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debaptism

noun [uncountable]

a formal act in which a person officially rejects their baptism (=ceremony in which someone is touched or covered with water to welcome them into the Christian religion)

debaptize also debaptise British

verb [transitive] [usually passive]

'In an attempt to highlight the problem, Dr Hunt appeared in a BBC documentary about the issue, along with Terry Sanderson from the National Secular Society (NSS), and read out a certificate of debaptism …'

This is Local London18th March 2009

'An atheist is trying to get himself "debaptised" from the Church of England because he believes he was accepted into the religion without his consent.'

The Telegraph18th March 2009

For many of us in Western nations, it's our first, crowd-pulling, 'public' appearance, a landmark event in our infancy, but one that we can remember nothing about … I'm talking of course about infant baptism, the day when parents, grandparents, relatives and friends gather to watch us be officially 'sprinkled' with water, and thereby 'welcomed' into the Christian church. Later, in adult life, we make our own decisions about the Christian faith or religion in general, and so the baptismal ceremony may become insignificant, a childhood ritual for the benefit of our parents. But there are some for whom, having decided that God clearly isn't for them, this routine acknowledgement of faith is an imposition, at odds with their integrity. Why not then, allow them to 'cancel it out' in an act of debaptism?

This is exactly what John Hunt, a 56 year-old nurse from South London, decided to do this year, in a landmark case which stimulated media interest and thereby threw the term debaptism into general awareness. Arguing that, as a baby, he had no say in the fact that he was formally initiated into Christianity, Hunt wanted his baptism to be 'undone', since he had rejected God as far back as the age of 11.

Roman Catholic law … allows a process equivalent to debaptism, known as a 'formal act of defection' from the faith

Becoming debaptised proved more difficult than expected however, with Church of England officials arguing that it was impossible to undo something that actually happened – Hunt's baptism was 'a matter of public record' and that was that. Instead, the diocese suggested that the best way for Mr Hunt to renounce his baptism was to make a statement in the London Gazette, an official journal dating back to the 17th century. Hunt paid £60 for the privilege of doing so, and with the assistance of the UK's National Secular Society, acquired a debaptism certificate, stating:

'I, John Geoffrey Hunt, having been subjected to the rite of Christian baptism in infancy hereby publicly revoke any implications of that rite … I reject all its creeds and other such superstitions in particular the perfidious belief that any baby needs to be cleansed of original sin.'

The National Secular Society claims that over 100,000 people have downloaded debaptism certificates from its website over the past five years. It would like the Church of England to devise a formal procedure for debaptism, which includes the possibility of amendments to the baptismal roll.

Although currently the Church of England will not formally record debaptism, Roman Catholic law, which views a person's baptism as membership of the church, allows a process equivalent to debaptism, known as a 'formal act of defection' from the faith. This means that a note will be made on a person's baptismal record stating that they have left the church.

Background – debaptism

Debaptism is of course a noun derivation using the productive prefix de- meaning 'remove' or 'opposite', as in e.g. decaffeinated, decentralize, deforestation. There is also plenty of evidence for a corresponding verb debaptise, usually occurring in passive form as in be/get debaptised, and with an –ize spelling variant (i.e. debaptize), which can be used in both British and American English. Both noun and verb also regularly occur in hyphenated form, i.e. de-baptism, de-baptise/de-baptize.

The word baptism is from Middle English (11th–15th century), via ecclesiastical Greek baptismos meaning 'ceremonial washing'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 9th April 2009.

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