Baptism, choice and community

An item on Radio 4 this morning concerning proposed revisions to the Church of England’s baptismal service prompted the following tweet from David Allen Green:

Tweet by David Allen Green

This led to a discussion with some of my fellow Twitter users on whether it’s right for Christian parents to “impose their religion on their children” by baptising them as infants, or whether it should be left for children to decide for themselves once they get older.

Part of my own response to this question was set out in the following tweet – the point being that baptism is a gift, not an imposition:

Baptism tweet

(That’s not to say that in some cases children, particularly older children, may be manipulated or pressured into undergoing baptism. Which to my mind is an argument in favour of infant baptism.)

But the real issue for me is one of individualism vs community. If you are thinking of “religion” principally in terms of people’s individual beliefs and convictions, and of baptism as an expression of the beliefs and convictions of the individual who is being baptised – and there are plenty of Christians, as well as atheists, who think of it in those terms – then it makes sense to say that people should not be baptised as babies, but left to make their own decision as adults.

However, children are not born into a vacuum. They are born into a web of social relationships and communities, and (in the case of Christian parents) one of those communities is the church. At the most basic level, the parents will be taking their children to church on Sunday mornings, and their children may well get involved in other activities centred on the church community as well. This is no more (and no less) “imposed” on the children than their connection with all the other relationships of family, friendship and community in which they participate with their parents.

In that context, what baptism says to children is this: “You are not outsiders, waiting for admission into our community. You are already welcomed by us (and above all by Christ) into this community, full members of it alongside us.”

Yes, many baptised children may grow up deciding that they no longer want to be part of the Christian community – though the fact that they remain baptised means that the welcoming hand will always remain outstretched towards them. Equally, children may grow up deciding that they no longer want to live in the same town or the same country as the one where they grew up. They may even decide they no longer want to be part of the family in which they grew up. But that doesn’t mean we treat them as only contingent or provisional members of our communities and families until adulthood.

Given that our children’s involvement in the church community is pretty much unavoidable for the duration of their childhood, at least let their involvement be as welcomed members, rather than as outsiders held at arm’s length or on a contingent basis pending their “deciding for themselves” – which can so easily turn into manipulation to ensure they make the right decision.

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13 Responses to Baptism, choice and community

  1. Sam says:

    Having grown up Pentecostal I always thought of baptism as embracing belief but at this point on my faith journey baptism for me now is much, much more about being in community.

    This even gets more interesting in the church where I now worship, an American Baptist-United Church of Christ merged congregation. Baptists don’t practice infant baptism but United Church of Christ does so we embrace both baptisms. To make it even more interesting, we have a number of Quaker members, who don’t practice baptism at all. I guess for us this makes it even more about community.

    I have written about this on my blog at
    http://sam-betweenhereandthere.blogspot.com/2011/01/remembering-my-baptism.html

    Sam

  2. Cathy says:

    hi! As said on twitter, I agree whole-heartedly that baptism as a welcome and acceptance into a community makes perfect sense. It emphasises too the reason you’d go to a church to get your child baptised rather than do it at home. My real problem is still that I am not convinced the churches (Catholic, Anglican) see it that way. It’s odd given the rite itself agrees with your position but it is still taught that the baptismal promises are made *on behalf of* the child. And that, very specifically, is problematic. I can’t really promise what my child will be. And the promise can’t be a statement of what the child rejects now, because the infant is too young to reject anything herself, hence having others to speak for her. But this may be my misunderstanding, and the baptism I’m uncomfortable about is not the one you have described 🙂

  3. Sam says:

    Indeed, some faith traditions have yet to find their way to the 21st century and are still bestowing on baptism et al meanings that many 21st century Christians find mired in the Middle Ages.

    Sam
    sam-betweenhereandthere.blogspot.com

  4. John H says:

    Thanks for these comments.

    I should emphasise that what I’ve said in this post is not the sum total of what I believe baptism to be about. In a way I was looking at what baptism means once you set aside the things that only Christians believe about it – that it unites us to Christ, brings us into the kingdom of God, gives us the forgiveness of sins, and so on. Looking at it on a sociological level, if you like.

    And on that level it makes more sense to view baptism as entry into a community rather than as the imposition of beliefs or obligations on an unwilling individual.

    Cathy: Baptism of infants does involve a profession of faith made on behalf of the child. However, I don’t see that that is imposing anything on the child – not least because the affirmations made in baptism are all in the present tense: “Right here, right now, I reject sin and the devil and profess faith in Christ”.

    The hope is that the faith professed on behalf of the child expresses a faith that the Holy Spirit has worked in the child (faith in the sense of “trust in God” rather than “intellectual assent to propositions”). As Luther wrote, “We bring the child in the conviction and hope that it believes, and we pray that God may grant it faith”. But if the child grows up not believing in God and God’s promises then that does not invalidate their baptism.

    Sam: I suspect I could probably shock you with how “medieval” some of my views on baptism are! I certainly believe it is, above all else, a supernatural act: that in baptism, Christ himself is bestowing his gifts of “forgiveness, life and salvation” on the person being baptised – and, yes, bringing that person into the community of faith in the church.

    Which is what I love about the ceremony you describe in your post – a reminder that our community as the church is formed by Christ through the word and sacraments, rather than just being “likeminded people getting together to do Good Things”. I do think the Quakers are missing out, though. 🙂

  5. Sam says:

    John, the great thing about moving from very conservative Pentecostal faith to equally liberal faith is nothing much shocks me and I can truly understand all the points in between and then some. I agree there is something supernatural about baptism. In baptism we encounter Christ, we become new creatures. We move up a bit higher than the creatures we were born.
    Sam
    sam-betweenhereandthere.blogspot.com

  6. John H says:

    Sam:

    …the great thing about moving from very conservative Pentecostal faith to equally liberal faith…

    Have you come across Jeremy’s blog, Don’t Be Hasty? Jeremy’s journey strikes me as similar to yours in many ways – from Holiness Pentecostalism to Lutheranism, with he and his wife now being members of an Episcopal congregation. Worth checking out his blog, anyway.

  7. Sam says:

    Thanks for alerting me to Jeremy’s blog. I just came upon it earlier today. He doesn’t display a bio so I wasn’t aware of his background but I already liked it.

    Sam

  8. FDN says:

    Last time I went into church I had to leave because the pastor was laying it on extremely thick about how the five-day-old baptisand was an “enemy of Christ.” Maybe he wasn’t properly dividing Law and Gospel. More probably, I’m just an apostate. In any case I just couldn’t sit through it. It then occurred to me that it might have been a good thing, after all, that my husband insisted on a Roman baptism for our child. Then I had a good laugh at myself.

  9. John H says:

    FDN: 😦

    I’d have found it very hard to sit through that, too. Maybe I’m an apostate as well…

  10. Sam says:

    A little apostasy is good for the soul. Pentecostals would say reprobate.

    Sam
    Sam-betweenhereandthere.blogspot.com

  11. Blair says:

    Hi again John,

    isn’t baptism a death-rite, among other things?

    …but mainly wanted to say, i think you’re right that “children are not born into a vacuum. They are born into a web of social relationships and communities” and so it isn’t a question of individuals’ beliefs being imposed. I just wanted to add the suggestion that a Girardian understanding could be illuminating here. If it’s true that we ‘desire according to the desire of another’, then baptising children makes good sense, as they are likely to desire according to that of their parents who in turn are, however fallibly, attempting to imitate Jesus’ desire. So this could be a basis for fleshing out the connections you mention above. I have just argued against my own life though – my parents left me to decide and I was baptised as an adult…

    in friendship, Blair

  12. John H says:

    Blair: yes, indeed, I like that. Girard FTW… 🙂

  13. Rick Ritchie says:

    I often fear that when pondering Original Sin, adults convince themselves to believe in it not by faith, or as an inference from other doctrines, but by sight, and questionable sight at that. “Sinful” with respect to infants, usually really means “inconvenient.”

    On a happier note, I like what Dr. Rod Rosenbladt said of they hymn “Away in a Manger”:

    ‘But little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.’ What a dumb line!

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