Some readers of my first essay on this topic found its terminology too academically oriented to speak to their experience of baptisms within the local congregation. Unfamiliar with Karl Barth and the liturgical history of the baptismal rites, especially of the loss and recovery of the “renunciations,” they wondered if I was writing to a select group of scholars.
After rereading the essay, I see that I rather quickly entered the realm of formal theology. But many of the questions I marked for exploration cannot be answered without addressing how baptism is actually practiced and understood, or misunderstood, within our congregations. What are we actually professing and rejecting at the water’s edge? What do we really think is happening when the congregation gathers to baptize children or adults?
Thus, I begin this second essay with examples from congregational life that show what is at stake for the formation of Christian disciples in the way we teach and practice baptism.
The ways that congregations react to the baptismal liturgy can often reveal that they have not yet grasped what is actually proclaimed and enacted in the liturgy. For example, parishioners observing the baptism of infants sometimes object when they are asked to join the parents in “reaffirm[ing] both your rejection of sin and your commitment to Christ”—as if the baptismal service applied only to the private concerns of the family seeking baptism for their child. Somehow, the ecclesial, interpersonal, and communal character of baptism is missed, even though the pastor asks, “Do you, as Christ’s body, the Church, reaffirm…?” Perhaps this reaction is the residue of Methodism’s long emphasis upon a personal conversion experience which often slighted the significance of baptism. On the other hand, it may be a sign of adaptation to cultural notions of the private character of religion.
Here is another example: The call to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness…[and] reject the evil powers of this world” can elicit various negative or complacent reactions. In a series of interviews conducted to ascertain how congregations were receiving the revised baptismal rites in the Book of Worship, Byron Anderson quotes a respondent:
I think the baptismal service the church is using now [the revised United Methodist rite] is just terrible. To have the people stand up there and have to go through the Apostles’ Creed and all the rigmarole that’s this long service in there I think is terrible…. I like the simple, to-the-point baptismal service that’s meaningful to the parents and never mind the Apostles’ Creed at that point. That’s crazy to put that in the baptismal service…and all the stuff about their sins and whatnot. I don’t like that at all. (“Apotaxis and Ethics: The Baptismal Renunciations and Christian Discipleship” Studia Liturgica 42 , 197-216)
Anderson’s analysis of this response raises three concerns that are central to our church’s baptismal and catechetical practice.
First, the respondent exhibits dis-ease with the use of the creed and the “rigmarole” of ritual that suggests a lack of congregational formation in what the church believes and how this is enacted in its worship and sacramental practice.
Second, the focus on what is “meaningful to the parents” indicates a secularized perspective that prioritizes human action and feelings rather than the church’s faith in God’s work in the sacraments.
Third, the respondent’s dislike of speaking of a baby’s sins exposes an ongoing confusion in the church’s use of liturgical rites—originally designed for adults—being applied to the children of believers. How can the use of renunciations be understood in relation to the baptism of children and their parents’ hope for them to live a life of freedom before God?
Anderson’s article shows how the revised United Methodist baptismal rite addresses each of these concerns, but notes how much work is yet needed by pastors and congregations to fully “receive” these rites and to recover the radical character of both confessing our faith and renouncing “the evil powers of this world.”