My nose was baptised a fraction after the rest of me. A fleeting moment passed as I was aware that the tip of my nose was above water, and then I was lowered just a bit further before coming up out of the waves.
I received infant baptism as a baby and was later confirmed, both in the Church of England. So how did I get here, on a pebbled beach beneath a sign which proclaimed loudly and cheerfully ‘BAPTISM HERE’ just days after my 18th birthday?
I had no problem accepting that infant baptism and confirmation could be seen as a theological equivalent to believers’ baptism (and I know that the Holy Spirit and the act of laying on of hands is important in confirmation, too). I did not discriminate in any negative way on those grounds. I still do not, although I am a proponent of believers’ baptism in my personal theology. I was at sixth form college at the time, where I had made more friends and some of them were Christians, from various traditions and backgrounds. My decision to be baptised by total immersion was more of a personal decision than a theological one, yet it was act of obedience, just the same.
I didn’t see a particular need for being baptised, having been sprinkled with water as an infant and confirmed when I was 14. I knew that for my parents the former was an act of dedication; they did not believe infant baptism made me a Christian. My confirmation was where I made those promises for myself. I must confess, however, to feeling a little sad not to have consciously participated in the symbolism evoked by the water. I say ‘consciously’ – I was conscious, but I cannot remember it, for obvious reasons!
The decision I made started with a niggling. I kept coming across things about baptism and it kept on…niggling at me. I was rather surprised by this niggle. I wasn’t entirely clear what to do with it. Gradually it grew stronger and stronger until it became clear that there was someone behind it. I didn’t know what to do. In the end, I talked to my mother, who was supportive – I knew she would be. I confessed the need to have company in this – someone to be baptised with me. So we prayed together that evening that if God truly did want me to be baptised by total immersion, there would someone who would accompany me in the whole experience.
That week I walked into my sixth form college where one of my friends was sitting in a chair, beaming. ‘I’m getting baptised!’ She told me, jubilantly. It still makes me smile, even now. Any doubt was erased by delight.
My friend had a Methodist background and she too had taken the same steps as me. Neither of our churches having such a thing as a baptistry, we chose neutral ground. Well, more accurately, we chose the sea. We were baptised by the chaplain of our college, himself an Anglican and incredibly helpful and understanding of our wishes. In the end, the service was called ‘re-affirmation of baptismal vows by total immersion’, which seemed to cover things. The words were the same – baptised in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we made our personal vows to follow Jesus and acknowledge him as Lord of our lives. We knew there were some who still wouldn’t understand, but we desperately wanted to do it.
So surrounded by friends and family from various denominations, plus some holidaymakers who asked to watch (my response: of course!), we entered the water.
Before we were baptised, the two of us prayed together. I knew then that for me, this was the decision. I’d already come to faith, I’d already made various commitments on my journey, but this, I had decided, was for life. There was no going back for me, not after this. In enacting the dying (going under) and the rising to new life (coming up) I was displaying my decision. Jesus was not only my Saviour, he was my Lord. In a sense, I visibly signed over the ownership of my heart that day. I quivered with the intensity of my decision.
I did not know then that in later times, when my faith was all but broken and darkness swarmed over me, how much those promises made in the water would hold me fast. I didn’t know how much I would need that memory. How often, when doubt and grief and chaos flooded my mind, I would recall those prayers we said amid the pebbles, and the promises we made before we went under the waves. How I would fiercely hold onto that symbolic decision when everything else was pulling me away from it. How much I would thank God, with all my heart, that he had niggled me into it.
Neither did I know that I would end up in a church which came with a baptistry.
All I knew was: this is my vow. This is my holy ground, where I take off my shoes. This is my response to that niggle which became a call.
To be continued…again.