The Spring 2016 issue of Liturgy offers essays on Christian Initiation. D. Jay Koyle’s essay focuses on baptism itself, particularly because the perspective currently held in many of our churches toward this sacrament has been in contention in recent years.
As Koyle shows, cultural changes have led to baptism being considered in many of our churches a naming ceremony primarily for infants. The theological importance of baptism, however, is about God’s power and the astonishing proclamation of the new reality of God’s Reign.
By nature, baptism is a subversive sacrament that initiates persons into a community God called into being to experience, reveal, signal, and participate in the coming and already-present Kingdom. Yet, far too many see baptism as little more than a sweet ceremony that washes stains from souls and carries them across the ecclesial threshold into the lobby of the household of faith. Beyond that, we act like there is little it can do. As a result, we mistake baptism as a harmless trickle of water when it is a waterfall of eschatological proportions. Why does the church perpetuate this case of mistaken identity and what can be done about it? . . .
In order to understand what can be done, we have to know how we arrived at this place. Koyle says the church has, over time, adopted a utilitarian perspective on a sacrament that had for centuries been a much richer sign of initiation by God into the church.
In Christendom, baptism had come to function largely as a pastoral rite, a ceremony tied to the human life cycle, even if confessional statements claimed otherwise. Rubrics pressed parents to bring their newborns to pass through the waters of the font as soon as possible after those infants had passed through the waters of the womb. In my own Anglican tradition, the rite’s placement in the prayer book was located with the pastoral offices tied to the stages of life (marriage, visitation of the sick, burial). This notion of baptism became even stronger when transplanted to the domain of private life. . . . [continuing] . . . to regard the infant as the normative candidate and to treat baptism as a family ceremony at least as much as an ecclesial one, scheduled to serve the convenience of the family calendar. Indeed, a recent informal survey of church websites revealed that most congregations speak of baptism in these terms, emphasizing the meaning of baptism as “joining the church family” and asking God’s blessing upon the newborn candidates and their families.
Along with other secular institutions, the church has become infested with the notion that people are primarily “consumers” for whom services are to be performed at their convenience and according to their understanding.
The consumerist bias ensures that the usual starting point for many congregations that aspire to revitalization and growth is, “How can we make ourselves more attractive? How can we make the Gospel relevant to people today?” That these questions come to our minds and trip off our tongues so readily is understandable. Our market share is shrinking, after all; we see fewer people displaying an interest in joining with us in sacrament and song on Sundays. . . .
Though well-meaning, it may be that our faith communities are barking up the wrong tree. What if the issue at hand is not how to make the Gospel relevant for the culture? . . . The late liturgical theologian Alexander Schmemann. . . surveyed efforts to spark renewal and growth, and he found himself shaking his head at strategies designed to render the church more attractive and relevant. He observed as early as 1968 that the problem facing us today is not that the Gospel has become irrelevant to the society. He noted that the Gospel has always been “foolishness to the Greeks.” No, the problem is not that the Gospel has become irrelevant to the society, but rather that the Kingdom has become irrelevant to the church.
Koyle has ideas about re-enlivening the church’s relationship with the sacrament of baptism. Please see the posting here in two weeks, on April 22 for more.
D. Jay Koyle, “The Mistaken Identity of Baptism,” Liturgy 31, no. 2 (2016), 11-19.