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Baptism debacle in Florida

Baptism debacle in Florida

In a recent Facebook post, Rich McCaffrey, a new father in central Florida shared the story of a planned baptism gone awry.

Rich and his husband Eric have been attending the Cathedral of St Luke in Orlando, FL and had wanted to have their son Jack baptized.

We spent time discussing our desire to baptize Jack with the Dean, Anthony Clark. We were open with him about our family and that we wanted the focus to be placed, where it should, on Jack. The Dean was welcoming and open about the congregation, explaining it was a mix of conservative- and liberal-minded people. He agreed to Jack’s baptism, and recommended we opt for the later 6 p.m. service, since those who worship at that time tend to be the most “open.”


So the baptism was scheduled for April 19, and like many proud parents, Rich and Eric invited friends and family, some of whom came from out of town. But shortly before the day, something went wrong.


On Thursday, April 16 we received a message from Dean Clark asking us to contact him regarding “a development” concerning the baptism. With relatives in the room, I called and what I heard still creates a lump in my throat. The Dean shared there were members of the congregation who opposed Jack’s baptism and although he hoped to resolve the conflict, he was not yet able to (the Bishop of Central Florida, Greg Brewer, was also involved). After probing further the Dean said “the issue is with you and Eric being the first two men who will baptize their child at the Cathedral.” He offered his apologies and further explained this was a bigger deal because of the exposure that comes along with the baptism taking place at the Cathedral. In essence “this is not no forever, just not now.”


It isn’t clear what, if anything, transpired between finding out the baptism wouldn’t be happening as expected on April 19th and the Facebook post on May 2nd, but that post was quickly and widely shared to near universal dismay and anger. When contacted, Dean Anthony Clark said “Jack’s parents and I have had a very regrettable misunderstanding regarding Jack’s baptism; I’ve reached out to them so that we might resolve the misunderstanding and make this right moving forward.”


The original post also seemed to suggest that there was involvement on the part of the Diocesan Bishop, the Rt Rev Greg Brewer. However, when contacted the bishop responded; “Until I saw this Facebook post this morning, I was not aware of some of the details mentioned in this post. Please know that I never forbade baptism to this child, nor did I instruct others to forbid his baptism. I am meeting with the parents this week to remedy this very sad situation.”


The Dean also said that the family was meeting with the bishop this week which was confirmed by the family when Rich, the father posted an update;

Hi Everyone, the support from so many near and far in the past day and a half has been truly inspiring and we are very appreciative. Earlier today church leadership reached out to us and we will be talking with them about Jack’s baptism.

So at this point, it seems as though the family is still intent on getting their son baptized and the Cathedral and diocese are working to find a resolution.


What isn’t clear is why this became an issue in the first place. There is much speculation, but not many facts. We don’t know for sure the motivation of the members who were opposed or what role the bishop may have played nor do we know why the Dean would weigh their opposition so heavily as to actually postpone an already scheduled baptism.


It is no secret that the Bishop of Central Florida, The Rt Rev Greg Brewer holds conservative views, he is one of the self-identified Communion Partners, who opposed the authorization of the liturgy for blessing same-sex marriages at the last General Convention. But in their Indianapolis Statement, they didn’t go so far as to propose denial of baptism to LGBT persons or their families; what they did write was; “We are committed to the gay and lesbian Christians who are members of our dioceses.  Our Baptismal Covenant pledges us to “respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, p. 305), and we will continue to journey with them as together we seek to follow Jesus.”


This incident raises a question about how we live in christian community, with major differences in how ‘christian’ is understood. A significant shift in the baptism rite in the 1979 prayer book is to place it squarely within the context of community; the congregation is asked to give their support; “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” (BCP p 303). But what happens if the community cannot affirm that? Though it appears that the Dean was attempting to work out just that question, to deny or delay the baptism, for many Episcopalians, was an unacceptable answer.



Posted by Jon White


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Rob Michaels

Published on line today.

David Murray

Rob – I have never heard that baptism was directly related to marriage vows. If so – my RC baptism just might be void. My parents hardly had a faithful and quality marriage. Also – my god-parents (who were at the baptism) were an Uncle and his girl friend at the time. The focus is the individual receiving baptism.

Rob Holman

A few points that are not addressed here.
1) the child was not denied baptism (as an individual) but the parents who make the vows on behalf of the child were denied baptism for their child.
2) baptism is not made apart from the vows. If the words of the vows have meaning (otherwise, why say them?) then it would be important to agree on the meaning of those words with the spiritual authority (the priest and bishop) being asked to perform the sacramental rite.
3) clearly there is a fundamental disagreement as to holiness/sinfulness of the parents’ relationship in this conservative diocese with many of the dioceses in TEC. In the conservative view, the parents’ vowed relationship in marriage is in rebellion against God and his rule — his Lordship. Jesus clearly defined marriage as a union between a man and a woman.
4) one of the vows of baptism, is to obey Christ as your Lord. From the conservative view, this couple is saying “yes, we will obey you as Lord, but not in this way (their marriage) that the priest and bishop teach because we don’t believe our relationship is sinful. We believe it is holy.
5) so the conservative diocese has a problem. Do we allow people to stand before God, vowing to obey him as their Lord and apply different meanings to these words? And have the congregation vow to support them when they (perhaps only a majority) apply a different meaning from the parents? From an outsider’s view, they, the parents and the priest, are engaged in a sham baptism worthy of Alice in Wonderland (either the vows have meaning or baptism means nothing) or from the conservative view, they are affirming a promise before God and the people that they know is false.
6) this controversy is about two world views colliding. As a parent, I know that loving my children is often saying yes, but only on the terms I lay down, not the ones they are asking for. If Bp. Brewer doesn’t cave before public opinion, I suspect he will be answering the parents along the same lines. And since he is one of the most loving pastors I have ever met, I suspect the parents will know they are loved by him even as he tells them yes, but only on his terms, which i assume they will say no to.

David O'Rourke

Rob, good questions here. My response is, does the priest asking the questions have a role in defining what it means for the parents to “follow and obey him as your Lord” or to “renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God”, or is it the task of the parents to prayerfully discern what it means for them to follow and obey and what sinful desires draw them from the love of God?

If the fathers do not see their relationship and their love for each other as sinful desires, and have reached that determination through prayerful discernment, then is it the place of the priest to determine otherwise? My point is, in all the sacramental services that include questions, including baptism, confirmation, marriage, and ordination, those receiving the sacraments are asked questions and the assumption is that those answering are doing so in good faith.

Gwen Palmer

This is certainly a good explanation of the point of view that could consider this baptism disallowable.

Trouble is, in formulating a blessing for same sex unions, the denomination has clearly stated that it finds committed same sex unions not to be in disobedience of Christ.

So it describes other denominations. Not TEC.

And it doesn’t explain why single parents who chose not to marry and are unrepentant about the circumstances of their baby’s birth, or about non-marital sex, don’t have their commitment to Christ questioned when seeking baptism for their babies. At least, not to the point of denying the baby initiation into Christ’s church.

It also ignores the fact that many straight and traditionally married parents are openly in favor of marriage for same sex couples who want it, and obviously will also teach their child that it’s not wrong. But they are not denied baptism for their children.

Questioning only the commitment to Christ of gay couples applies a double standard.

Cynthia Katsarelis

You are mistaken, Rob, about what Jesus is saying. He is speaking to the hard heartedness of men who divorce their wives. In that time, a woman who didn’t live under the protection of a man’s household was terribly vulnerable, and likely to live in poverty.

At the time, women were basically chattel. It’s only in recent times that “conservatives” have used it as Jesus “defining” marriage.

So no, Jesus did not “clearly define” heterosexual marriage. It’s a logical flaw called proof texting. And it is a hurtful and harmful one.

Rob Holman

Cynthia, you have the context and main point of the teaching correct but that does not negate his teaching on marriage which he clearly affirms and defines even referencing Genesis to do so. And your comment about conservatives only using that passage recently to affirm heterosexual marriage is just silly. First, it is referenced in the marriage rite of the BCP 1662 and second it was never necessary to argue for heterosexual marriage until recent cultural changes. For millennia heterosexual marriage has been a given. To even suggest otherwise people would have thought you were daft. And proof texting is to take one comment out of context, but marriage is the context of the teaching. Don’t divorce. Stay married. A man and a woman become one flesh. I know. I have a couple of them running around my house. Besides, the scriptures teaching on marriage from Genesis to Leviticus, to the Song of Solomon, to the prophets, through the Gospels, epistles and Revelation is consistent. That is called biblical theology not proof texting.

Joe Ferrell

This is truly beyond the pale. What troubles me most is that the dean backed out after “someone” complained. He seems not have had overwhelming theological or pastoral concerns when he initially agreed to baptize the child, although scheduling it at a time when people more “open” to such things would likely be in attendance does indicate some discomfort. I worry that this incident portends a movement to allow clergy to deny access to all sacraments and sacramental rites to “practicing” LGBT folk and their families.

Dan Beach

How is it that Orlando always manages to make the news for all the wrong reasons. Dean Clark certainly could have foreseen this (now national) reaction, handled it with grace, and asked for the Bishop’s guidance (perhaps he did?). The backpedaling and attempts to “fix” the situation have begun. The fallout for the Cathedral is enormous. I am sad that 78 years after I was first baptized an Episcopalian, bigotry continues. As Paul Woodrum wrote so well: ” Save the place before it drowns in its sea of hypocrisy. And this goes double for the whole see of Central Florida.”

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