Saturday, October 6, 2018

Infant Baptism. . . conceding the point. . .

Looking at some statistics, in particular infant baptisms in the Episcopal Church but not only there, it seems as if the whole debate of infant baptism may be surrendered by some churches once accustomed to baptizing them.  This is not because of an accommodation to the world or a rejection of the theology but simply the fact that there are  fewer and fewer small children presented for baptism.  It is as if the point is being conceded simply by statistic and nothing else.

There was a time, in fact when I first entered the parish ministry, when the unchurched were presumedly those who had been baptized as infants or small children, fallen away during the young adult years, and would probably show up again when they married and had children to present at the font.  That is exactly the scenario that was often discussed when considering how to reach the younger generation.  But times have changed.

As fewer infants and small children are brought to the font, it means that the unchurched are more likely those who have seldom darkened the door to a church building, probably never attended Sunday school or VBS, never sat through a catechism class, but thought they knew what Christianity was from characterization in media or from friends who grew up and grew distant from the faith as they did.  In other words, we have not quite a blank slate but one that has never been washed yet one on which a stereotypical or shallow or perhaps even heretical version of Christian faith has been written on and erased -- a rejection of an idea without having encountered the real faith.

All of this is rather sad.  I was brought to baptism by my parents within weeks of my birth.  There was not a Sunday that I recall missing worship or Sunday school.  I cannot remember not being at VBS or catechism class.  My faith was formed in the home and by church going parents who made me a church going young adult.  My wife was raised the same way.  So were my children.  That is increasingly the exception rather than the rule.  Those whom we encounter in the world do not need to have either faith or an experience renewed or re-awakened.  It is much more complex.  They need to have the false characterization of the faith excised from their minds and hearts and then brought to the faith through catechesis that results in baptism.  The process will surely mirror that of the early church period but the candidates are decidedly different.  They are not quite pagans in that they think they know what Christianity is and have already rejected it (or at least its exclusivity) but they are still far from having heard or knowing the Gospel.

This comes with some other baggage.  They have been well catechized in the ways of the world in which the greatest sin of all is refusing desire, in which nothing consensual is wrong, and everything is what you decide it is -- good, bad, male, female, whatever.  They have an idea of objective truth but probably are not sure there is such a thing -- only truths that change and are relative to the individual and to the time.  They believe they are moral but do not acknowledge moral truth bigger than self (except for some well publicized cases such as #metoo).  They believe not simply in equality but in equivalence in which maleness and femaleness are not all that important and gender is judged on a sliding scale.  It is more likely that they will fit God into the small spaces of their particular world view than shaping their world view around God.

Infant baptism and children raised in the faith and in the church provides a long term shaping of the heart, mind, and will.  Even when they depart from this faith, part of it is still resident in conscience, memory, and desire.  But when we surrender infant baptism, we also surrender a life spent literally growing up into Christ in the faith and among the faithful.  How do you replace what was shaped over 15-20 years with a few classes or a couple of books or some deep conversations?  I wish I knew.  Those we bring into the Church and to whom we teach the faith are busy people with varied interest and yet the workload in bringing them on board is bigger than it once was.  It is a conundrum.  I began to notice this when adults we brought into the Church would look with surprise at infant baptisms as something completely outside their experience.  It was radically new.  Some of them are not completely certain of it since it deprives them of what they have been taught is the most sacred right of all -- choice.  They are a gift and a task to pastors and to congregations.  But they are also a stark reminder that it may be your grandfather's church though it is probably not theirs. . . and it is not your grandfather's world or theirs but this is where we begin today with the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

1 comment:

Sean said...

"It is these blessings that we gain through baptism and through faith. It is for this reason that we bring our children to the baptismal font, washing them with water and the promise that God has provided through his Son. The promise to deliver us from sin, and make us his children. It is for this reason that we rejoice for the gift we receive in baptism.

But baptism is not just a promise. It is an obligation. Not for the recipient. Baptism is a free gift for the one who receives it. It is an obligation for the Church, all of the believers in Christ Jesus. In his parting words to the apostles Jesus provides them with the great commission:

"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 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. And behold I am with you always, to the end of the age." -- Matthew 28: 18-20

Did you catch the obligation there? Baptism is not just a once and done event. It is a continuing duty and obligation for the Church to those who have been baptized. We are not only told to baptize, but to teach those who have received the promise to observe all that Jesus has commanded us.

As I get ready to baptize my son, it is a sobering realization. I have the obligation to my children to teach them to be disciples, to instruct them to be obedient to Christ. As much as baptism is a promise to the recipient from God, it should also be a promise from the Church to train and nurture those who have been baptized throughout their life in Christ.

This is why when we bring a child to the baptismal font, the parents or sponsors make a solemn promise. We promise that through our faith, which was a gift to us at our baptism, we too will bring them up in the knowledge of the faith in Jesus Christ."