I may not have the towering intellect (or the eyebrows!) of my illustrious predecessor; but like him I feel I should keep you abreast of developments in Anglicanism, and the reasons for them. After all, we Anglicans see our little church as an experimental laboratory, offering new developments for open reception in the wider church.
The latest developments involve Baptism, and they are a response to a felt pastoral need. Re-baptism of the transgendered began it all, as a sensitive response to what can be a crippling identity crisis. Transgendered people were telling us that they wanted to be ‘introduced to God’ in their new gender. Then there was the cri de coeur (literally!) of those who had undergone major transplant surgery. ‘In my heart of hearts’, said one transplant patient, ‘I could not be assured any longer of my own baptism, and that my body was truly my own’.
‘The Working Party on Baptism and Identity’, which I set up with representatives of the Methodist and United Reformed Churches, has produced a 600 page report, taking evidence from transgendered subjects and transplant patients throughout the country. It makes a number of recommendations which our General Synod will now debate. We are agreed that re-baptism should not be offered ‘on demand’, but that there should be an assessment of real need. The Report therefore recommends that each diocese, under its bishop, should set up a Re-baptism Tribunal to consider each case on its merits, and that there should be national guidelines for the operation of the tribunals. Generally speaking re-baptism would be sanctioned only after the replacement of a major organ, the introduction of a prosthetic limb, or after more than one hip replacement.
I am sure that you will grasp the wider implications of these recommendations immediately. Elective Re-baptism changes the nature of the sacrament itself. It allows the sacrament to become an outward and visible sign of a person’s identity and autonomy. Through baptism, on this radical new understanding, a person becomes the person they want to be. The giving of a new name is a powerful symbol of that empowerment. It is, if I may venture to say so, an extension of the sort of thinking that some of your German theologians have been doing in the case of divorce and re-marriage. Like re-baptism, admission to Holy Communion after re-marriage affirms before God the autonomous choice of the individual. It is a pastoral act, a sacramental act of mercy: just what a thoroughly modern sacrament should be.
All this is still an area for open discussion, of course. As with the ordination of women it will probably take an unconscionable time before we can push it through. It will need a lot of patient ‘facilitation’! But I thought you would like to know that we are still out there at the cutting edge, leading the way.
Please give my regards to Benedict if you see him these days,
Yours as ever,