(I am taking the liberty of putting this on in full text since this is soon to be lost to posterity, I am sorry to say. Please remember that I intensely dislike the terminology of “open” baptism [or “”open” communion] because it confuses the practice being advocated by some in TEC with something altogether different; this is why I plead for what some TEC reappraisers advocate to be described as “communion of the unbaptized” –KSH).
Seminary ruined my ministry. By this I do not mean what we tired old priests often mean by this statement. I am referring here very specifically to the understanding of Holy Baptism that was beat into my head. Actually, it wasn’t beat into my head at all. I drank it in and embraced it in the heart. I was taught and have ever since believed that Baptism is the foundational sacrament of the Church and therefore must be attended to by as much prayer and catechetical preparation as is possible. The key influences here were my liturgics professor, Fr Louis Weil; the Lutheran theologian, Robert W. Jenson; but most especially the writings of the Catholic liturgist, Fr Aidan Kavanagh. Later on William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas would come along to reinforce what I had already learned, that we no longer live in a Christian culture and therefore can no longer rely on the culture to transmit to our children the beliefs, values, and practices of Christian faith. The Church must become what it once was”“a disciplined community.
Ecclesial discipline begins with the sacrament of Holy Baptism, the gateway into the community of faith. If we do not practice discipline at this point, we cannot effectively foster discipline later down the road. Baptism is not a right. It is a privilege and gift that the Church is authorized to administer under very specific conditions.
I remember years ago hearing an apocryphal story of Catholic missionaries to Indonesia who would beat drums and make a lot of noise in a village, so that its inhabitants would come out of their huts to see what was going on”“at which point they would be met by the missionaries, water buckets in hand: “Ego te baptizo ”¦”
When may the Church baptize? The Scriptures are clear. The Church may baptize an individual when that individual has responded to the gospel in faith and repentance. The Church does not baptize everyone indiscriminately. Faith and conversion are necessary conditions. In the second and third centuries, we see the Church developing a catechumenal process to prepare adult converts for baptism. This process would often last one to three years, concluding with examination by the bishop and sacramental initiation at the Great Vigil of Easter. Kavanagh describes this catechumenal process not so much as intellectual instruction but as “conversion therapy.” He notes that the early Church was not interested in indiscriminately baptizing the multitudes. It wanted to make Christians.
Tertullian had already observed that Christians are not born but made. Augustine and his colleagues over a century later would have agreed, perhaps extending the epigram to say that they do not just wander in off the streets either. They are honed down by the teaching and discipline of the catechumenate until their metal is tough, resilient, sharp, and glowing. The “enlightenment” of baptism was not a flickering flame but a burst of God’s glory in those whose capacities to receive it had been expanded to their utmost. And although things were different since the pagan Celsus had written archly in 168 that “if all men wanted to be Christian, the Christians would no longer want them,” being prepared in the fifth century to absorb a whole society did not mean that the churches would do so indiscriminately. The fathers’ catechetical homilies suggest that they still needed more Christians less than they needed better ones, even as they wished and worked for the conversion of all.
What about the baptism of children? They are the exception, not the norm. We risk the baptism of children only because their parents are practicing Christians and have demonstrated that they will raise their children within the household of faith, in the fear and admonition of the Lord. If their parents are not practicing Christians, then the Church has no authority whatsoever to baptize their children, no matter what the grandparents want!
And so this young priest took this understanding of Baptism and catechumenate out into the world. No other issue has caused me more trouble than this in my ministry of twenty-four years! Indeed, it is probably safe to say that it destroyed my ministry in one parish and has caused me nothing but grief in my present parish. How I wish I could in good conscience offer “open baptism.” Disciplined baptismal policy always offends, no matter how gently and graciously it is articulated. No one wants to hear that there are conditions and requirements that must be fulfilled if baptism is to be administered with sacramental and spiritual integrity. No one wants to hear that the faith and commitment of the parents necessarily and rightly affects the Church’s decision to baptize a baby. No one wants to hear the word no.
So when I read about “open baptism” I am filled with both envy and anger. I am envious, because these priests are able to avoid all of the grief and problems of trying to communicate to nonbelieving parents they must begin to take their baptismal vows seriously if they wish their children to be baptized into the Church. The open baptism policy makes everything so easy. There are no conditions to be imposed. No requirements are insisted upon. Difficult conversations are avoided. We just toss the water and say the magic words and everyone is happy. Oh if only I could in conscience offer open baptism. How nice it would be for me and everyone else if I could just adopt a no-conflict, no-grief, no-aggravation policy like St Bart’s in Poway, California:
We are an open and affirming church. No classes are required and no judgments are passed at St. Bartholomew’s. If you wish to be baptized and become Jesus Christ’s own forever, just ask and you can be.
But as I said, I was ruined in seminary. When I read a baptismal policy like the above, I become angry. These open baptism priests are prostituting the gospel. Baptism is not a spiritual tonic that we dispense to everyone who asks for it. Baptism is conversion, the renunciation of evil, and the embrace of love, self-denial, and the way of the cross. It’s all so cozy for these open baptism pastors and their congregations. No judgments are made. No discipline is imposed. No one has to say “no.” Baptism becomes a nice little ceremony of cultural affirmation. Everyone is blessed. Everyone feels good. But the identity and mission of the Church is sold out for a bowl of pottage.
(Please note that for now you can find the original post there. You may be interested to read the comments–KSH)