Thursday, April 19, 2007

Fencing the Font

It happened again. A member of the congregation called asking about baptism for their grandchild. The grandparents are relatively active in our church. The parents of the beloved grandchild are not members of any church. The young family will be visiting next month. Could we baptize the baby?

According to Presbyterian polity, no. We can't. The Book of Order says:

When a child is being presented for Baptism, ordinarily the parent(s) or one(s) rightly exercising parental responsibility shall be an active member of the congregation. Those presenting children for Baptism shall promise to provide nurture and guidance within the community of faith until the child is ready to make a personal profession of faith and assume the responsibilities of active church membership.
A session may also consider a request for the baptism of a child from a Christian parent who is an active member of another congregation.

I've been known to stretch this pretty far. I've baptized children whose grandparents have been bringing them to Sunday school and other church activities. Since these kids are in town, the grandparents can undertake their "nurture in Christian community" and church members will know them and have opportunities to fulfill their part of the baptismal promises.

But kids who live hundreds of miles away and whose parents aren't part of any church? Even an extremely broad reading of the BOO doesn't stretch that far, as I read it.

Yet the grandparents are always upset. I've had one set of grandparents leave the congregation over this years ago in another place. "How can you deny baptism to this precious infant--regardless of what their parents do or don't believe?" "What if the wonderful spiritual experience of having their child baptized would be the one thing that would draw this young couple back into the life of the church?" At this point the grandparents are usually not willing or able to hear an exposition of the Presbyterian understanding of baptism, they are just pissed off. Especially if they've already started planning the christening party before they called me.

There are also Presbyterian churches who totally ignore this rule and go ahead and baptize in these situations. I've had that thrown in my face several times: "Well the Smiths go to Down the Road Pres. Church and they had their little grandchild baptized last month--so we know that you COULD do this if you really WANTED to. . ."

What do you do about baptizing grandchildren at your place?


ppb said...

I hide.
I work in an ecumenical setting. I've been called to "do the kid" of visiting alums and I tell them that Presbyterians are not allowed to. And they believe me.
So far.

cheesehead said...

Big sigh....

Well, I don't like it, but I do it. Of all the ways I'm asked to disregard the Book of Order, this one seems the least agregious.

I hang on for dear life to the theology of baptism where it says (essentially) that the validity of sacraments is not dependent on the person presiding at them. Yeah, flimsy, but I can sleep at night because of it.

But for context, please understand that my 40-year predecessor did them privately, at grandma's home, in the back yard around the antique family birdbath. I'm seen as an uncompromising stick-in-the-mud compared to him, because I insist that it be in the context of an actual worship service, approved by session, and I have to meet with the parents and do a little teaching first.

It ain't a perfect world, after all.

ellbee said...

You know, we've only had one grandparent bring a child to our church for baptism (in the 8 years I've been here), but it was a situation where she was a highly involved caretaker and the girl had been attending SS and church for 6-7 months with Grandma.

In fact, the two of them started coming as a result of a VBS invitation. Mom came to the baptism, took pictures and hasn't been seen since.

Quotidian Grace said...

It's a really really tough call, isn't it? I'm so glad it isn't mine.

For the record, I'm old school on this issue and have challenged a pastor on it while on session as chair of the Worship Committee. I lost but I thought it important not to just ignore the BOO. But we all know I'm a trogdolyte....and that I didn't have to tell the grandparents no. So I realize it's easier for me to take this position than for a pastor!

reverendmother said...

Grace does bring up an interesting point though--the session could (should?) have a policy about this. It shouldn't be the pastor's call (yes, I can hear your sardonic laughter from here).

As for "What if the wonderful spiritual experience of having their child baptized would be the one thing that would draw this young couple back into the life of the church?"

...Has anyone ever seen this happen? If they are so gee-whiz awed by a ritual action of the church, wouldn't they still be members of one?

And I'm sorry, sacrament as spiritual enticement just doesn't do it for me.

But is it a hill I'm willing to die on? Doubt it.

Songbird said...

Grace, what if one of your girls in some mysterious future moved away, stopped attending church, and had a baby. Would you want the baby to be baptized? I'm not asking it as an intellectual question, but as a heart question.
This is such a sticky question, even for those of us who don't have to abide by your BOO, pcit. My policy has been that I will baptize grandchildren during a worship service, after an education session with the parents. I would not baptize privately, with the obvious exception of a sick or dying infant (or person, for that matter) in the hospital. At that point it's a pastoral ministry to the family member(s) requesting it, another matter entirely--and an attitude formed by CPE.
I recently had a request to baptize a grandchild. I indicated I would do it, but told the grandmother the parents would have to contact me directly to arrange a meeting prior to the baptism. She seemed content with that answer. Have I heard from the parents? Not so much.

Gord said...

Our polity is similar. ANd I have said no. ANd I have said yes--well I did't say yes but that was my recomendation to the Board, who agreed with me (mind yout the Board in questions would say yes to almost any baptism request, another common theological position in the UCC).

WHen we did it it was a) a family whose local congregation was without clergy at teh time or b) a family where the grandfather was unable to travel. In both cases I was clear with the family that we would baptise on behalf of the home congregation. WHether that meant much to them....

THe time I said no it was grandpa who called while he was in town and was terribly upset that the Anglican church in town wouldn't do the baptism. Seeing as the parents weren't interested in the baptism, and it was summer and the Board wouldn't meet for 2 months I just siad it wasn't possible (he wanted the baptism done PDQ)

zorra said...

When I was on CPM, this was one of my favorite scenarios to pose to candidates, because it comes up so often. Grace and peace, and hugs, and (o)s, to all of you pastors who have to struggle with this thorny issue.

Quotidian Grace said...


It's hard to respond to a theoretical question but I'll try.

I'd be more grieved that my daughter wasn't attending and bringing up the child in the church than that she wasn't having my grandchild baptized. It's the former example and nurture that is important.

I think I would try to influence her to return to church rather than force the issue of baptism. If she's not going to raise the child in the church, then to me it is a meaningless ritual. For Presbyterians, this is a theological position as well.

Portia's husband grew up in a more conservative denomination that doesn't believe in infant baptism. So they may not present a child for infant baptism in our church. My husband and I will respect their decision. We don't require infant baptism and there are always a number of adults and youth who join the church who are baptized at the same time.

Mark Smith said...

I'm with you, Rebel.

In general, I'm in favor of "anything that gets them in the door". In this case, I'm not sure that anything would get anybody new in the door. From your description, neither the parents nor the child would attend at home even occasionally.

In talking with visitors and new members, I've heard a lot of people say "I was baptized by minister X as a child, but we never went to church". To them, it was some weird event that had no meaning, even now when they were considering becoming members.

Stand your ground.

One other story - I still remember the description of a creepy baptism of a member of my confirmation class. We were 14 at the time, and this girl told the story of how the Pastor Emeritus of the church (who lived across the street from her) had baptized her at age 10 in that Pastor's shower. (Yes, bathroom shower) The whole class was a bit creeped out about that, and this was in the early 1980's before clergy abuse was publicized.