Update: Note this letter has been updated with an addendum on May 12th
..Some will say that it is impossible for gay couples to fully assent to the baptismal covenant, especially the question “do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?” I wrestle with that as well. But I also know that the baptismal covenant is written in language so demanding that I am still discovering places in my life where I live below its demands. The renunciation of sinful desire is a daily discipline. The call for justice forces me not only to care about the plight of the least of these, but it also challenges me to face the places where injustice works to my economic and social advantage.
I know that for some, saying yes to this baptism feels like nothing more than pastoral logic, particularly when one starts with the spiritual needs of the child, regardless of the child’s family situation, and especially if the church is willing to take up her responsibility for spiritual formation. For others it feels like a betrayal of the Gospel and a capitulation on my part in my opposition to gay marriage in the church. Please know, for those on both sides of the gay marriage issue, that I have not changed- at all- my opposition to the church’s recognition of gay marriage as Holy Matrimony. I still believe, strongly, that civil gay unions do not conform to the Biblical definition of Holy Matrimony nor do they conform to the definition of Holy Matrimony found in our Book of Common Prayer.
Given our own brokenness as a people, it seems to me that none of us has the right to cast the first stone…
The question that has not been asked or answered, as far as I know, is whether either of the couple presenting the child were communicants in the cathedral parish. Assuming that they were, by what logic could you deny baptism to the child if you were already allowing both parents to receive communion? If you were going to make a case for refusing to provide sacraments, refusing communion to the parents would be the correct first step.
Now, should persons in a same sex relationship (which, in this case, was clearly public knowledge) be allowed to take communion? TEC and CoE have a radically different answer to that question than the rest of the Anglican world.
It has been fascinating to read and learn from the output on the subject of infant baptism in the last few days which has encouraged me to do my own thinking and reading.
About 20 years ago I visited Roman ruins on a Mediterannean island high on an escarpement – a wealth of villas with beautiful mozaics, only the best of which were covered by makeshift wood and corrugated iron from the heat of the sun to which the remainder of the site was exposed. Along with the villas and an extensive bath house, with no visible way of providing water to the tanks, there were the remains of several later churches, including a substantial Eastern Empire basilica, complete with a grand baptistry connected to it, with the pool for baptisms still intact.
Apparently at that time, baptism was of adults who were extensively examined, catechised and instructed prior to baptism. They were, perhaps for reason of protection from persecution as much as anything else, excluded from the service of Communion, until they had been baptised. Baptism was taken as a serious product of instruction and testing of commitment in a new believer rather than a right.
Fast forward to the post-reformation Church of England, and infant baptism was the norm. The BCP 1662 provides two services – one for public baptism of infants, and a second for private baptisms of children in homes, though the latter was discouraged if at all possible.
The public service provided:
As far as the practise goes, the expectation was that all infants would be brought to baptism, indeed provision was made to oblige all midwives either to procure that any infant at whose birth she assisted would be brought to baptism or that she would bring the infant herself. In the event that the child might not survive, the midwife was authorised in emergency to baptise the child herself to ensure that the infant did not die unbaptised. This was why midwives were expected to be of exemplary personal and moral integrity, something the church took an interest in.
Interestingly, there are many instances where notwithstanding the moral questionmarks over the parents, not to mention parentage of the infant, the expectation was that the infant would be baptised. There is a fascinating historical insight here from some of the historical records.
Private baptism at home was used by dissenters from the Church of England as a way of doing an end run around the duty to make public promises to bring the child up in its faith, but this was gradually clamped down on.
One other thought on the issue of baptism and the obligations related to it, is that the Episcopal Church Baptismal Covenant of 1979, which seems to be used as a way of introducing new doctrine into the baptism service, has now been established for so long that Episcopalians forget how recent it is as an innovation, and that these ‘covenant’ promises are not shared historically or geographically in other parts of the Communion. This will affect some of the points which have been raised recently.
So I suppose the conclusion is that historically there was no restriction on baptising infants, indeed there was an obligation to do so. In England people were assumed to be within the parish and the vicar’s ‘cure of souls’ by that residence, and there was in fact legal obligation to bring new born infants to baptism placed on midwives.
That is a separate question to the issue of who in the case of infant baptism should answer for the infant as sureties; the integrity with which they are able to do so; and indeed whether the minister should accept that that requirements imposed on god parents in relation to the upbringing of the child in the faith have been satisfied. Others have written extensively about that subject and indeed on duties to call for repentance prior to taking on that responsibility.
I don’t know enough, even if I thought it right for me to do so, to make any comment on the particular case the bishop mentions, which I will leave to him and the parish, as I hope these issues will have been considered, and to offer my prayers for all concerned.
That is aside from my general delight at any new birth, and joy if it is brought to baptism, as well as a general feeling that we all are in need of and ought to be in church, preferably one if it can be found, where the word of God is preached faithfully and lived out in gratitude and obedience. That is just where we all should be to be fed and transformed.