Baptism, liturgy

Frank Answers About Baptismal Practice

Question: We have a young woman staying with us who wants to baptize her son but she’s not a church member. She asked me what the differences are between being baptized Lutheran/Episcopalian/etc. and she wanted to know why some people don’t baptize their kids until they are older. Also, what’s the difference between “baptism” and “christening”?


Baptism in Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist, Hingham, MA

Frank answers: I would want to know what the young woman’s reason is for having her son baptized. It may be that her reasons have to be sorted out. The main thing is that she needs to understand that baptism identifies the baptized person with Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and makes the baptized person a member of the body of Christ, the church. Baptism is the main event in the ritual process of initiation into the Christian community.

This presents a problem with infant baptism. The kind of things the church can do in what was once the catechumenate to prepare a person for baptism into Christ can’t be done with an infant. Those things—indoctrination, formation in ministry—have to be made up later on in the case of the baptism of young children. This has become the purpose of the confirmation ministry. The rite of confirmation is really understood as an affirmation of baptism.

So sponsorship, which is important for all candidates no matter what their age, is really important in child baptism. The child is being baptized into the life of the Christian community. The whole community of faith is the sponsor of baptism. Because what is everyone’s business can end up being no one’s business, sponsors make a commitment to see that the child is brought up in the community of faith, attends worship, comes to know the Scriptures and the materials of the Catechism (Ten Commandments, Creed, Lord’s Prayer, meanings of Baptism and Holy Communion), and is formed into a godly life. In spite of sponsorship (having godparents), parents will realistically be the ones who see that these things are done. So the church is taking a real risk by baptizing the children of non-church members. To baptize a child with no realistic guarantees that the child will be brought up in the faith in which he or she is baptized is putting God to the test.

The best outcome in the situation you describe is for the woman to find a congregation and become a member. She may be in a situation in which the support of a faith community (even beyond what support you may be providing) is something she needs in her life. Delaying baptism until the mother’s church membership is secured might be wise counsel. If the mother herself has never been baptized, a relationship with a congregation and pastor could lead to the baptism of both mother and child. Both would be sponsored by members of the congregation. That would be an event for great rejoicing.

There are various reasons why some parents wait to baptize their children until they are older. Some think the child should be able to make his or her own decision about baptism and church membership or at least be aware of what is happening. Some belong to churches that don’t practice infant baptism and require a personal profession of faith.

There is no reason why parents who are active members of a church that practices infant baptism (that is, the baptism of all persons regardless of age or ability) should delay having their child baptized. It takes a whole village to raise a child. In the case of the child of a church family, the resources of the entire congregation are available to raise a child in the faith: the whole congregation at worship, church school, confirmation classes, youth activities, intergenerational relationships, etc.

There was never a time in the history of the church before the Anabaptists in the 16th century that the church considered the practice of child baptism inappropriate, even though the practice was not normative in the early centuries. It’s assumed that in the Book of Acts, when whole households were baptized, children were included. That’s an argument from silence, but the silence of tomb stones later on indicate the burial of young Christian children who were probably baptized in an emergency situation. St. Augustine of Hippo, in his Confessions, relates that his mother Monica arranged for him to be baptized at the age of eight when he had a fever and wasn’t expected to live. But then the fever broke and the baptism was called off and Monica spent the rest of her life praying for her wayward son until he was finally baptized in Milan at the age of thirty by Bishop Ambrose at the Easter Vigil.

Orthodox baptism of a naked child by immersion

A word to pastors:

Because we live in a social situation in which there are many unchurched people, some of whom might consider having their children baptized, the church has to take more seriously the character of Baptism as a rite of initiation. It is not just a nice little family ceremony. For example, all baptisms should occur within the liturgy with the congregation present. Baptisms might normally be scheduled in the parish on certain days in the calendar, especially Easter (at the Vigil), Pentecost (possibly another Vigil), Epiphany Day or the Sunday following (the Baptism of our Lord), and All Saints’ Sunday.

In the rite itself the baptismal party should be met by the ministers at the church door, to symbolize that baptism is entrance into the life of the church and the kingdom of God. Ritual elements of the old catechumenal rite can be done at the entrance to the nave: the signing with the cross, the promises of the parents and godparents, exorcism (if it is practiced), the renunciation of evil, and the adherence to Christ. After the liturgy of the Word there should be a procession to the font singing a litany of the saints to indicate that the baptismal candidate is surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses”. The font should ideally be large enough for the candidate to be immersed in the water and accessible to worshipers. (That, obviously, requires great expense and architectural consultation in older buildings.)

baptismal font St. Mary's Singapore
The baptismal pool and font in St. Mary of the Angels Catholic Church in Singapore

At the font there is the blessing of the water, the profession of faith (Apostles’ Creed), and the baptism itself in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Then there is a procession to the chancel where the post-baptismal Spirit-related ceremonies of the laying on of hands and anointing take place, followed by the words of welcome and the greeting of peace.

baptismal anointing
This newly-baptized boy is anointed (chrismated) after baptism in the Orthodox Church. This is the “seal of the Holy Spirit.”

If possible, the ritual process of Christian initiation should climax in first Communion, even of infants. The Eucharist celebrates our union with Christ and unity with the church in Christ. Churches that are welcoming everyone to Holy Communion, whether they are baptized or not, need to cease and desist. This “open table” is sacramental malpractice. It wrecks the relationship between the sacraments and undermines the crucial importance of baptism in Christian life. Baptism is for all; Holy Communion is for the baptized. (See my Frank Answer About Radical Hospitality).

Orthodox infant communion
Orthodox infant communion

Concluding word of advice to the questioner:

In terms of comparing Lutheran and Episcopal baptismal practices, you’re not likely to see too many differences between these two traditions. They both represent the Western liturgical tradition filtered through Reformation practice and now also liturgical renewal. The liturgical practices are similar, if not identical.

In my hearing Episcopalians and Catholics commonly called this rite a “christening” while Lutherans and other Protestants more typically spoke of “baptism”. But the terms “baptism” and “christening” both designate the same thing: the Christian rite of initiation. “Baptism” refers specifically to the water-rite, the bathing. “Christening” originally referred to the anointing-rite, the sealing with oil. The term also came to be understood as the giving of a Christian name to the child, or making one a Christian by bearing a Christian name. The title Christ is derived from the Greek term Χριστός (Khristós) meaning “the anointed one”.

In any event, one is not baptized/christened as a Lutheran or an Episcopalian. One is baptized/christened as a Christian by and within a particular local church. Your friend’s son will automatically be a member of that particular local church, and therefore also of the denomination with which that congregation is affiliated. However, churches that confess God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accept one another’s baptisms if performed in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Since we acknowledge in the Creed “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins,” that baptism should be accepted by another congregation even in a different denomination and never be repeated. The important thing is for your woman friend to find a church community, become a part of it, and then arrange for her son (and herself if necessary) to be baptized within it, trusting in the promise that “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:16).

Pastor Frank Senn

Detail from the “Seven Sacraments” altarpiece of Rogier van der Weyden, 1445-50, in the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp showing late medieval pratice: baptism of a naked infant by a priest, confirmation of a youth by a bishop, and penance by individual confession and absolution, which is a return to one’s baptism.

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