Sunday, February 19, 2006

Baptism Case Study

I'm going to go ahead and post my paper now, since it's long turned in. Those of you who are Episcopalian, hope I did right (please be gentle!) - note that the point was to talk about my personal theology of baptism and not only my denomination's. And thanks for all your helpful suggestions, some of which made it in. I really liked the idea about the Easter Vigil rubric but it came too late to be incorporated into the paper.

Those of you who aren't Episcopalian (or Christian), check out our funky ideas! Ha ha! We're wild and crazy! We like to dunk people in water then say they've been possessed by a spirit!

Seriously, my parents would just die if they read this. O how far we stray from the (mis)information of our youth.

Okay, enough. Here it is.

Case Study #1: Baptism

John and Maria plan to baptize their infant, and John has requested rebaptism due to personal faith renewal. In responding, it is important to affirm John’s spiritual journey, and the piety behind his request. As a church we are delighted that he has recovered a strong commitment to his faith. Indeed, his request for rebaptism shows that he grasps the significance of the sacrament as an act of incorporation into the church, union with Christ, and forgiveness of sin.[1] He is certainly on the right track. Pastorally, we may also recall the cautions of Tertullian, who believed infant baptism to be “unwise because the sponsor may not be able to fulfill their vows, and of course the child may grow up and denounce the faith.”[2] In John’s situation, his sponsors or his church community may have failed him, and we want to be sensitive to any healing that he is searching for by requesting this ritual.

From a theological standpoint, I would explain to John that baptism is a once-for-all act: “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”[3] In fact, it is the very act performed earlier in his life which has brought about the renaissance he’s recently experienced. The Holy Spirit came upon him at baptism, and has been working within him even during the years he felt distant from God. His spiritual reawakening is a direct result of his earlier baptism, an affirmation of his having received the Spirit at that event.[4] He is truly “living into his baptism.”

Fortunately for John and Maria, they’ve chosen a church with rich liturgical resources that can provide the experience John is looking for within the proper ritual and theological context. I would recommend a combined rite of baptism for baby and Reaffirmation for John.[5] The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer provides for Reaffirmation as part of the baptism service, making this an easy – and approved – combination to provide. The service is especially meaningful because it will allow John to make his affirmations both for himself and on behalf of his baby simultaneously, even as the entire congregation reaffirms their baptismal covenants, cementing their support of the new family in their life of faith. John would have sponsors from the church body, and he, Maria and Godparents would be acting as sponsors for the child.

It is only at the actual baptism and prayers over John that the rites will diverge, and these words make clear the difference between them. Baby is “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism,” but to John we say, “John, may the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you.[6] This prayer acknowledges the lifelong effects of baptism – John was sealed by the Holy Spirit, and now that same Spirit has rekindled his passion for God.

In preparation for Reaffirmation and baby’s baptism, John (with Maria and sponsors) would undergo a truncated catechumenate process – not as lengthy as that for an adult convert, but a series of classes nonetheless that explain the promises and sign-acts of the ritual. John will learn that the primary action taking place in any sacrament is God's. Yet we are not without responsibility: we must accept God’s offer of relationship by participating in the sacrament. This is undertaken with utmost seriousness on the part of clergy, candidate, sponsors, and congregation, which is particularly crucial when the one baptized is an infant (as John may know from good or bad experience).

John will also learn about the symbolism and history of baptism in his classes. For instance, when we anoint the baptizand’s forehead with oil in the sign of the cross, we are hearkening back to Jewish tradition, in which converts were marked with the Taw, a symbol of the name of God. “The sign is like a brand signifying ownership: the one baptized now belongs to God forever.”[7] The sacrament of Baptism is the moment when one becomes a member of the Body of Christ, and this was true for John (whether baptized as an infant or believer). Because of our American love affair with individualism, faith has mistakenly skewed towards individual commitment. The Anglican vision sees incorporation into the Church as vital to salvation; salvation is not a personal choice that gets one into heaven, but is sharing in the life of God. The Church is the Body of Christ; it affects and upholds an individual’s mystical union with God, inaugurated in baptism. What is foremost in John’s Reaffirmation is not his personal story but rather him reclaiming his rightful place in God’s cosmic story.

The only situations in which John’s initial baptism may be considered ineffective would be if it were done without water or without invoking the trinity. Once again, the Episcopal Church provides a liturgical solution to the problem:

If there is reasonable doubt that a person has been baptized with water, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” (which are the essential parts of Baptism), the person is baptized in the usual manner, but this form of words is used
If you are not already baptized, John, I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.[8]

Apart from this (somewhat unlikely) possibility, the first baptism of John stands sufficient for his inclusion in the Body of Christ (with the attendant saving grace), and the appropriate step for his current faith journey would be a ritual Reaffirmation of Faith.
Additional Note:

When I discussed this case study with an Episcopal priest, she pointed out to me that Confirmation may actually be the proper step for John, if he hadn’t been confirmed but only baptized as an infant. This is one area where his baptism being “believer’s” could make a difference in the situation, since frequently believer’s baptism does involve some kind of confirmation process. In a situation like this, we would have to find out about the baptism itself and also whether he’d been confirmed or not, and decide based on that information whether to Confirm or Reaffirm (or Receive). As I had already finished the paper above, I chose to add this additional note rather than get into all the “what-if’s” in the body of the paper.

One more reason why the separation of initiation rites proves troublesome!

[1] See White, James F., Introduction to Christian Worship 3rd ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 217ff.
[2] Lecture: “Initiation” (Johnson, CH 507).
[3] The Book of Common Prayer, 298.
[4] A belief based upon Jesus and believers receiving the Holy Spirit at some point in their initiation process: see the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism or baptism stories in Acts 8, 10, and 19.
[5] Note that special arrangements would need to be made as Reaffirmation is done by a bishop.
[6] BCP, 310.
[7] Webber, Christopher, A User's Guide to Morning Prayer and Baptism (Harrisburg: Morehouse, 1997), 41.
[8] BCP, 313.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sure is crazy to believe that pouring water over a baby will get rid of its Original Sin - which it didn't have in the first place! Talk about superstition!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

There has been baptism in the womb by syringe, in the deluded belief that the child would not go to heaven if it hadn't been baptised. Incredible. And sad.

The Feminarian said...

Well, baptism is about a lot more than pouring water over a baby. And it's nothing that we do - as the paper says, it's about what God does in the action. God gave us this sacrament. And God could quite easily take away sins by it, or any other means God chooses.

As far as babies having original sin (a concept, let's remember, that actually came FROM the liturgy - Augustine said "You must believe babies have original sin because you baptize them"), you're going to find Christians on both sides of the issue, but I think the majority do believe that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" - even those who haven't done anything yet. Think of it like babies haven't actually sinned YET, but being human beings, there's only the tiniest chance they won't someday. Only Jesus never did. So really it's safe to say they will be sinners even if they aren't now, and therefore require some kind of reconciliation with God.

But of course, how God chooses to handle our rebellions against Her is completely up to Her in my opinion. I figure God can work out what's best in the arena of who goes to heaven or not, who spends eternity with God or not. The best way I've heard it put recently, by my Prof. Bartchy, is that heaven (or the new earth, if you prefer) will be the place where those who want to hang out with God and with other people for eternity can do so. People who on earth don't want anything to do with God, and/or with their fellow human beings, won't be forced to spend all eternity loving them.

God certainly isn't that cruel!

I prefer thinking of baptism less in terms of forgiveness of sins and more in terms of joining the church, the family of God - in other words, becoming a Christian. And why would we want to keep our little ones out of that fellowship? Thus we baptize babies to fully welcome them to the family of God from the get-go. That's my best defense of the practice.

(well, that and the idea that nobody ever REALLY knows what they're getting into when becoming a Christian/being baptized, so this whole idea of "believer's baptism" is something of a misnomer in itself!)

But I'm sure others will have good thoughts so I'll shut up now.

Emily said...

I think that's what baptism signifies in the Episcopal tradition, that you're part of the community, especially as it's constituted now in the liturgy, where it's made clear this is an action supported by the community.

(I think you might have mentioned that this baptism and reaffirmation would take place during the Bishop's annual visitation, probably with other confirmands, and so would be part of the wider community taking part in that action). And that you would want to give the bishop heads-up about this pastoral action taking place and its significance to this family and the life of the community. (Again with the community. . .)

Of course, if you live in a diocese where confirmation services are done on a regional level, I don't know how you do this!

Emily said...

Ok, I'm an idiot, I just went back and reread your notes. D'oh! Ignore the middle part of my last comment, please.

Anonymous said...

Read about baptism on the Internet. It's a pre-christian practice, dating way back to Mesopotamia and Egypt. It was thought the waters of the Nile would cleanse. And John the Baptist, a Jew, baptised Jesus, who was without sin.

Baptism is just another age old practice; now completely outdated. And some Baptists think you've got to be completely immersed!!!!
Nothing else will do - although other Baptists beg to differ.

So who's right?

Anonymous said...

How could a good God permit Original Sin to infect the unborn child?
You've got to be crazy to believe in Adam and Eve to buy that one. And Genesis is very late. Enoch knew a lot more - and wrote about it - including, in his opinion, that God made a punishment pit before making man, who might sin, and deserve punishment.

But since we have Free Will we've been given approval to do what we think best. So the whole thing is a nonsense.

Anonymous said...

And add UMBERTO ECO's books to your reading!

Yoou won't regret it.

Anonymous said...

...speaking of nuts...it looks like you received several comments from one! what can one expect from someone who gets their theology off of the internet though...