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Reflections on easy baptism

Parents, with one simple proposition in mind, make a move from home to Church. “We want our baby done”. The Church, a specialty business, acts with the facility of a convenience store. It is not a question of exploring needs, but a repetition of “I want”. No refusal, and no fee. Hundreds knock on church doors each year, a busy congregation, on average, handling more than one a week.

I know of no Uniting Church that relegates the font, although a leaning towards “believers only” baptism may feature here and there. UCA has a consistency – no refusal and no fee. After the ceremony the parents kiss the church goodbye, never to be seen again! Promissory absenteeism! Evidence that exposes them. Declarers of public vows which are now lightly held, or abandoned. The Church retains the Confirmation Service as an integral part of the infant baptism package. So what? To the tip-and-run parents we are considering, this is a furphy, a nonsequitur.

To be sure, a tiny bit of faith is at work in our clientele. They believe enough in the church to come to it! They have their deep feelings and good intentions. Baptism of their child seems timely, right and proper. An encouraging feature: these, the seldom seen, stick by the Church! There is no big rush to the civil celebrant and his truncated Naming Ceremony. But not quite enough faith for parents to put a halo over their life and home.

It is a different story, told by young parents who are active in church life. Their word is their bond. It is a minority group, but an effective one. Through childhood and teen-age years for fifteen years, say, of patience and loving guidance. Then the “child” makes a mature decision, “Christ for me”. Baptism and Confirmation follow. Fulfilment! Joy!

The very opposite is the case with go-getter parents. The strong urge is to get their hands on a Baptismal Certificate! They willingly assent to the instruction session. But there is a hidden agenda; some undisclosed motives. They know what they want in life, and they show skill in getting it. They take the church for a ride, and worse – they sail close to the legal wind of perjury. Promises mean nothing. But the baby is baptized. Here is the curious twist: they truly want the best for their child. They are a minority group.

Getting back to the middle ground – the great mass of parents-with-child. There is a sameness. All seek baptism for their babes. They hear the same ritual, respond to the same vows, may even have the ceremony in the same church. But given a little time, and a huge variety of outcomes appear. Why is it so, this human diversity? Some succeed. Others flounder, get slack, then turn off. Not all are bone lazy – or victims of Laissez faire. Forgetful – Yes! A clue to this phenomenon comes from Matthew 9:29 “According to your faith be it unto you”.

Call it parental dilemma, family challenge, plain peccadillo (take your pick). These parents paint themselves into a corner. They have been taught that baptism means membership of Christ’s Church. The glory of that escapes them. Inconsistency is what they live by. Their child has now a new relationship, a developing status. Where? In the very structure the parents neglect or eschew!

Here they are – coming as strangers, confused and shy. Tip-toeing through foreign land. Their assumption? That getting the baby “done” was dead easy! Just another shop transaction! They are now learning some of the implications. And a little responsibility! They come to us from a pleasure- loving, enticingly secular world – prisoners of culture. When they asked the church for a favour, “please make it simple” they had in mind a “dead easy” ceremony.

Now they are facing demands, vows and promises. What they most fear is becoming too religious! They recall, from a dim past, that the church is waging war against the world, the flesh and the Devil. Now they were into it – involved by choice! In the ceremony they are expected to give public assent to the belief “that the Gospel enables us to turn from the darkness of evil and to walk in the light of Christ”. Wow!

To our mind there is no such thing as a private baptism. Realism is the way and a worshipping community is the means – even if it is ” two or three gathered in My name”. At a certain time in the ceremony, church members are invited to stand, The Minister says “I charge you, the people of this congregation, to maintain here a place of worship and service, that this child, and all the children among you may grow in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the knowledge and love of God”.

The members respond “With God’s help we will live out our baptism as a loving community in Christ; nurturing one another in faith, upholding one another in prayer, and encouraging one another in service”. In other words, “to keep the show going” by the appointment of dedicated people for Cradle Roll, Sunday School, Bible Class, Youth Group and many other ministries. Yes, the Blue Card is in use. Trustworthy people of skills – on stand-by, the bona fide godparents!

Baptism, at any age, is the start of a new and never-ending adventure. That is why “getting the baby done” is such bad language. It means ” over-and-done- with. Complete. Finis). It is a common mistake. The ceremony is far from the end. According to the Church, it is the start – a whole new set of experiences and relationships.

Think with me of two situations. First, the church-based scenario. Parental promises, and patient guiding obtains in the home for fifteen years or more. The church is a constant influence for good. Then, with rejoicing, the Confirmation Service. The “child” speaks for himself. “Thank you, parents and church, for the promises of years past that you have kept. You have led me to this moment. I choose Jesus Christ as my Saviour”. The second scenario: A baby is baptized . Then it grows to an age of independence without the parental promises. By chance or by choice – and more likely by a Holy Spirit’s energies – he also chooses Jesus Christ. What we call “a sound conversion”. No surprise, he wants to join the Church. By baptism. Here he is baffled by logic. One cannot join what one already belongs to! He now feels a little resentful toward parents who promised so much on his behalf, those years ago – and delivered zilch.

There is no doubt: Too many of those who committed themselves to baptismal vows let the show down. They may have been, initially, unsure. A teaching church can fix that. A pastoral question arises: Would it be wiser, more courageous if a fitness standard was introduced? A point when a refusal becomes the kindest option? Now comes the big question: Who is to become judge and jury? We, the church, have an affinity with sinners. After all, we are a self-confessed bunch of the redeemed! Theology comes to our rescue! By the universal atonement of Christ all children are entitled to be received into the Church – by baptism. Furthermore, the unsatisfactory relationship of the parents to the Church is not, in itself, a sufficient reason to refuse the baptism of their child. That is why we said, at the outset, “no refusals”. Here comes one true solution:

Wellington, NZ, 1960. I was middle man in a three-Minister city “Circuit”. When our “Superintendent”, the Rev “X” went on long service leave, oversight of the central congregation came to me. A baptism was “on the books”. The couple concerned were not known to me. When I rang to arrange a home visit, I sensed a hesitancy. It puzzled me. However, at the home, after introductions, they recounted the ” preparation” given them by the Rev.”X” prior to their first child’s baptism. “Be at the church at ten to eleven. See the Steward who will escort you and explain the procedures”.

It dawned on me: They were expecting a similar call from the church for their second child. Hesitancy explained! Conversation turned from baby and ceremony to personal beliefs. Matter-of-factly they said they were not Christians, so with humour I said “We can soon fix that”. I was to learn fast. God acts! That night there was much joy in the house. Two decisions for Christ! This made the world of difference in their approach to baptism number two. On the appointed Sunday they were baptised. Then their baby daughter was offered for the same. On return, the Rev.”X” saw changes that warmed his pastoral heart. New lives!

Three things in the Uniting Church ritual are asked of parents: Will you provide for your child a Christian home of love and trust? Will you set before your child the example of a Christian life? Will you encourage your child to grow within the fellowship of the church, so that he/she may come to faith in Christ?

Infant baptism has a long history. The first Christian converts were Jews, brought up on a “covenant” concept – a pact with God. They could never think of their children as “outside”, separated, or lost. Indeed, the evidence is strong, particularly from 2nd Century Justin Martyr, that the children of first believers were baptised at the same time as their parents. The covenant idea lingers. For example, a Methodist baptismal hymn:

We bring them, Lord, in thankful hands
And yield them up to Thee;
Joyful that we ourselves are Thine,
Thine let our children be. (MHB 751)