The Mystery of Baptism in the Anglican Tradition

By Eaton, Peter | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

The Mystery of Baptism in the Anglican Tradition


Eaton, Peter, Anglican Theological Review


The Mystery of Baptism in the Anglican Tradition. By Kenneth Stevenson. Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1998. viii + 214 pp. $15.95 (paper).

This is the American imprint of Kenneth Stevenson's book originally published in Britain by the Canterbury Press in 1997 under the shorter title, The Mystery of Baptism. Although its title is reminiscent of the book that Stevenson co-authored with H. R. McAdoo, The Mystery of the Eucharist in the Anglican Tradition (Norwich: The Canterbury Press, 1995), this volume is actually a companion both in approach and content to Stevenson's Covenant of Grace Renewed: A Vision of the Eucharist in the Seventeenth Century (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1994).

Once again, the Bishop of Portsmouth has put us in his considerable debt. After two introductory chapters, he examines the thought and writings of nine Anglican divines, ranging in date from Richard Hooker (who was born in 1554) to Simon Patrick (who died in 1707). Stevenson draws out from each of these writers a central strand, and also identifies where and how they develop ideas which they have in common. He brings his book to a close with a helpful chapter of summary ("Retrospect") and a thoughtful and thoughtprovoking chapter that looks ahead ("Prospect").

In this careful study, Stevenson reminds us of things that we have forgotten-if ever we knew them.

For example, we are reminded of the precariousness of Anglicanism from the end of the reign of Charles I until the Restoration. It was a time, to alter slightly a phrase of Saint Jerome, when "the whole world groaned and was amazed to find itself Presbyterian." Bishops were turned out of their Sees, no consecrations took place, The Book of Common Prayer was suppressed, and the polity of the Church in England was re-ordered along strongly Calvinistic and Puritan lines.

We are reminded that our concern about the integrity of baptism, the role of sponsors, the relationship of baptism to confirmation, the function of the bishop in these sacramental rites, and even the admission of children to Holy Communion are issues with a long and complicated history. We are reminded that the concept of "original sin," about which there remains in the Church a great deal of confusion and controversy, was not central to the thought of these writers. Indeed they all write about baptism and its significance without mentioning original sin at all.

We are reminded that the BCP has always been interpreted, re-interpreted, adapted, expanded, and altered in its use. Like all classical religious texts, the Prayer Book is a living thing. It has never been a static work, and contemporary Episcopalian "rubric fundamentalism" would have perplexed our Anglican forebears. There is something in the observation that rubrical literalism is strongest when genuine liturgical knowledge and sensitivity are weakest.

But there is not just history here and Stevenson's contemporary reflections are apposite and helpful. His remarks about memory, begun in chapter one and continued throughout the book (and especially with regard to Hooker, p. 50), touch on a subject of crucial importance in cultures both ecclesiastical and secular which seem to evince absolutely no power of memory whatsoever. "Balance" is another tricky matter to get right, and he makes a nice comparison between religion that is "all affection" on the one hand, or "all demand" on the other (p. 69).

Other relevant subjects receive attention. The function of the sacraments to keep the Christian religion from being a completely internalized and personalized religion (p. …

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