Which comes first? Baptism or Communion? Baptism is not a requirement for communion and so I have heard the new PC(USA) Directory for Worship hopes to affirm the free and abundant grace of God we find at the Lord’s table. No exceptions. I have, for some time, embraced an open table and I believe the Church, not only the Presbyterian Church (USA) is opening to the idea of sacrament as welcome and inclusion. I confess that I enjoy worshipping at an Episcopal Church where this unconditional welcome is crystal clear.
Earlier this year I was asked to celebrate an “extraordinary” baptism. Of course, all baptisms are extraordinary, but this would be a baptism that bends the rules, stepping just outside the doors of the church. Sara Miles, in Take this Bread, had already suggested to me the idea of a font outside the doors of the church.
My nephew and his bride grew up in the church, Presbyterian and Lutheran respectively. Like most of us, there have been times when they felt excluded and alienated by the church. They are now young parents, both working hard to balance family, work, and pleasure. They were married by a beloved pastor in the great outdoors, with the mountains as a backdrop. When they began to think about baptism for their daughter, Harper Iona, the doors were closed to them unless they became members of the church. And the font was behind those doors.
They say that young adults don’t think about membership the way we boomers and older folks do. I thought about all the ways the old-line, mainline churches are trying and failing to welcome younger adults. I thought about all the baptisms I had celebrated inside the church, where the parents made their promises out loud, but were never seen again on a Sunday in church. I also thought about the Church of Scotland where I have served, and the way that they have wrestled with this very question, loosening up a bit on the membership requirement.
When asked to baptize Harper, I so very much wanted to say “yes.” My initial response was, I so want to do this, but we would need to figure out a way to make it an “official” baptism. It would not be a blessing or a dedication. It would not be a private baptism. I was willing to bend the rules, but I have become increasingly sacramental over the years. When I asked the parents why they wanted Harper baptized, they had all the right answers. She is a child of God. We want to say that out loud to our family and friends. And, yes, we will profess our faith out loud. And, yes, we will promise to raise her in the church. And, yes, everyone there can gently remind us that we need to find a church. And we will. In time.
So I read and reread the Directory for Worship. And the Bible. And I talked to a few clergy friends in various traditions. And I even talked to a couple of polity wonks to try to figure out a way to do this.
And then I attended another baptism inside the church and realized that very few Sunday morning baptisms follow the Directory for Worship to the letter. They happen before, not after the sermon. There are no renunciations. Hardly ever is the Apostles’ Creed recited by one and all. There may or may not be an elder present. Questions may or may not be asked of the congregation. Session may or may not have recorded it in the Register.
Over the years, teaching Reformed Worship, when “extraordinary” cases in point were raised in class, I always told my students to wrestle with three things: the pastoral, the theological, and the ecclesial. And of course, the Bible. The ecclesial requirement of membership in this case seemed a way of pushing this young family further from the church. I prayed. I conversed. I listened. I read. I wrote. And I decided that I could create a sacramental service of worship that honored the Directory for Worship, but more than that, honored the spiritual lives of this family, Reformed theology, and the Word of God.
Gospel words began to ring in my ears: “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for to such as these belongs the kingdom of heaven.” “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” “God is love, and those who love are born of God and know God.” “Here is some water, what is to prevent me from being baptized?”
So I said, “yes.” And I conducted a service of worship outside the doors of the church, but with a gathered community of family and friends who would sing and pray, who would hear the Word proclaimed, who would respond by professing their faith, and by witnessing the promises of these young parents. Both great grandmothers are elders, so they stood with me as those gathered promised to support this family. Two close friends were sponsors. The only missing piece, in this case, was that the baptism would not be recorded in any congregation’s minute book. I made them a very beautiful certificate and signed it!
It was an extraordinary event for so many reasons. But in the thinking and the praying and the planning and the celebrating, I was changed. A sacrament is a visible sign of an invisible grace. That I have long believed. But a sacrament ought not be a way of excluding anyone from that invisible grace. A sacrament ought to be an invitation, a welcome, a reaching out, evangelism. We can no longer wait inside the church, behind closed doors, waiting for young families with children to push their way in.
I am honorably retired, so not as worried as I might have been a few years ago about breaking or bending the rules. I know that I am way more “by the book” than so many younger, edgier pastors who would say, “What’s the big deal?” By narrating this event, I am refusing to fly under the radar. I am professing a scruple. At least. So defrock me.
We are sacramental. I am a Minister of Word and Sacrament. A priest. We are to tear down the fences and the dividing walls. The doors of the church ought to be open. Always. So, if I believe in an open table, where all are welcome, baptized or not, then I believe in a font that is right there, right near the open doors of the church as a sign of welcome. As a visible sign of invisible, lavish grace. And filled to the brim. Always.
©Rebecca Button Prichard
Image Baptism Certificate made and gifted to Harper Iona and her parents from Rebecca.