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The Adelaide Church Guardian is the newsletter of the Anglican Diocese of Adelaide.

There is an article in the February/March edition called ‘Christenviron’ Inclusive Church.

The article, by Fr David Thornton-Wakeford, argued that there should be no requirement for either party to a marriage to be baptised before the marriage can be solemnised in a church.

This was my reply:

I have the highest regard for Fr David Thornton-Wakeford. He prepared my wife Kathy for confirmation over thirty years ago, when she was a worshipper at St George’s Cathedral in Perth, and I was in my first year at St Barnabas’s College.

Much as I hate to disagree with him, his recent article in The Guardian obliges me to do so. Especially since the Guardian is the diocesan newsletter, and its articles may appear to have the Archbishop’s approval, or to be the official position of the diocese.

My understanding of the basis of Fr David’s article is that the Church should be as inclusive as possible, should open its doors as wide as possible, and should not put unnecessary barriers in the way of those who come to us for ministry.

All of that I agree with. Where the lines are drawn, I suspect, is a product of differing understandings of the mission of Jesus and therefore the mission of the Church, and of the nature and purpose of Christian marriage.

Rather than construct a separate argument, I will simply work through Fr David’s essay and point out some of those lines of difference.

“As a priest, if I am with a person at hospital, church, roadside, wherever, and they want to make their confession, I never ask if they are baptised.”

Why not? Of course you don’t ask whether someone is baptised before listening to them and caring for them. But the only way we can give people any assurance of forgiveness and salvation is by talking with them about their relationship with Jesus. If we are talking with them about their relationship with Jesus, how can we not talk to them about baptism? If we anoint people and make promises of forgiveness without doing this, we are short changing the people who come to us, and treating with contempt the costly grace which has lead them to that point.

“Marriage is a human sacrament before it is Christian.”

I am not sure what this means. If Fr David is saying that there are some material things which also offer spiritual or emotional comfort, and that a loving relationship between two people is one of these, then that is true, but it hardly seems relevant, or worth making a point of. If he means that people got married before Jesus was born and the true meaning of marriage was revealed, that is also true, and also irrelevant. Neither of those things is what the word “sacrament” means. It means an outward and visible sign through which the grace of Christ is ministered. By definition, there cannot be a sacrament which is not Christian.

“The bride and groom are the celebrants… “

Indeed. Exactly. Precisely. A Christian marriage is entered into because a Christian couple believe God is calling them into married life. They are called to minister Christ’s grace to one another and so to grow in love and into the likeness of Christ that their marriage becomes a sign to the world of the relationship between Christ and His Church. A conscious choice to enter into such a vocation can only be made by a Christian, and being a Christian means being baptised.

“Being baptised or not has no influence or control over God.”

Did anyone ever suggest it did? But we are commanded to proclaim the Gospel and to baptise all peoples. “Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved.” Mk 16:16. Of course in extreme circumstances someone who trusts in Jesus for salvation and accepts Jesus as Lord may not be able to be baptised, and we can still have confidence in God’s saving love for that person. That very rare circumstance does not dispense with the obligation for believers to be baptised.

“May God have mercy on me… when it comes to placing any stumbling block upon anyone who knocks on the church’s door.”

Quite right. Except for the stumbling block, the skandalon, of Christ himself. Jesus did not say to the woman caught in adultery, “Go on then, if that’s what makes you happy.” Nor did he tell Matthew he could continue being a tax collector if that is what suited him. Jesus talked repeatedly about hell, and gave people the stark choice between life – accepting Him – and death – going their own way.

Following Jesus is not easy. We certainly need to seek God’s forgiveness if we put unnecessary stumbling blocks in people’s way. And equally if we do not share the Gospel with those who come to us, and are not honest with them about the cost – their entire lives and selves – of accepting the Gospel.

I could perhaps be swayed if there were evidence showing that the undemanding approach Fr David suggests really bore fruit in encouraging people to become part of the Church family, to give their lives to Christ and to be baptised. But the evidence seems to suggest the opposite.

Opening the doors so wide that we pretend no commitment is required and that there is no cost to following Christ does not bring people into the Church, or into Kingdom of God. Instead, they seem to go away comfortable in the belief that the ceremonies are nice and the stained glass windows make for lovely photos, but Jesus is an optional extra.

The churches which grow are the ones that consciously, faithfully, deliberately proclaim the Gospel, and which do not make light of the gulf between being saved and unsaved.

A Christian marriage is a life-long vocation entered into by Christians. If we are not honest about that and what it means, then when we officiate at a wedding of two people who have knocked at the door we are not celebrating and blessing the beginning of a Christian marriage, but offering people a wedding in a church for a fee. To confuse the two is a travesty and a fraud.

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