Old story, new life: Thoughts on baptism

11 Responses

  1. revdavidbailey says:

    I have on two occasions baptized persons before their marriages, and taught them that their baptism was the most important sacrament.

  2. Sarah Lawton says:

    Scott, your characterization of where we’re at as a church has not been my experience, sincerely.

    Your timing is apt for me–I was a sponsor for an adult baptisand just this morning–unusual timing for a baptism, as we usually schedule them around the four big baptism Sundays and plan a catechism program around those. We’re sort of a California-style urban Anglo-Catholic congregation, so we like to stick to our ways (!). But there were good reasons for the timing today.

    I had been talking with this person about baptism and what it means to be a Christian for about five years. When he decided to do it, and it became clear that this date was the right one, one of our priests undertook to meet with him as well to explain and discuss what he was committing to. When Adam said the responses today, it was with a firm and clear voice. For all of the responses. The congregation’s responses were also firm. I gave him a prayerbook, and we looked at it and talked about the daily office, and the psaltery, and the catechism.

    Are we unusual? As Christians in community, we find ourselves giving away money we didn’t expect to, with joy, for all kinds of projects for the neighborhood and the world. We use our space every day to house and feed people, and we give our time to vigil in the public square and sometimes more time for jail when civil disobedience is called for. I mean, it’s not like being a Christian is the normal thing anymore. At least around here, in San Francisco. From where I’m sitting in the choir, the commitment to discipleship seems clear, and so does the baptismal and Eucharistic connection to that discipleship. We follow Jesus. We’re baptized into life and death and resurrection with Jesus, whom we remember and rejoin in the Eucharist.

    What am I missing here? Honest question. I’m not trying to sound like my congregation has got it all together (Lord knows, and Kyrie Eleison, and please pray for us). We are in many ways a congregation of people who have been broken – by AIDS, by grief, by substance abuse, by all kinds of things, including all kinds of sinfulness. Most commonly, we irritate each other, you know? And things fray at the edges. But we come together as we are, knowing that we need God’s loving-kindness and mercy, all of us, every single one of us. Then we try to bring the invitation to love and mercy and forgiveness to our neighbors locally and in world, as best we can, in word and deed. We’re just a small group, but the commitment to a holy and sacramental life of discipleship seems pretty clear. Even though we fall short of the mark quite regularly. What am I missing?

    • Scott Gunn says:

      Sarah, your congregation may well be an exception to the trend. As evidence for the trend, I would point to RenewalWorks data and other sources which transcend individual anecdote. That is, the plural of anecdote is not data, though the anecdotes may well be true.

      My experience — and data — suggest that when congregations have embraced a baptismal identity and have been well formed, growth in numbers will be the result, barring leadership problems or systemic conflict, etc.

      Anyway, I am truly delighted to hear that your church offers a culture of discipleship. Treasure it. It is not common in our church.

      • Sarah Lawton says:

        Thanks for the response. I know anecdata is not data. And I follow the trends, including adult baptism trends. I’m just having trouble with the idea that any of our churches would baptize anyone without doing the preparation about what it means, as a life commitment.

        • Scott Gunn says:

          Sorry if my tone wasn’t clear. I meant it to be congenial — and to affirm the wonderful things happening in your church.

          As evidence for our collective, overall failure to do a good job with baptismal identity and practice, I look at the attendance trends for our church. Annual, steady decline — which will be precipitous in just a few years. The good news (pun intended?) is that it’s easy to reverse!

          As further evidence, I look at the number of congregations which omit the confession regularly, as if we all don’t need to repent every day. There are other liturgical examples. Or the fact that most Episcopal congregations offer zero adult formation. And so on.

          Anyway, thank you for the comment and the conversation. I hope to visit your church one day.

  3. Bishop Daniel Martins says:

    I have no doubt that what you describe is pervasive in TEC. I am grateful that it has generally not been my experience, either in parish ministry or as a bishop. FWIW, I think the single most important indicator of church vitality in the coming decades will be the number of adult baptisms.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      I agree about the importance of adult baptisms as an indicator. I also think that growth in attendance is often an indicator of a congregation that has embraced its baptismal identity. And there’s not much of that in our church, alas.

  4. Catherine says:

    Scott, thank you for your words. I, too, have experienced some of what you have in a lack of instruction prior to baptism (no one ever talked to us before or asked us any questions) and that the word “sin” has fallen into disfavor. Really? In any case, I am working on some educational materials to help us live into our baptismal vows as part of my D.Min project. (May I quote this article?) I have found some helpful essays in “Drenched in Grace,” and find particularly meaningful J. Neil Alexander’s essay on practical ecclesiology and Frank Griswold’s essay on baptismal spirituality. Again, thank you for your contribution to an important topic.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      You are welcome to quote this article. And I hope your educational materials will be publicly available soon. They are much needed!

  5. Adam B at CalvaryPGH says:

    I can’t say that I disagree, Rev. Gunn, but I feel like you’re trying to give me an algorithm. Give me poetry instead.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      My aim wasn’t poetry for this talk, but there’s some lovely language in the baptismal service in our BCP. Page 299 and onward.

      Thanks for your comment. Stop by any time.