On the weekend of February 2 (Candlemas), I presided, preached, baptized, and confirmed at the Church of the Holy Communion in Charleston … South Carolina, that is, not Illinois. Yes, that’s a little bit out of my bailiwick. But, through an instrument created by the House of Bishops for certain anomalous situations called Delegated Pastoral Oversight (DEPO), I am “Bishop Visitor” at Holy Communion, providing sacramental and pastoral care on a regular basis. (I also have another DEPO parish in the Diocese of Mississippi–Trinity, Yazoo City.) It was my great joy to baptize the two young ladies shown here (who happen to be aunt and niece–aged 13 years and four months, respectively) on that visit. We had enjoyed a solid final session of pre-baptismal catechesis with the baptizands, parents, godparents, and confirmands the day before. The liturgy at Holy Communion is gloriously rich in the old-fashioned Anglo-Catholic tradition. I felt like I was floating off the ground during the procession to the font, while we sang Veni, creator spiritus–indeed, the Holy Spirit was almost palpably present. What fun it was!
Lent is now just a little bit over the horizon, so I guess I’m in a baptismal mood. Whatever else we’ve laden onto Lent by way of personal disciplines (which often turn into endurance contests that incite pride rather than holiness), its underlying reason for being is to support the Church’s habit of making new Christians at the baptismal font on Easter (the Vigil thereof, to be specific). We walk the way of Lent in solidarity with those who will profess publicly the Lordship of Jesus the Christ, renounce everything that works against human beings (including themselves) flourishing the way God intends, and promise to serve and obey him for the rest of their lives … and beyond. Baptism is not for the faint-hearted. It’s strong medicine. It drwarfs any other commitment we will ever make.
Still, we have managed to domesticate it. We have taken something quite wild and dangerous and tidied it up, making it presentable in polite society. Several years ago I was a candidate to become rector of a particular parish. At the telephone interview stage, someone on the search committee asked me my views on “private baptisms.” Apparently it was an “issue” in the parish. Without being pugnacious, I was completely honest, and explained that baptism is by its very nature a public act in which the whole Christian community has an investment, and so a genteel event on a Saturday afternoon for the family and a few invited guests is incoherent on every level. This was evidently the “wrong” answer, as I was soon thereafter dismissed from the process. I rejoice that we have pretty much moved away from that model, and have firmly situated the sacrament of Baptism in the context not only of the Eucharist but–even more significantly perhaps–the Eucharistic community. This recovery of theology and practice is what has made possible experiences such as the one I shared in on Candlemas.
But we’re not home yet. St Paul speaks of being “buried with Christ in baptism.” Baptism is by nature a death, a drowning. We implicate ourselves with Jesus in his death so that we may be implicated with Jesus in his resurrection. This is why there is such a bond between the celebration of baptism and the celebration of Easter. Yet, in the typical baptismal font in an Episcopal church (and most other churches, for that matter), one would be hard pressed to fill it with enough water to make it a credible drowning hazard. We don’t fence off our baptismal fonts for fear that someone might accidentally fall in and drown.
One drop of water is all that’s necessary for a valid sacrament; don’t hear me wrong. But do we really want to settle for mere validity? Would we not rather have a sign that is as robust as the sacrament itself? This photo was taken in late 2010 on one of my last Sundays as rector of St Anne’s in Warsaw, Indiana. One of the discernment clues that led me to accept the call there in 2007 was the presence of an immersion font for baptism (and an accompanying healthy baptismal piety among the parishioners). When a baptism happens in that church, it’s a big deal, and there’s no doubt that something pretty darn important has happened. The size of the sign is commensurate with the size of the sacrament. Yes, it’s a great deal more trouble, and creates certain complications. But in my experience, it’s all worth the effort.
As we begin to get our footing as the people of God in a radically secularized society, I am convinced that the single most important metric of church health and missionary vitality will be the number of adult baptisms. Bringing an adult to the font will be a long and complex process, but the demands of the vows and promises of baptism will be seen in ever starker contrast with the demands of the surrounding society. The weight of making that commitment will demand an equally weighty sacramental sign. A baptismal font that holds enough water to present a plausible drowning risk will be what is called for.
There’s an astonishing amount of inertia against what I’m proposing here; I realize that. But as we get around to renovating and reconfiguring the spaces in which we worship, or–may it please God–building new ones, we will want to have this in mind.