“Sin” plus “sound bites” equals circulation?

The Church of England was quick off the mark to rebuff the Mail on Sunday headlineWelby casts out ‘sin’ from christenings: Centuries-old rite rewritten in ‘language of EastEnders’ for modern congregation” which states[1]

“[p]arents and godparents no longer have to ‘repent sins’ and ‘reject the devil’ during christenings after the Church of England rewrote the solemn ceremony.

The new wording is designed to be easier to understand – but critics are stunned at such a fundamental change to a cornerstone of their faith, saying the new ‘dumbed-down’ version ‘strikes at the heart’ of what baptism means.”

The Church’s Press Release, dated 4 January 2013, reads:

“A Church of England spokesman said: “The report in the Mail on Sunday (Jan 5) is misleading in a number of respects. The story claims that “the baptism ceremony had not been altered for more than 400 years until it was changed in 1980”. This is the third revision in 30 years.

The Baptism service currently used by the Church of England has been in use since Easter 1998. The wording of the service was amended by General Synod in 2000 and again in 2005.

In 2011 a group of clergy from the Diocese of Liverpool brought forward a motion to the General Synod of the Church of England requesting materials to supplement the Baptism service “in culturally appropriate and accessible language.”  Specifically the motion requested new additional materials which would not replace or revise the current Baptism service but would be available for use as alternatives to three parts of the service.”

and its Tweet comments

“Response to misleading Mail on Sunday story of January 6th [???] can be found here”.


There are two aspects to consider when analysing the headline and the CofE response: the timeline of events and the statements made by different parties. With regard to the former, the Mail article appears to have been revised after the CofE Press Statement.  A version of the original article was not available at the time of writing, and so a direct comparison of the two is not possible.

On the second point, different issues are addressed: the CofE Press Statement considers factual issues regarding the revision and the status of the provisional alternative service, and makes no direct reference to “sin”. The Mail article by contrast focusses on the objections by the former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali and “unnamed senior churchmen” and the “dumbing down” in this version,

 “[w]riting in The Mail on Sunday, former Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali said the reform should be scrapped before it further reduced Christianity to ‘easily swallowed sound bites’.


“And one senior member of the General Synod, who did not wish to be named, said: ‘This is more like a benediction from the Good Fairy than any church service.”

To these views should be added Mail on Sunday Editorial Embarrassed Church’s sin of omissionwhich addresses attitudes towards sin and suggests that

“The Church of England is experimenting with a baptism service so stripped of gloomy doctrine that one critic has compared it to ‘a fairy godmother’s blessing’. Then, it became embarrassed by its own beliefs. It began to rewrite its prayers in modern, ‘inclusive’ language. Now it is experimenting with a baptism service so stripped of gloomy doctrine that one critic has compared it to ‘a fairy godmother’s blessing’.”

It is instructive to compare these comments with those of the Church Society when the current baptism service was introduced in 1998. In terms of journalism, however, the Mail appears to think that “Welby casts out ‘sin’ ” is a better sound bite that “Former bishop objects to provisional alternative service”, a line later taken by the mid-day edition of The Guardian[2].

Postscript to updated version, as at 07:00, 6 December 2014

In addition to bringing the experimental service to the attention of the general public, the story has captured the interest of a large number of commentators, links to which are available on Thinking Anglicans.  One suspects, however, that in most churches, as at the baptism and confirmation conducted at Wantage yesterday by the Bishop of Reading, it went largely unnoticed.  Nevertheless, the developing story provides examples of whereas some reports and headlines changed over time whilst others remained unaltered despite obvious inaccuracies, and the tendency to focus on selected aspects: sin, the devil, “dumbing down”, &c.

The Church of England has now provided a link to the alternative baptism materials and accompanying note, here, and its Daily Digest for 6 January contains links to a number of reports in the media and the blogosphere.  We particularly like the piece by the Beaker folk of Husborne Crawley, here.


[1] In the updated version, 02:53, 5 January 2014.  The original version was published at 22:12 on 4 January 2014.

[2] Sunday 5 January 2014 12.31 GMT.