"But what about baptism?" This is a common question asked by those from the believer's baptism tradition who are curious and interested in moving toward Anglicanism. With all the appeal Anglicanism offers, this can easily become the primary issue one has to work through to finally make it down the Canterbury Trail. Here are a few thoughts on the matter that may help get you there.
First, it's important to realize that Anglicans are all about believer's baptism. That is, if someone comes to faith in Christ, that person definitely needs to get baptized as a first step in identifying with and following Jesus.
Second, for Anglicans, it's not all about the mode of baptism. Traditionally, Anglicans baptize by affusion, that is, pouring water over the head of the baptismal candidate. Historically, this was based on matters of practicality. For one, infants aren't too keen on being immersed, and to find a warm-water pool for such immersions was difficult for your average parish. Typically, your best bet was to find the nearest river, which, for those living in Europe, was ice cold at least nine months out of the year. "Yeah, let's pour some lukewarm water over that child's head instead." Makes sense.
Today, most Anglicans are completely fine with baptizing folks by immersion—especially adults. In fact, our bishop once encouraged us to consider building a baptismal pool at the entrance to the nave (worship space). The wetter the better!
But what about baptizing infants? This is really the heart of the matter. To make sense of these two different approaches—that of only baptizing those who profess, and that of also baptizing infants—we need to talk about two different narratives of salvation.
First, for the believer's baptism tradtion, the salvation narrative goes something like this: for part of your life, you live in rebellion against God, even if unknowingly at first, and then there's a growing awareness of your sinfulness. This leads to a dramatic conversion experience in which you put your trust in Christ, and then baptism becomes the appropriate act to symbolize what Christ has done for you. Think of the Apostle Paul here.
So far so good, but what about that person who has always believed in Christ? What about that person who was born into a family of faith, raised to live out that faith, and then grows into that faith as he matures. Yes, he has had his ups and downs, but he has also always believed. When does this person get baptized? Some say, "When he makes his faith public." Okay, but that's really not at conversion because he has never gone from not believing to believing. Not everyone comes to Christ like the Apostle Paul. Some are nurtured from birth in the faith.
This is where the second salvation narrative comes in—for someone who grew up in the faith and has always believed as long as he can remember. According to this paradigm, the practice of infant baptism makes sense. Yes, a child is born into sin and in need of salvation, but baptism becomes a sign that God's grace already rests on him. Before that child even knows who God is, God so loved him. Baptism for the infant, then, is adoption by the Spirit into the church by virtue of the parents' faith. That child, God willing, will continue to grow in the faith he has always held.
Now, a couple of caveats are in order here. First, Anglicans do not believe that baptism saves. Of course, a child can quench the Spirit and walk away from his upbringing. But that doesn't change the fact that God was working in his life through his church and family. He simply chose to reject that upbringing. Second, when a baptized person expresses a mature commitment of faith, the church offers the rite of confirmation to receive strength from the Spirit through the prayer and laying on of hands by a bishop. Again, confirmation doesn't save, but it does provide an important marker indicating God's continuing work in a person's life.
There is so much more to talk about when it comes to baptism, but perhaps these final two points can provide a helpful conclusion to this post. First, Anglicans do view baptism, like Communion, as more than a symbol; it is a sacrament. That is, God actually does something. In baptism, God's Spirit adopts a person into the church family. A sacrament is a gift, a place where God promises to meet his people. It's not magic; it's not a guarantee of ultimate salvation. It's an encounter with God in the physicality of this world.
Second, the Anglican tradition takes seriously the biblical language that salvation is not a commodity received at a one-time event in the past, but is rather a reality you enter into and continue to grow in. As the Apostle Paul teaches, you were saved (Eph 2:8), you are being saved (1 Cor 15:2), and you will be saved (Rom 13:11). The Anglican view of baptism fits this view of salvation much more comfortably than those who reduce salvation to a one-time event. If salvation is a process, then baptism, the continual nourishment received from the Lord's Supper, confirmation, ongoing growth in the faith, and ultimately perseverance are all aspects of this mysterious and yet wonderful gift of God to save us both from our sins and also for his work in the world.
I hope this helps.