The Prayer Book Catechism

Jim Rushton

A Model For 2010 Discipleship Training?

63 years ago, in a working class community, I was made to learn the Prayer Book Catechism as a seven year old in my Primary School! How times have changed in six decades! If the BCP is opened at all today probably the Catechism is one of the least visited sections. It was Cranmer’s standard form of training for baptised children, (which meant virtually every child!), and also for any adult who desired to be baptised and confirmed. It’s good that discipleship training is now on the agenda. This article asks how Cranmer’s model stands up to today’s needs. I’m not suggesting that it should be re-used in its original form, but want to ask whether it has a contribution to make as we seek to take discipleship seriously.

Who Am I?

The first question is ‘What is your name?’ We begin with the individual and his personal understanding of himself. It recognises the uniqueness of every individual. This speaks of value and significance. The unique name was given in the context of Infant Baptism which sets the scene for the rest of the Catechism, and the value of this sacrament is fundamental to its perspective. Putting this to one side for the moment, isn’t Cranmer right to begin at the point of the candidate’s self-awareness, and to draw it out? Who am I, and where do I fit in to the rest of existence? How well do we make this point today?

Understanding Infant Baptism

Cranmer lived in Christendom. We live in an open multi-cultural, multi-faith world, where the practice of Christianity is a minority activity. It is only in believing families who choose baptism for their babies that the Catechism can be practically used as it stands. As demand for Infant Baptism recedes from nominal non-practising Anglicans there is opportunity for the original purpose of the rite to be recognised and valued by Christian families today. Sadly, confidence in baptising children of believers is near to extinction among present day Evangelicals. Let’s note what Cranmer actually says.

a) Infant Baptism confers the sign that the infant is incorporated into Christ.

b) This is entirely dependent on the commitment of its sureties, (here presented as the godparents), to repentance, faith and obedience.

c) The catechised child is then asked what its attitude to this commitment is.

d) Later, when dealing with the outward and inward nature of sacraments the child is asked what is involved in true faith, and whether this is now its response. It’s clear that the Catechism does not teach baptismal regeneration of the kind claimed by Catholic theologians.

My next question then concerns what provision current discipleship courses make for children/teenagers from believing families who have been baptised? Do we need to give this attention? As a father of four children it’s my experience that we do.

A Commitment To Christian Doctrine

The Apostles Creed is taken as the basic outline of Christian truth. A dear Reformed friend of mine used the creed at least twice in his ministry as the basis for a sermon series in doctrine. The familiarity of reciting the creed in services can demean its value in our thinking. In Family Services today it’s common to have much shorter responsive statements of faith. Is there something to think about here when we consider how we present a framework for Christian believing?

Let’s note that Cranmer’s order is that, having probed the candidate’s response to the declaration of the gospel, his next priority is to ground him in understanding the truth contained in that message. We live in a non-dogmatic culture, one where experience is considered to be the most important reality. I’m not arguing for using the creeds as the tools for teaching doctrine, but simply raising the profile of teaching doctrine, and asking how best we can do it today.

Living Before The Face Of God

Cranmer’s third challenge is to the quality of the candidate’s living, and, logically, the Ten Commandments are taken as the default position. Knowing his uniqueness within creation he is called upon to see his duty both to God, and to his neighbour, the two sides of the coin in the Decalogue. I would see this as an understanding of a total world-view where the Christian is called to live before the face of God. If he has come to know the living God, by grace, he is no longer free but is called to fear his Lord.

This way of thinking is so counter-cultural in 21st century living. As we seek to disciple people today we start with baggage gathered from the rebellion of the 60’s that teaches that individual freedom is fundamental to life. In this sense we are forced to start from a different place than Cranmer where fear of final judgement was predominant. But it does the raise the question about how we teach an approach to morality, and what content we put into it. We can’t avoid faithfulness to Scripture’s witness to what true love is, with its radical contrast to a culture that says ‘All You Need Is Love’.

The Priority Of Prayer

The Catechism inexorably turns next to prayer. If a true response to Christ is sound belief and all-round commitment to love, which disciple is able to achieve such a standard? The answer is clear, it’s not possible without grace, and grace is received through seeking help from God in prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is used as the model for all prayer, something none of us would deny. When asked what the candidate understands by this prayer the answer is well worth our attention. Note particularly that it reflects the Christian understanding that all discipleship is within the context of other believers. Christian living is about active membership of, and service to, the people of God.

Life In The Church

Cranmer’s Discipleship Course ends with an examination of the two key ordinances bequeathed to the church on earth; the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. It explains the difference between the outward sign and the inward grace. As we know this was a fundamental change from Catholic theology. The Catechism lays down clear Reformed principles for church practice and worship. In so doing it is explicitly clear that the Christian is called to follow Christ within the rhythm of public worship, alongside other believers, in an attitude of dependence on the means of grace expressed there, in order to go out into daily life as a soldier and servant of the gospel.

My final questions are these. In our courses today do we focus as clearly on the meaning and significance of the gospel ordinances, and do we place the same emphasis on the renewing purpose of worship and fellowship within congregational life?

One last thought. The Catechism makes no reference to public preaching and teaching. It is of course a form of teaching in itself, and is meant to be used in the course of Evening Prayer. The Prayer Book always expects the Word of God to be opened in public worship!!

Jim Rushton 1/2/2010