Here is Water: A Call for Open Baptism



In one of my favorite scenes from the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” three escaped convicts: Ulysses, Pete and Delmar, encounter a church congregation gathering at a river to perform baptisms. Delmar becomes so excited he jumps to the front of the line to have the preacher baptize him too. After Delmar comes up from the water he yells back to his friends on the shore:

Delmar:          Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. The     preacher’s done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It’s the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting’s my reward.

Ulysses:          Delmar, what are you talking about? We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

Delmar:          The preacher says all my sins been warshed away, including that Piggly Wiggly I knocked over in Yazoo.

Ulysses:          I thought you said you was innocent of those charges!

Delmar:          Well I was lyin’. And the preacher says that that sin’s been warshed away too. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.

Pete enthusiastically takes Delmar up on the offer and is baptized too. Ulysses remains skeptical and dry. Later after the trio pick up a hitchhiker named Tommy, who tells them that he sold his soul to the devil to learn how to play guitar, Ulysses states: “Well, ain’t it a small world, spiritually speaking. Pete and Delmar just been baptized and saved. I guess I’m the only one that remains unaffiliated.”

Ulysses could be anybody. In many ways his character gives voice to the “nones” of our world: the people who are unaffiliated with any religion and who are often content to remain so. Ulysses represents all those that avoid issues like sin and repentance and even God, because they are convinced that they have “bigger fish to fry.” You expect to find such attitudes in a secular society, but finding indifference to baptism in the church is another matter entirely.

When the Book of Common Prayer was revised in 1979 much effort was expended by the scholars and liturgists involved to place a renewed emphasis on baptism and its importance in the life of the worshipping community. Baptism was no longer envisioned as a private service for the Christening of newborns, but instead was seen as a public proclamation of faith, made by adults as well as children. Rubrics were written suggesting (although not, as some think, requiring) that baptism be performed at the chief service on Sunday morning, and then only on four occasions a year (more about this hated rubric later). Now, after 36 years of public baptisms and renewing of Baptismal Covenants, we have a vocal minority in the Episcopal Church that insist that baptism is not essential to participating in the life of the church, particularly in partaking of the Holy Eucharist. Somewhere the message about the importance of baptism did not get through.

Now we are told that withholding communion is unwelcoming and inhospitable, and every three years at General Convention someone proposes a change to canon law to allow the unbaptized to receive communion (communion without baptism or CWOB for short). The primary problem with CWOB, as I see it, is not that it desecrates the Holy Eucharist; the real problem is that it desecrates Baptism. CWOB trivializes baptism; it turns our primary act of union with Christ into an optional rite of initiation. If we are eager to give the stranger in our midst communion, but somehow less eager to invite them to be baptized, what does that say about our belief in baptism?

I don’t know any priest who has ever asked about someone’s baptism at the altar rail. I certainly have never withheld communion from those who have come forward wishing to receive it, but to actively teach people that it doesn’t matter is another thing entirely. That, in essence, would be allowing them access to one sacrament, but withholding from them another: encouraging them to take Christ’s body, but without encouraging them to become a part of it.

How have we gotten to this point where CWOB can even be seriously discussed? It seems that despite the changes made in the 1979 Prayer Book, we actually value baptism less now than we did then. I know of one church in particular that prides itself on offering communion to anyone, regardless of baptism, yet turns away individuals wishing to be baptized, unless they are available on one of the four times a year that the prayer book recommends doing it. Just exactly how is this radically welcoming? What does it say if we will offer anyone communion but put strict limits on when and where we will actually offer people union with Christ through baptism?

For too long we have talked about baptism as if it were a community event. We have treated baptism like it is an initiation into a club, and not a sacred moment in the life of an individual. I cringe when I hear people say: “I was baptized an Episcopalian,” or “I was baptized Roman Catholic.” People now think that baptism is about joining a church, when in reality baptism is about joining the Church, not a group of Christians worshiping on this corner in this town, but the mystical body of Christ which is made up of all believers from all time. To be baptized is to be forever affiliated with Jesus Christ. It shouldn’t matter if the individuals we baptize never darken the door of our church again. Baptism is not about making new church members; it is about making new Christians. I understand the reasons why the liturgists of the 1979 Prayer Book wanted to make baptism a Sunday event, but I am not convinced that putting limits on baptism has been an effective means of calling people outside of our churches into a life in Christ.

We need to get serious about baptism. If we want to be radically welcoming of the strangers in our midst, then let’s start by welcoming them at the font; better yet, let’s take baptism outside the church: let’s wade into the water with God’s people in rivers and lakes and streams. Whenever we find someone that wishes to follow Jesus, let us show them just how welcoming our church can be by baptizing them then and there. We don’t need to turn every sacred moment into a bureaucratic process. When our Lord gave his disciples the great commission in Matthew 28:19 he told them to: “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.” When one of those disciples, Phillip, met an Ethiopian Eunuch that wanted to follow Jesus in Acts 8, he didn’t wait until Sunday or a special feast day to unite him with the Lord; he did it as soon as they found water. If we are serious about following this Jesus, obeying his commands, and getting people to affiliate with God, then we need to get serious about his command to baptize.

We have no bigger fish to fry.

There’s a reason for the things that I have on…


A friend of mine once said: “we are really good in the church at creating professional clergy, but we aren’t very good at creating ministers of the gospel.” Hearing her words made me think of my own time in seminary and the different ways in which I was and was not prepared to be spreading the gospel. During my last year in seminary, the then dean, Joseph Britten, sat the senor class down one day and passed out a piece of paper. One of the topics for discussion that day was clerical dress. The dean began by saying that we could talk about the historical and cultural reasons for clergy to wear black, but that we would never have a better excuse than the words on this piece of paper. Printed on the paper were the lyrics to the Johnny Cash song “Man in Black”:

Well, you wonder why I always dress in black,

Why you never see bright colors on my back,

And why does my appearance seem to have a somber tone.

Well, there’s a reason for the things that I have on.

I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,

Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,

I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,

But is there because he’s a victim of the times.

I wear the black for those who never read,

Or listened to the words that Jesus said,

About the road to happiness through love and charity,

Why, you’d think He’s talking straight to you and me.

Well, we’re doin’ mighty fine, I do suppose,

In our streak of lightnin’ cars and fancy clothes,

But just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back,

Up front there ought ‘a be a Man In Black.

I wear it for the sick and lonely old,

For the reckless ones whose bad trip left them cold,

I wear the black in mournin’ for the lives that could have been,

Each week we lose a hundred fine young men.

And, I wear it for the thousands who have died,

Believen’ that the Lord was on their side,

I wear it for another hundred thousand who have died,

Believen’ that we all were on their side.

Well, there’s things that never will be right I know,

And things need changin’ everywhere you go,

But ’til we start to make a move to make a few things right,

You’ll never see me wear a suit of white.

Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,

And tell the world that everything’s OK,

But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,

‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.

If I learned nothing else in seminary, that day I began to grasp what it means to be a minister of the gospel and not just another specialized professional in a suit.

Those years in seminary were the days when I longed for the day when I could officially wear a clerical collar. It was a symbol of what I was working towards; it was a symbol of my burgeoning identity; and, yes, it was also a symbol of authority. I can remember the excitement of actually getting to wear a collar for the first time as an ordained person and the amount of pride that I took in dressing for the role of deacon and priest, but that was a long time ago.

In the eleven years since I was ordained, the clerical collar has lost the mystique that it once had. As a good Anglo-Catholic I still wear it the majority of the time when doing anything official (and yes, I only wear black), but I must admit feeling a great sense of relief at the end of the day when I take it off. I even find myself looking for reasons or excuses NOT to wear the collar sometimes. Quite a change from when I first put it on.

What many people do not understand is that wearing a clerical collar and dressing as a priest, very often changes the way people look at you and the way they treat you. Introverts (like me) can find all that extra attention exhausting, but even some of the most outgoing people I know can get tired of being seen as Father of Mother so and so ALL the time. I have found myself in recent years to be reluctant at times to wear my collar when going in to Manhattan (I live on Long Island). I find myself wanting to take it off or change my shirt, so that I can travel around like everyone else without the extra baggage that the clerical collar brings with it. Recently I was heading into Manhattan from my office and I paused for a moment thinking that I might take off my collar before I left, but for some reason (a still, small voice) I decided to leave it on.

When I walked up to the train platform I was stopped by a man who looked like he was waiting for a train in the opposite direction. Now my gut reaction whenever anyone stops me on the street or in public is to expect one of two things: 1) to be asked for money, or 2) to be asked a theological question that deserves a complex answer by someone that expects a simple answer usually agreeing with their own viewpoint (seriously, this happens). Call me cynical.

The man started by apologizing for taking up my time. He said that he was Jewish and not from my faith but respected what I did and recognized me as a person of prayer. He told me a story of how he had just been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer, was afraid of losing his vision and dying, and really wanted someone to stop and pray for him. That was it. He didn’t want money. He didn’t want to monopolize my time. He just wanted reassurance of God’s love from someone he recognized as a minister.

It took less than a minute of my time to give this gentleman everything that he wanted. After we said a brief prayer together there on the train platform he walked on. It was just a brief moment of grace punctuating a rather ordinary day, but I walked away from the encounter feeling quite different than I had just a few minutes before. He may have been the one who asked for prayer, but I may have been the one who was healed.

This whole encounter which changed my day, and undoubtedly changed his too would not have happened if I had taken that collar off as I had originally intended. I was wearing a symbol of my office and it was that symbol that helped to create the space where that encounter could happen. I realized that I had begun looking at the collar as a professional clergyperson; as a symbol of work that can at times be exhausting. What the collar became for me in that moment was a tool to be used in the ministry of the gospel, and that made all the difference in the world.

The signs and symbols we use in the church have great power, even to people who are completely outside our faith. Even people who never cross the threshold of the church can recognize a priest on the street. They may not understand me as an individual, but they know what I represent and that still means something.

We do damage to the ministry of the gospel by dismissing the tools that God has given us to spread it. By saying that “style doesn’t matter” or that something is “merely symbolic” we casually dismiss the powerful tools that we have to tell the world about Jesus Christ and the love he has for it. When we are more focused on the tools than we are on the mission, then we revert back to being professional clergypersons, but when we are using the tools to further our mission, then we become effective ministers of the gospel.

As an Anglo-Catholic I love the symbols of my faith. I love the bells and smells. I love the gothic architecture and the beauty of the language used in the King James Bible. I love all of those things and I use them, not because I am clinging to something I grew up with (I didn’t). I use them because I am convinced that they are still effective tools for taking the gospel into a world that still needs to hear it.

Hanging on the wall in the rectory bathroom are the framed lyrics to Johnny Cash’s song. I reread it often, because I find that I need to be reminded of the just how important the symbol I am wearing on my back or around my neck might be. It isn’t a fashion choice to be worn by a professional priest; it is a tool to be used by a minister of the gospel. I thank God for reminding me from time to time that there’s a reason for the things that I have on.