Recent Facebook discussions about baptism have inspired me to say a few words about baptism. In particular, I am responding to a recent incident in Orlando, FL. Contrary to popular press, no one was denied baptism; the issue arose, however, whether one could be denied baptism because of objections from the congregation. Members of St. Luke’s Cathedral (Episcopal) were concerned that the child to be baptized was being raised by a same-sex couple.
Without preamble, I will say that what I know of the matter suggests the issue was simple homophobia; congregational objections sound like a post hoc argument to justify that discrimination. Nonetheless, the event helped me identify something I’ve been uncomfortable with in certain approaches to baptism. Please understand I am working through my own thoughts and feelings and claim no expertise on this issue.
What is Baptism?
I will start with a positive statement about how I see baptism. I am a fan of many religions, but Christianity remains closest to my heart and forms the core of my belief, practice, and society. It is dear to me because it both preaches and practices “free lunch.” God loves us without condition, without requirement and without expectation. We call it grace. Judaism and Islam, while emphasizing mercy, chiefly frame our relationship with God as a contract – this in exchange for that. Buddhism and Taoism, while promoting limitless giving of self, see all suffering as the consequence of human disharmony. Christianity unabashedly accepts human powerlessness. God sends both sun and rain. We are asked (though not always expected) to accept it all as a gift. We are asked to give without hope of either favor or compensation. [This is why I take theodicy without flinching and object to carrot-and-stick versions of heaven and hell.]
This free lunch is radically counter to biological and social conditioning. It does not fit with the reciprocity so clearly demonstrated in behavioral economics (see Michael Cialdini’s book Influence) and so compelling as a theory in evolutionary biology (see Ara Norenzayan’s book Big Gods, or Robert Trivers’ 1971 paper for more rigor.). Grace must be demonstrated and, for me, Holy Baptism is the first, best, and fullest demonstration of free lunch. If we do not demonstrate grace in Baptism, we will not exemplify it anywhere else.
It is my hope and belief that every member of the community – ideally every member of the world – should never know a time when they were not, with complete clarity and foresight, accepted by God and the Church without expectation. God’s love is unconditional, and yet it must be demonstrated in the incarnate Body of Christ, the Church in this lifetime. Otherwise we will not believe. This is the first and great teaching – you are loved and accepted as you are. We have hopes; we extend invitations; we even make plans; we do not place conditions.
I believe in infant baptism because I think the greatest impact of the sacrament is felt after the event. Let me meet no one who does not know I love them. Let no one fear that they have missed the opportunity or, worse still, feel pride that they have earned my love or God’s. Such “love” is not grace and not, I think, love in any Christian sense.
Some will worry that I am advocating for the baptism of people against their will, or at least without their knowledge. No. This would be tantamount to pouring soup on starving people. It is not a gift if you give it in a way that it cannot be usefully received.
Many Protestants argue against infant baptism, citing the belief that the grace of baptism is only communicated when the candidate understands and consents to the rite. I seek to do whatever I can to promote understanding and consent in rituals. Please do not take this as an argument against these wonderful things; they enrich baptism immensely. And yet, in looking at how we treat Christians under the age of 18 and Christians with mental and physical challenges, I am forced to say we have over-emphasized the role of reason and will in our religion. (In particular, I was moved by arguments in the book Developmental Disabilities and Sacramental Access.) Christians have been clear that we are saved by grace and not by works, and yet we lean very hard on works of the intellect and of the will. To make baptism dependent upon true knowledge, correct belief, or even informed consent is to make it less than grace. It makes human labor necessary. [And yes, I recognize this makes me even more of a Predestinarian than Augustine and Calvin.] Few of us, if any, can aspire to true knowledge and correct belief with regard to the sacraments. None of us is completely pure in heart. These are mysteries to be entered into, skills to be developed, and ideals to be pursued, but I cannot make a hard and fast rule – you must have this level of understanding or orthodoxy before you are allowed on the ride. Instead, I ask whether someone’s knowledge, belief, and will are an ornament to the rite. If they are not, we ask how they might become so without sacrificing the primary goal of communicating grace. I encourage people to set conditions on their own participation; I place no conditions myself.
Many liberal Protestants (in my experience) have taken infant baptism as an opportunity to bind the candidate and their family to the church. I respect this pastoral move. I like sponsor classes (which inform parents and sponsors about what they are agreeing to when they say they will raise the child in the faith). I like using baptism as a chance to talk with all Christians about their sins having been forgiven and about their adoption into the household of God. I also like it when we can use baptism as an excuse to talk with Christians about their confirmation, when they actively chose the faith and committed to the beliefs, practices, and identity of the church. [Upon reflection, this may be my real issue – I see baptism and confirmation as quite distinct. Many theologians and most liturgists do not.] And still, I think these other things must never be allowed to trump, in practice or in appearance, our primary concern for the unconditional acceptance of the child.
What message do we send when we move the baptism from as soon as possible (or the first Sunday after birth) to the first baptismal feast after the parents have attended pre-baptism classes? We presume that the congregation’s timeline (the liturgical calendar or parish calendar of events) is more important than welcoming the child and that the congregation could not be bothered to gather for a special service.
This is not done on behalf of the child. My most generous interpretation is that we want the congregation to be ready for the event. We want them to play an active role in bringing up the child and we want to place it in proper context for them. In other words, we seek informed consent from the congregation. Once we have taken this step, I think it only natural that we ask the congregation for their informed consent and respect their wishes.
I have no trouble thinking of confirmation, reconciliation, communion, and ordination in these terms. They require you to be joined to the congregation and congregational assent is crucial. I honestly believe that if you subscribe to this theology, the congregation should actually have the right to refuse. [I find it hard, but not impossible to imagine situations in which both reconciliation (the rite, not forgiveness itself) and communion (the rite, not society itself) should be withheld.]
I cannot hold this theology of communal consent for baptism. I would prefer to say that the priest is obligated by ordination to baptize anyone who approaches and who would be served by such service. [Someone seeking anything other than grace may not be so served…or they might. This will be a judgment call]. In any case, the only criteria should be whether the child will welcome the rite as a blessing.
The event should be held as soon as it is reasonable to assemble all those genuinely concerned with raising the child.
Such is the state of my thoughts; my actions will continue to follow the rules of the church and the customs of local parishes – after all, my ordination was by communal consent…