Baptism at a Distance
  • Tuesday, December 31, 2013

By Calvin Lane and Rob W. Courtney

The phone rings in the priest’s office. Caller ID shows that it is a long-distance call. The unfamiliar voice on the other end says, “Hello, Father, I’d like to come have my baby baptized at your church.” The first sentence on page 298 of the Book of Common Prayer (1979), the rubrics describing baptism, reads: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.” Before any other purpose or intention, then, baptism is entry into the Body of Christ, that fellowship of women and men which shares in his death and resurrection.

Indeed, Louis Weil once wrote that baptism is “an ecclesial sacrament, a church sacrament that reveals the church’s identity and nature” (“Worship and Pastoral Care” in Anglican Theology and Pastoral Care, ed. James Griffiss [Morehouse, 1985], p. 122). Weil wrote this nearly 30 years ago, when the two of us were schoolchildren. Peering into the future, Weil added that this biblical and patristic conception of baptism will certainly go “against the grain of religious individualism” and he estimated that the careful parish priest would have some work to do. He assessed that it would be tempting for a parish priest to take the easy route and allow an “encapsulated” model to persist, the model in which the candidate receives baptism detached from the body.

A wonderful contrast between two models — one private and detached and the other ecclesial — can be found in James Turrell’s recently published Celebrating the Rites of Christian Initiation (Church Publishing, 2013). He begins by comparing two baptisms. The first is his own private Sunday afternoon ceremony more than 30 years ago — aimed, as he says, at “keeping me out of hell.” The other baptism is one he witnessed more recently at an Easter Vigil at Sewanee in which two undergraduates, after an eight-month catechumenate, were made members of the one body of Christ.

Since the 1970s and early ’80s a chorus of theologians, building on the current prayer book (now 34 years old) and the ecumenical consensus that made it possible, have stressed that baptism must be seen as foundational to the Church’s being, that the celebration of a baptism simply cannot be a private affair, and that the congregation has a serious and solemn role to play not only during the administration of the sacrament but also in the newly baptized Christian’s continued growth into the full stature of Christ. Thus in the case of an infant baptism promises are made by parents, sponsors, and the congregation to see the child raised not only in the Christian faith but also the Christian life. And this must mean, irreducibly, taking part in the life of a congregation as itself a member of Christ’s Body, the Church. There is no way around this without cutting out the very heart of the prayer book’s theology of baptism. What then does the careful and sensitive pastor do on receiving a long-distance inquiry?

It is not uncommon, particularly among our more historic parishes in the Episcopal Church, for generation after generation of a family to be baptized at the same font — even when the family (or branches thereof) has moved away and is no longer an active part of the local congregation. One of us had neighbors in Virginia, an English family, who traveled back to the United Kingdom to have their child baptized in the “family church” where so many of their relatives and ancestors had received the sacrament.

The key here, we believe, is that the sacred promises made at the font must have some traction on the Monday morning after the baptism. It is tempting, as Weil wrote some three decades ago, to take the easy path, to regard the celebration of a baptism as a private affair, a ceremony disconnected from the active life of the congregation engaged in mission, service, word, and sacrament. But what would that say about our theology of baptism? What is really happening when we stand there at the font with babe in arms, and chrism and paschal candle at the ready?

We are parish priests in the Diocese of Louisiana: Fr. Lane serves St. Mary’s Church in the small community of Franklin while Fr. Courtney serves St. Paul’s Church in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans. Recently we had this sort of experience, one not uncommon in churches all over the nation. A young woman contacted Fr. Lane hoping to have her child baptized. After a good conversation the path forward became clear: as she and her husband live in New Orleans and have an affiliation with St. Paul’s, they would meet with Fr. Courtney, move through pre-baptismal instruction there, and then Fr. Lane would administer the sacrament at St. Mary’s. This strategy honored the deep connection between her family and St. Mary’s while celebrating the baptized child’s future life as a member of the body of Christ at St. Paul’s.

Since, however, the parents’ affiliation with the Church had been loose at best, the outstanding question was why baptism matters to them. Why did they want to have their child baptized? Both of us asked and explored this question with the parents. There are quite a number of reasons why parents want their newborn children baptized. We have described one reason already: incorporating the child into the Body of Christ. Another reason, of course, is family pressure, the weight of tradition, and perhaps the attendant desire to present the child to the world in some ritual way. Another reason, to be frank, is a fear of hell. Some parents want “fire insurance,” but they may be missing that the new life of the baptized Christian takes place within the body of Christ. In other words, this life marked by a saving relationship with Jesus on the other side of the waters of baptism is a life within the Christian community.

It was this biblical, patristic, and prayer book understanding of baptism that gave shape to the instruction that Fr. Courtney offered. He met with the couple to begin building a relationship and to learn about their connection to both St. Mary’s in Franklin and St. Paul’s in New Orleans. During this meeting Fr. Courtney invited them to attend two events at St. Paul’s: first a Sunday evening newcomer orientation and social gathering where the couple could meet other members of the parish and learn what it means to be part of the body of Christ there; and second a pre-baptismal instruction class.

St. Paul’s offers these classes on the Saturday before each of the five traditional occasions for baptism (BCP, p. 312). The focus is the Baptismal Covenant and the prayer book’s theology of baptism. Also, since the majority of baptisms at St. Paul’s are those of infants, the parents and sponsors discuss the importance of administering communion to children right from the start and the critical importance of family prayer and devotion. This is also a great opportunity to fulfill the rubric that directs the minister to instruct parents “about the duty to make prudent provision and well-being for their families, and of all persons to make wills” (BCP, p. 445). This topic quickly becomes important to young parents who want the best for their child. Overall, pre-baptismal instruction should help parents understand the joyous yet serious responsibilities of baptism and that the promises they make are as much for themselves as for the candidates. This follows, again, the trajectory of a deeper “baptismal ecclesiology” (see Louis Weil, “Which Theology: The Recovery of a Baptismal Ecclesiology” in A Theology of Worship [Cowley, 2002]).

We suspect that this sort of pastoral yet theologically consistent work remains to be done in a number of congregations. Again it should be underscored how old this theology of baptism (and consequent theology of the Church) really is by now: to say nothing of its biblical and Church-historical precedents, this has been the teaching of the Episcopal Church since before the birth of many of the parents now bringing their children for baptism. Thus it was the task of clergy in the 1980s and possibly also the 1990s to teach. And yet the encapsulated model persists, waiting to be tackled by a whole new generation of clergy. We hope that congregations will pastorally discourage these more private misunderstandings of baptism prevalent in the culture at large and encourage a more authentically pastoral view of baptism as the prayer book defines it: full initiation into Christ’s body, the Church.

The Rev. Calvin Lane is priest-in-charge of St. Mary’s Church in Franklin, Louisiana, and affiliate professor at Nashotah House. The Rev. Rob W. Courtney is priest-in-charge of St. Paul’s Church in New Orleans.


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