Baptisms, aisle 5

By Richard Helmer

“What do I need to do to get my child baptized?”

I’ve fielded this question, by phone, from people I have never met several times over the past year. The conversation has inevitably followed a somewhat vexing, but now familiar pattern:

It begins with the caller pulling out the “I’m an Episcopalian” card. The implication is clear enough: while perhaps I have not darkened the door of a church community for quite sometime, the fact that I was raised in the Episcopal Church means I have a claim on her sacramental rites, customs, and clergy. Then the claim gets pushed a bit further. Would a private baptism therefore be possible? Family are coming to visit on such and such a holiday, and wouldn’t it be nice to do it while everyone was in town?

I’m initially stymied by the request. I hear an almost subconscious cultural assumption being made about baptism: a church, like a grocery or convenience store, stocks certain products, and not least among them is baptism. Or a more apt analogy is that well-meaning parents who truly love their children want the best for them, so there’s a checklist of goods and services to procure: diapers, formula, toys, crib, health insurance, life insurance, and – oh, yes, coming sometimes almost as an afterthought – salvation or at least spiritual “insurance” . . . also known as baptism.

It’s hard not to sympathize. I can imagine in some cases the rumblings of a grandparent or an aunt and uncle or two behind the scenes. By pushing the importance of baptism, anxious relatives might somehow hook the next generation back into the church community. Then there is the natural inclination of a family scattered over many states to gather and engage in a customary ritual that has multi-generational roots. We have so few of these customs left as a society, it seems, and the church is one of the few institutions remaining with an understanding of them and their practice.

But baptism, of course, is not just a ritual. Nor is it simply an opportunity to touch base with family tradition or custom. And, for sure, it is not as everyday as taking out a life insurance policy for a family member. Parents who have their children baptized are making serious counter-cultural promises on their behalf:

• putting Christ at the center of their lives and household

• renouncing evil – which means evil is real and sometimes near at hand

• upholding the dignity of every human being – which means actively resisting the easy polemic, demonization, and protectionism of our society

• embracing a life of true obedience – which means so much more than the one-dimensional complicity that gives us cause to dismiss it in the name of freedom

• proclaiming the Gospel – which implies we need to know at least a little bit about it, and better yet endeavor to live into it!

The conversation begins to turn south the moment I express my desire to meet with the family at least four times before the baptism. I figure if I’m not doing at least as much consultation as I would before marrying a couple, I’m not encouraging the level of commitment baptism demands. Christian life-long union, after all, has its foundations ultimately in baptism, as are all our sacraments. I live in earthquake country. Foundations are profoundly important.

But beyond all this is among the most compelling moments of the baptismal rite for me personally, especially when it involves a young child or infant. Immediately after the baptism and chrismation, the child is often carried by the priest into the midst of the congregation, away from the parents. It’s too often done almost without a second thought, but the action itself says something profound about what has just happened: The parents have offered their child to God, and to the community – the Body of Christ. It’s a kind of offering that might well give most parents of small children pause for thought. It certainly does for me.

Moreover, the language of baptism is significant. The parents brought in a biological child. They go home with more than that: a little Christian, died and raised with God in Christ. This means things from then on will be different, or ought to be at least, for everyone. Parents need time and space to reflect on what this might mean.

My spiritual director is fond of pointing out that for the Christian community, water runs thicker than blood. Baptism trumps blood ties. Godparents, in some mysterious way, are considered to be even closer to their charge than biological parents. We rarely see that played out in practical ways these days, but at least there should come a recognition that the biological or adoptive parents are at most stewards of this new life, no longer owners. The newly baptized child is a living revelation that this precious, tender humanity belongs ultimately and completely to God. And baptism turns responsibility from the parents outward and into the community of the Body of Christ. This is one reason Jesus talks about potential division when it comes to choosing between loyalties to the Gospel and to blood ties. It’s dangerous, countercultural stuff. It’s about joining a new family that is not entirely recognized by even contemporary legal and secular laws and customs.

And here’s the final rub: we promise as part of the baptismal covenant to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. In short, an important step in engaging in our baptismal covenant means being active in Christian community. This is where these phone conversations too often end. I gently remind our inquirers that baptism is about being part of community, and that in the baptismal rite the community pledges to uphold the child in a life-long journey, demanding a life-long relationship with the Body of Christ. The community has to be present to make this pledge!

So for the heart of this priest, at least, a private, convenient, impromptu baptism really won’t cut it. While pastoral exceptions might be made in extreme cases, most of us who have participated in a baptism with little catechetical foundation know the end result: we never see the children or their families again. We deserve no better.

God’s grace is indeed free, but how we respond to it surely matters if our relationship with God is real. Love requires more of us than just pulling a sacrament down off the shelf and moving into the checkout line. And our beloved children simply need and deserve more than that from a transformative spiritual tradition and a truly loving community.

So I don’t stock salvation insurance.

The Rev. Richard E. Helmer, a priest, pianist, and writer, serves as rector of Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, Calif. His sermons have been published at Sermons that Work, and he blogs regularly at Caught by the Light.

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  1. I often baptize without ever having met the family. I work as a supply priest and the community where I am currently serving will bring forth a family and children for baptism. They have a person who visits with the family and sponsors to talk about what they are doing. I don’t feel the need to control all this – the community really takes their role seriously.

  2. As a frequent supply priest, I do get asked to baptize members of families I have not met; but it is always in the context of a congregation, so usually someone has discussed this with the family. On the other hand, I have occasionally taken the child in my arms during the sermon and had a “conversation” with the child, in the presence of the congregation, to do at least some basic education and/or reinforcement.

    More difficult is the hospital setting. There are a few who do still see religion, and therefore baptism, as “fire insurance.” Since almost all such baptisms come under the category of “emergency,” any member of the baptized can pour the water and say the words. So, I have to be alert to the need to educate about association in family, much less in congregation, so as to make sure baptisms don’t happen that violate family or community faith (non-Christians, or Christians who believe in “Believer’s Baptism”). It’s not the struggle for me it used to be (when conservative Catholic institutions were training all OB nurses to baptize first and ask questions later), but it’s still out there.

    Marshall Scott

  3. Kit Carlson

    Amen, brother! I am going to save this wonderful, thoughtful piece to hand out to all parents presenting a child, whether or not I know them well.

    Now, could you do one about “Weddings: Aisle 6”? The same issues again apply. Are we a community of faith or a rite of passage convenience store?

  4. Ann,

    Thanks much for the reminder that having a community led catechetical process is truly ideal. It really invites the community to live into their side of the covenant, too.

    Where I serve, we don’t have one yet for baptism, but we do have an incredible 2-year lay led confirmation program (one that was established well before I came!) that meets monthly and provides each confirmand with an individual sponsor. We had a dozen people (all teens) come through it and be confirmed this year!

    So now I know what we can get to work on next…

  5. mark friesland

    Don’t all people have a claim on the ministry of the Church?

    Baptism isn’t just a human enterprise and effort. God is active in baptism (and some would say, the primary actor).

    Perhaps God is even active in the imperfect and flawed reasons some parents feel to have their child baptized in our consumer society.

  6. Mark,

    The distinction I make here is between ministry and sacrament, and particularly with baptism, covenant.

    Yes, the ministry of the church is to all people, and indeed the world as a whole.

    Baptism, however is not just a ministry, but a covenant — a mutual promise built around discipleship. This entails greater effort on our side, it seems to me, than simply invoking God’s free grace. As a church, we are called to challenge the baptized into lives of transformation. When we fail to do this, we neglect the gifts of grace we have been given.

    When people from outside the Church inquire about baptism, it seems to me we owe them the serious truth about our side of a relationship with God, rather than simply acquiescing to their demands and hoping grace takes care of the rest.

    This strikes me as akin to why we make demands on couples seeking the church’s blessing on their union. The relationship demands promises that are mutual, and that means time must be taken to explore intention and expectation on both sides.

    I’m a free grace guy, but not an advocate of cheap grace. We spend a lifetime learning this distinction, and herein is one major vocation of the Christian community as it lives into the Gospel.

  7. John B. Chilton

    Baptism is about covenant. How well do the sponsors and the church uphold the covenant? If I as a sponsor disappear from the radar after the baptism is that OK? What if I do nothing overt to stay involved in the person’s life, especially their development as Christians?

    This happens very very often. What is the church doing about it? Are the sponsors in a way more representational of what the church community does?

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