Friday, April 20, 2007

Baptiszo Sum

Christian Baptism – traditionally the sign of welcome into the Church – has become a place of exclusion

I participate in a tradition that practices infant baptism. We baptise babies as a sign that God’s Grace is at work in our lives before we even know that there is a Divine Spirit. I willingly embrace the idea that we do not find God, but rather that it is God who comes in search of us. I believe that infant baptism is a wonderful, symbolic way of expressing this.

Yet at the same time my church’s Laws and Disciplines make it so hard for parents to baptise their children. We ask that at least one of the parents be a “full member in good standing” with our denomination. And we have ways of determining how this requirement is fulfilled. We look for membership promises, regular church attendance, committed financial support for the local church, marriage, community acceptance, and a host of other unwritten values. And this works well for those who are “inside the club”. But this makes access to baptism very hard for those who are on the margins : single parents, people who cannot afford church dues, those in relationships outside of heterosexual marriage – and especially those who have drifted from regular church attendance!

We justify this by saying that for infant baptism to be meaningful, the parents must show evidence of a capacity to keep their promises: “prove that you are able to get over the bar and we will reward you with our religious ritual”. Something that should tell of a Godly encounter, has become a reward for religious success. And we get to be the judge of someone’s spirituality. A ceremony that should speak of welcome, has become a moment of exclusion.

And I am no longer in the same place as my church tradition.
I am awed when someone comes to me and asks to make a public commitment to being a good parent. I am overjoyed when someone wants me to pray God’s blessing over the life of their child. I am humbled that someone should want their child to be welcomed into the Christian Church. And I will no longer set up hoops for you to jump through before you are welcome. I will willingly baptise your child.


Dave Lynch said...

From the man in the kilt...this is so very right, baptise away my friend.

I have long wanted to set up a spiritual service where people can bring their child to be baptised outside of the protocols you list. Why not funerals, why not marriage blessings.

Why does the church have to control every access to God, the Kingdom is forever suffering violence at the hands of violent men, but it always breaks free, sounds like tis breaking free in your part of the world.

Keep on my friend


dinsy said...

Interesting point Rock, and one I have thought on from time to time.

Many (all?) baptismal services include making promises to bring the child up a certain way, with committment to God and the church being part of the deal. In this case I can understand why a church would be unwilling to baptise an infant when they know these promises will not be kept.

It could be said that the church is encouraging or at least enabling, an attitude that says "vows to God don't matter".

But as all God's gifts to us are free, why not simply scrap the "behavioural cost" for blessing an infant?

Wessel Bentley said...

Hi Pete

A very Barthian point. (Which I appreciate).

To me, Baptism is a celebration. When it is a child's birthday, perhaps the most special time is the blowing out of candles. Even if the child didn't have a party, it wouldn't cease to be their birthday, but that moment is a moment of recognition and celebration. Isn''t baptism the same?

I agree with Barth that the sacraments, especially baptism have been attached to too many strings. In its practise (..ce?), it becomes exactly the opposite of what it is meant to profess!

So, yes, I agree.

Dave Lynch said...

Could somebody offer this service (infant baptism, dedication, thanks to God) outside the church?


Murray & Gina UK said...

What comes out of your thoughts most strongly for me is that the Baptism service is no longer a service acknowledging God's prevenient grace (see even us lay youth workers know some fancy terms) it has become an issue of conscience for the parents... they are 'forced' by our culture to make promises about their child's upbringing and then they are suddenly bound by these promises that they in all honesty and with the best intentions, might not keep.
So I agree, lets move back to making baptism a thing about God, and by God, free from our human hoops. Its a symbol of what God has ALREADY done, whether we blow out the candles or not. I don't mind parents making promises about their children's future, but they can do that anywhere, baptism as a sacrament must surely be more about symblising God's presence (and God's presents!)

Gus said...

Just did my 'incident report' on this issue Pete. I baptised a beautiful baby - Jason. I claimed for him the promises that God has made and his parents were asked to look after him nicely and they said "With God's help we will!"

The most beautiful part of the liturgy. "With God's help."

As church, as parents, as lay people - we will never care for the child properly - but "With God's help." And I think God will help anyone who comes - with faith - to a (sometimes nasty) place like church looking for God's help.

That brings me to faith! We demand some sort of profession of faith in order for baptism to somehow be effective - yet we believe that baptism is effective (nice tension).

People in the New Testament World would never have understood our insistence on symbolism and faith and stuff - to them there was no separation: Baptism was as effective as taking a bath - independent of any "faith" response. That's just the way the world was - none of this "outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace" crap - it was the thing.


Rock in the Grass said...

Dave: I believe that there is no such thing as private Christian baptism. This is a sacrament of the church - and as such is a Christian ritual that has meaning only in the context of a worshipping community. So I would be reluctant to do this as something outside of the context of the people of God gathered for worship. What I am pleading for is a church that begins to practice an unconditional welcome to all people.

Dinsy: I believe that vows to God do matter. But where I struggle is: Who get to decide if the parents will keep their vows? On what basis does anyone decide that some parents are able to keep vows, and others will not? So I would rather leave the judging up to God: and spend my efforts in encouraging people to reach for a deeper spirituality in their lives.

Wes, Gus, Murray: the UK Methodist liturgy asks that baptism first take place, then the parents make promises. This seems a better option. baptism as a sign of the loving acceptance of God. And parental promises as a response to the love of God. Baptism is therefore not a rreward for making the promises.


dinsy said...

Rock, sorry if I sounded judgemental, that was not my intention. I agree that you can never know for sure what someone is going to do in the future, but unless they have made some major change in their life, knowledge of their past is a pretty good indicator of future behaviour.

There are people in England at least who only want their child baptised because it is "the thing to do", it is quite common for people to get married in church for the photos, and get kids baptised for the family occasion. By the time they are on to the second or third child, you can make a pretty fair estimate of how likely they are to keep the vows. But yes, only God can know for sure. Which is why I think it better to leave off the strings attached.

I was certainly not trying to imply that you either believe vows to God don't matter, or act as though they don't. From what you have blogged in various places on the internet, I have nothing but respect for your integrity, beliefs, and the way you practice them.

eishman said...

Seems as the Roman Catholic church is also questioning
Vatican panel condemns limbo to eternal dustbin
. Perhaps the questions are different(ish), ro are they?

Rock in the Grass said...

Dinsy: do not apologise! I value your comments and welcome those who challenge my thinking. And you hit the nail of my dilemma on the head: because I am asked by my church to ensure that the parents who make promises are able to keep them. But how do I ever know if they will? So do I exclude those "strangers" who come back a second or third time but have shown no Church participation in between? Perhaps three strikes and you are out! But then if God were to judge me on the same basis I would have been "out" a long time ago. Because I know my own frailties and failings.... and I often let myself (and God) down. Also - somewhere in all of this I want to trust that God is at work in the lives of these families, and I want to give recognition of a second/third chance that God gives us all.
Please keep challenging me. I need it.

Dave Lynch said...

May I offer a view that is possibly not one normally given in these matters.

What if we are dealing with two completely different organisms, one instituted by Christ at the Jordan under the preaching of John and one instituted by the same hearts that looked for self identification and glorification on the plain of shinar.

The Kingdom of God and The Church.

The latter is the one that performs a ritual for the culture it seeks to serve, the culture to which it has become a hired priest. This it the duty it performs, and it confers upon its recipients nothing at all because only faith can do that.
The former is an act that signifies unity with the community, it shows a turning towards the King of the Kingdom.

So it seems to me that those who have to perform these civil acts can do so without any strings attached, and who knows, maybe the recipients will peep their heads round the door of the banquet hall and desire that they too would sit at the wedding feast of the Lamb.

So glad we are free people.