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The missed opportunity of adult Baptism

August 17, 2015

baptismal-fontWHEN I WAS a schoolboy, before we embarked upon Charlotte’s Web and James and the Giant Peach and (in my day) the private pleasures of the various R.L. Stine books, we learned to spell. We were taught the fundamental tenets of our English tongue from the ground up: spelling, reading, sentence structure, and we moved from simple sentences (“See Spot run”) to more and more complex constructions (“Whether ’tis Nobler” etc.). Hamlet followed rather a long way after The Hungry Hungry Caterpillar.

The experience was the same in mathematics and the natural sciences. Before we could tackle chemistry and physics or even long division, we were taught to count, to add and subtract. In third grade, the memorization required to conquer daily quizzes on the multiplication tables was a necessary skill on the way to mastering geometry, algebra, and trigonometry.

I will venture that, no matter the discipline, neophytes are taught in a similar way: basics are learnt first, then increasingly more and more specialized knowledge follows. As the saying goes, “You need to walk before you can run.” Not only are elementary skills necessary to comprehend, so too are they necessary to appreciate, to enjoy, to digest the richer and more complex material that follows.

And so every time I read a discussion about Communion without Baptism, I find myself dumbfounded. Why are we even having this conversation?

Mainly, it seems, our troubles stem from trying to negotiate the forces of history. Much of our theology and ecclesiology has been unable to adjust to a world in which Christendom is very much on the wane. It is no longer safe to assume that Western gentiles are christened as infants. In days when they were, the question of admission to Holy Communion was largely behavioural and theological (such as when Charles Ashworth thinks how “preposterous it was to imagine a bishop administering the sacrament when he was not in a state of grace,” a concept that has moldered into an antique).1

We live instead in a time when a great many adults come to the church both unchurched and unbaptized. Our instinctive response both as Christians and as Episcopalians is to welcome these seekers into our community, and we ought out of our Christian charity to do so. For this reason, the larger part of our debate has nothing to do with Communion, less to do with Baptism, and everything to do with the nature of how we welcome the stranger.

Communion without Baptism is about privileging the social community of the church over the confessing community of the faithful.

I have observed, during many years in the church, how eagerly members of a parish will shunt a newcomer into some parochial activity group. Welcome! Would you like to join the outreach/hospitality/facilities committee? Would you like to sing in the choir? Would you like to help out with the lawn mowing? The youth group? The newcomer’s first days in a parish church must feel a great deal like going to a college activities fair. No prior experience necessary!

Latter-day Episcopalians like to ease people into what we erroneously take to be subjects too heavy to be broached early, matters of faith and life and death and Jesus Christ. But by the time we get around to these conversations, too often do we find that the busybody joiners have contented themselves with their little fiefdoms of pot luck, and those seeking spiritual and intellectual substance have, in the manner of Elvis, left the building.

Seldom do we lead off with the important questions of what brings people to the threshold: How have they found their way to the church? What do they seek? What have they heard about Jesus Christ? Have they been baptized? Would they like to learn more? For years, Andrew Mead of St. Thomas Church in New York taught what I used to think was the cumbersomely named “Rector’s Christian Doctrine Class.” It wasn’t exclusively for confirmands; it was expressly for any and all who wished to learn more about the nature of Christianity. It took me a while before I understood why such a class was necessary: in a big-city parish like St. Thomas, of course the rector MUST teach the basics to the newcomers who are constantly walking through the door. A common understanding of the fundamentals of Christianity is NOT a given.

We ought to teach. We ought to evangelize. And we ought to baptize. Teaching, evangelizing, and baptizing not only make a lovely combination, but also do they have the virtue of being exactly what Jesus told us to do.

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). That’s the Authorised (King James) Version, which is of course the most lyrical. Here’s how the estimable Revised Standard Version puts it: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

There is a common theme here to Jesus’ words: Baptism and teaching are paramount, and indeed they point the way toward how we are to make disciples of all nations.

All of this sounds, one feels, distinctly un-Episcopalian. We’re not especially comfortable with evangelism, and we don’t much like talking about our faith. We cloak our discomfort in social terms, saying how mean it is to exclude people, but all of that is really just our lying to ourselves. As always, we doth protest too much, methinks, which brings us to the heart of the matter, as our true discomfort concerning the unbaptized has little to do with inclusion and exclusion.

Adult baptism strikes us as awkward and embarrassing.

We baptize our infants and send our children to Sunday school. We love to teach children the old Bible stories, and we hope that they will stick around the church out of institutional loyalty (although this is a dicey bet since the Episcopal Church (a) continually mucks with its liturgy and (b) in most places doesn’t command the peak social position that it once did).

But teaching adults who don’t already buy into the church? This is a much more arduous and distasteful proposition for many of us. How do we answer the questions, Did the resurrection really happen? What about matter and gravity and neuroscience and materialistic determinism? If God is good, how can there be evil? In this world of suffering and beauty, how could God possibly care about me and my little life? These are rough questions, but they are the questions that matter, and they are worth tackling and exploring in conversation, contemplation, and prayer.

But we don’t appear to want to do this, or at least we don’t want to take the risk of doing this with people who might not believe it, whose questions might challenge our own faith. We don’t want to explore the hard questions with people whose agreement we have not already secured, or whose disagreement we have already disparaged as bigoted, uninformed, or trivial.

We – and our clergy – have gotten very good, however, at talking about Christianity with people who already agree with us, people who already get the code words and won’t take issue with what has been said. Nobody wants to argue about theology in church. This is part of the suffocating niceness of a great many of our parishes. We all know how it goes: the preacher gets up into the pulpit (or, if he or she is of the aging hipster variety, shambles down the chancel steps to the nave floor), tells a few jolly stories and does a little light moralizing, makes a point that doesn’t logically or theologically hang together, and says Amen. Nobody says it was a bad sermon; nobody says it was a good sermon, and we forgive the priest his or her homiletical inadequacy because he or she is “a nice person” and we’re very fond of him or her. Then we all go to coffee hour. Few people leave the parish (except in coffins), and few people join it.

Too few clergy (and fewer laity) appear up to the task of articulating the Christian faith to the great unwashed by which we are all surrounded. We tinker endlessly with the liturgy in the hopes that as we make our common prayers say less and less, they might speak more and more broadly. “Ashes to go” and other such nonsense is an attempt to make the liturgy do what we are, individually and corporately, too polite (i.e. chicken) to do for ourselves. We hope that, after enough exposure to church, people will just “get it,” perhaps through osmosis and immersion (although not in the waters of Baptism).

And so, because we are unwilling to teach, we are caught. How can we refuse Communion to those whom we have not taken under our wing as catechumens, as novices, as students of the faith? How can we say, “Communion follows Baptism,” when we make no provision for the education and conversion of curious souls?

How can we say, “Communion follows Baptism,” when we make no provision for the education and conversion of curious souls?

We think too little of people, and we degrade the importance of the inner life that was so important to Jesus, when we assume that the mere fact of joining up, the mere fact of “inclusion,” will be enough, that it will meet the deepest needs of those knocking on our door. Imagine the courage required to come into the community of a parish church, to go where no one knows your name, and to say, “Hello; I’m new here.” It must be a frightening and difficult thing for adult men and women, who may excel in other areas of their lives, to adopt the posture of a humble beginner, a novice, a johnny-come-lately. It is part of the pastoral ministry of the church and her clergy to meet these people where they are, to meet them in their questioning, in their insecurity, in their searching and to tell them that they are not alone, that the church is the community of those seeking after the same questions, after the same God. As we have written before, “come as you are” is only the beginning. We take anyone as he or she is, and we work for the transformation that comes by grace from growth in Christ.

To do otherwise, to merely hand out the external goods without working for the inner conversion, is an abdication of our apostolic calling.

We are trained to consider it elitist and exclusionary to say, “You may take Communion only after you have been washed by water and the Holy Spirit in Baptism, after you have been a catechumen and have been instructed in the most fundamental beliefs of the Christian faith.” And yet we forget that in the early church, this is precisely what happened. What we now call the “Liturgy of the Word” in the Communion service was in the early church a liturgy of initiation, of learning and preparation, the liturgy for those who were making ready to solemnly declare themselves for Christ and his church and against the devil, the world, and the flesh. The liturgy of the altar was the liturgy for those baptized into “the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to make,” the liturgy for those who, in the early church, had RISKED THEIR LIVES to be there.

When we give out Communion willy-nilly and treat Baptism as an afterthought rather than the paramount sacrament which it is, we deny the newcomer the opportunity to move intentionally and more fully into a deeper experience of his own relationship to God, to his fellows, and to himself. The spiritual journey into a fuller knowledge of Jesus Christ is not something that happens overnight, and it is not something that happens merely by joining the community of the church. Giving out Communion without Baptism is about privileging the social community of the church over the confessing community of the faithful. It is about adding members without making disciples, about fanning our self-satisfied “inclusiveness” without advancing the Christian faith. It is a position whose execution leaves the newcomers to the church with a shallow and limp understanding of what exactly the church is, what Christianity is, and who they themselves are.

Those who approach us from outside the church are more than members of an identity group, more than the “out” crowd to our ecclesiastical “in” crowd. They are individuals, each with a unique story, with intensely personal reasons for coming to the church, desirous of being formed more fully in their individual relationships to God. To understand Holy Communion based primarily on our sense of group rights and distributive justice is to forget that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34) at the same time as “even the very hairs of your head are all numbered” (Luke 12:7). As Frederick Schmidt has written, conversion is a supremely personal thing, which happens one person at a time, which is why our attention must be focused on the individual, the one right in front of us.

I will not argue that the unbaptized derive no satisfaction from the reception of Communion on their first visit. For those who feel socially marginal, it must be a powerful thing to be admitted unconditionally to the group ritual. But doling out the bread and wine in this manner – and the defense of doing so – is a theological failure! Holy Communion is not merely the sign and symbol of group membership. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace, and those who (as Article XXIX reads) “be void of a lively faith, although they do carnally and visibly press with their teeth (as Saint Augustine saith) the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ; yet in no wise are they partakers of Christ.” Put another way: when we give out Communion without Baptism, without instruction, without true admission to membership in the church, which comes through faith, we’re just handing out a tasteless wafer and some fortified wine.

As Derek Olsen has written,

The call for Communion without Baptism fundamentally confuses our understanding of both God’s love and God’s grace. People don’t need Baptism or the Eucharist to be loved by God—God already does that. Nor is the grace given in the Sacrament some kind of generic “divine good favor.” Rather, sacramental grace is grace to better inhabit and more fully embody the covenant relationship created in Baptism.

That covenant relationship with God through Jesus Christ is the very substance of the church, and we impoverish our newcomers by distributing the bread and the wine without immersing them in the transformative reality of that relationship. Adult Baptism represents possibly the greatest opportunity for education and conversion before us in the present day, and it is an opportunity that is passing us by.

As ever, we have before us the question of what we are doing here. How are we to meet the world’s need for “the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord”? Are we just another social club, another little group that points to nothing beyond itself and its own little interests and folkways, a place with no faith in anything other than its own niceness? Or are we a community of disciples, baptized into the saving death of Jesus Christ, truly and earnestly repenting of our sins, in love and charity with our neighbours, intending to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways? Is our work merely to welcome the world, or it is to transform it?

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

1. Susan Howatch, Glittering Images (New York: Knopf, 1987), 40.

One Comment leave one →
  1. ambly permalink
    August 19, 2015 15:30

    Thank you.

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