to avoid this stuff altogether? Use the BCP (the 1662 Book of Common Prayer)."

Asked what the reaction would be if a bishop were to introduce a response affirming commitment to the traditional Christian sexual ethic, Dailey said: "I imagine in theory it would go down well with some and not so well with others. Adding bits to the baptismal liturgy to reflect 'pet issues' is, however, not something that should be encouraged - whatever those issues may be."

Confirmation candidates across the CofE are already asked to commit themselves to biblical authority in the following question: "Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?"

Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist.