Here is Water: A Call for Open Baptism

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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.

2 thoughts on “Here is Water: A Call for Open Baptism

  1. Steven Giovangelo

    This sermon on Baptism is right on. As long as we keep focusing on the lowest common denominator, the Faith will not be taught and indeed the Sacrament of Initiation into Christ’s Fellowship will be trivialized. As a priest of the Anglo catholic tradition for nearly 40 years (now ret.) I never refused anyone at the rail; as Elizabeth I shrewdly put it (in a different context in the 16th century) ‘we desire not a window into the souls of men!’ We would never ask people to present their Baptism Certificate at the rail before administering to them the Sacrament ! I consistently each Sunday, before the Offertory Sentence, invited all baptized Christians to receive Holy Communion and invited anyone to come forward who wished to receive a blessing with the traditional ‘sign’ to the priest of crossing one’s hands on the breast. One or twice I was criticized for being ‘narrow and unwelcoming.’ I made no apology whatsoever; we’re going to end up Unitarian/Universalists unless we recover the primacy of Holy Baptism as the Sacrament of Initiation.

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