The charitable language of Thomas Cranmer’s baptism service has been a problem in Church of England history. Some hear the seeing-now-that-this-child-is-regenerate language in the baptism liturgy and assume that Anglicans hold to the Roman Catholic understanding of baptismal regeneration. But the Church of England, and Thomas Cranmer in particular, did not have this in mind. In the 1530s the archbishop was convinced of the Lutheran teaching of justification by faith, and “the question that would occupy Cranmer for the remainder of his life was how exactly the sacraments of the church fit into this new narrative” (Ashley Null). For Cranmer, then seeing everything through the glasses of solifidism (faith alone), the key to understanding sacramental grace (baptism and holy communion) is faith — receiving the grace of the rite rightly — by faith — “they that receive baptism rightly” (Article 27 “Of Baptism”).
Roman Catholics believe that the sacraments (ex opere operato) automatically and always effect what they signify – that the bread and wine of Communion is the actual, corporeal body and blood of Christ whether it is received by a faithful penitent or accidentally by a mouse under the communion table nibbling the crumbs. And everyone who is baptised, newborn or adult, is automatically born again. Anglicans, on the other hand, view the instrumentality of the sacraments connected to faith, which is necessary for the reception of God’s grace. Catholics say that a person is born again when they are baptised. Anglicans say that God’s grace is communicated in the sacrament, and when this is received by faith in the hearts of God’s elect, they are born again.
Whenever he speaks of someone’s faith, Cranmer charitably assumes they are believers. This is not just “English politeness,” but a humble acknowledgement that God is God and we are not. Cranmer assumes that an infant or child who is brought for baptism is a believer, just like he believes this for everyone who dies and is buried from the church. Everyone knows that this isn’t true of all infants who are baptised, and it’s certainly not true of everyone who dies. But who is to decide in each of these cases but God alone? In the case of baptism, who would otherwise then decide when someone is old enough for baptism – or mature enough – or faithful enough? Are adults who are baptised knowledgeable enough or faithful enough? Surely not! Should this be the minister’s discretion to determine what only God knows? The Anglican baptism service uses charitable assumption in its baptism language, and this, put along side of the Articles of Religion, declares the importance of a faithful response to the grace that God gives us in the sacraments for them to effect what they signify. Bishop J. C. Ryle said, “The person baptised is pronounced regenerate upon the broad principle of the Prayer-book, that, in the Church-services people are charitably supposed to be what they profess to be”.
The Revd Chuck Collins is the Director of the Center for Reformation Anglicanism in the USA. www.anglicanism.info