Baptism

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In Minna Proctor's book Do You Hear What I Hear?, the author describes a woman named Hannah Anderson, a former Quaker who had converted to the Episcopal Church and became a priest within that church. After some time of straddling the two denominations, the decision to take the leap and convert to her new church is described this way:

...she reports, on her way to Ohio, where she was the keynote speaker for the yearly meeting with Barnesville Friends, she heard a voice. "It was an internal, but very clear voice: It's time. Are you ready? And I knew what it was about." She arrived at the conference, delivered the keynote address, and then told her sponsors that she wouldn't be staying for the rest of the conference, because she was going to go home and leave the Quaker denomination to join the Episcopal Church.

"Some people were hurt by my declaration, stunned, some people even called me a traitor. But I'd heard that call, so I came home and set up a Sunday for baptism. I was baptized along with a twelve-year-old girl and an infant baby. It was glorious."
Since I have a Quaker background myself, and because I have lately been hanging out in a mainline denomination (in my case, the United Church of Christ), the above passage interested me, but at the same time it also appalled me.

Even though I don't attend Quaker worship anymore, I still hold many traditional Quaker beliefs and values. For example, Quakers don't practice any of the traditional Christian sacraments--including the usual Protestant ones, baptism and communion--and while I don't object to these sacraments per se, I also don't particularly find them necessary or important to me or my religious life. What bothered me in this tale of Hannah Anderson's conversion was the sense that her membership in Quakerism and her years of service within that historically Christian denomination counted for nothing when she wanted to become a member of this new church. She had to be baptized.

The impression I get, from doing some internet research, is that Episcopalians (and probably many other mainline Christian bodies) generally don't require you to be baptized into their church for membership if you were a member of another denomination that practiced baptism. The implication is clear; membership in the Quaker body is perceived to be deficient, inferior, or invalid in some sense. While members of other denominations get certain transfer privileges, Quakers do not, and it is irrelevant that you were accepted as a member in the Religious Society of Friends.

As I alluded, I doubt that the Episcopalian church is alone in this attitude. Probably most Christian denominations give great significance to this ritual. This vital importance to the act of baptism is probably an attitude to be found almost everywhere among Christian churches that practice baptism. Baptism is seen not just as a ritual, like lighting a candle or carrying a cross in a procession, but rather as a sacrament, one that carries some sort of special, magical powers. My guess would have been that even the United Church of Christ, a denomination I have become increasingly involved with and which I respect a great deal for its tolerance and progressive outlook, draws the line on this matter--I would have thought so, except that when I had a lunch conversation with my pastor about membership, the subject of baptism didn't even come up. Still, the UCC web sites do talk about baptism, and the ritual is practiced in UCC churches, so it isn't clear to me where baptism exactly fits within the concept of membership within this denomination.

This probably doesn't affect me directly, because I was not born into the Quaker denomination--which Quakers refer to as a "birthright" Friend. Instead, I became what Quakers call a "convinced" Friend in my adult life. I was baptized as a sixth grader in the Protestant church of my upbringing, so I actually qualify (technically speaking) as having been baptized. I say "technically speaking" because later, at least in my own mind if not publicly, I renounced that baptism, when I became a 16-year-old atheist. If you renounce a baptism, can you later take it back? According to the United Church of Christ, it seems that baptisms, like diamonds, are forever:
When we baptize you into our community, we promise that we will never take it back – no matter what you discover about yourself or what others discover about you along life’s journey. We believe that baptism places each of us into the “body of Christ” and lasts forever. Some are baptized as infants, others as adults. Some are sprinkled. Others are immersed. Some reclaim their baptism from a previous church life. For each of us, however, baptism is big enough, strong enough and cleansing enough to last forever. We believe that everyone – old, young, straight, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, physically or emotionally challenged, rich or poor, sure or unsure, lost or found, Democrat or Republican has a place in the body of Christ. Baptism is like a badge that says, “you’re a full member of the church and no one can take that away from you.”
I never had to renounce my renouncement when I became a Quaker, because Quakers consider the baptism to be a ritual with no sacramental meaning, and it is not part of the membership process. Be that as it may, if the UCC considers my baptism as a sixth grader all those years ago to be irrevocable, then it would seem that I would not have to be baptized into the UCC:
Is Re-baptism necessary?

The United Church of Christ recognizes the validity of all baptisms, therefore there is no need for re-baptism. If there is a question about whether baptism has taken place, a conditional phrase may be added as a person is baptized, such as "if you are not already baptized." It is a well-accepted practice, however, for people to renew their baptismal vows in a service of baptismal renewal, such as the Order for Renewal of Baptism in the UCC Book of Worship.
But for those who were born into the Quaker denomination, and who were therefore never baptized, it would seem to me that their membership in the Religious Society of Friends would not mean anything as far as the baptism ritual goes in other churches.

1 comments:

Eileen said...

In my mind, baptism is once and for all.

If one defines sacrament as "an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given to us" (as the Episcopal Church defines it), then, the gift of baptism is a gift of God, which can be rejected or turned aside, but never really given back. It is a gift that remains to be taken up by us again and again in our spiritual journey. Whether you recognize it as something truly spiritual, or a commitment ceremony, it is a gift given to us, for us, by God, and God alone.

I very much like the UCC sentiment that nothing you do in your life can revoke your baptism. It's similar to TEC, and I like knowing that God is waiting for me, no matter how much I mess up, ignore his call, or wander way. :-)