One of the pastoral options I set for seminarians to consider in my Pastoral Practice course is the analysis of and the pastoral care that follows when a pastor hears from a grandmother that she has baptised her granddaughter when bathing her using the emergency rite in the hymnal because her daughter (the baby’s mother) didn’t want the baby baptised. The pastor had encouraged the daughter about Baptism but she had wanted to let her child ‘decide for herself’. What does the pastor do? (I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.)
There are all sorts of issues and dimensions here – as there are with life – but the starting point is whether the Baptism conducted by the grandmother is valid and if so why and if not, why not? Consideration of what was said and done, authorisation, and intention – because I think everyone would want to avoid the idea of magic (just say the words and presto deed done) – reveals how intertwined are words and deeds and context.
This was brought home to me recently in a news item about a Roman Catholic priest in Arizona (who has subsequently resigned) who has been saying ‘We baptise you in the name of the Father …’ for 25 years and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has ruled that all these baptisms are invalid. The Diocese is now in the process of informing thousands of people that their Baptism needs to be done (not again – because that’s the point – what was done wasn’t a Christian Baptism according to Rome). This has all sorts of consequences for Confirmations and Ordinations and I’m sure there are many other ripple effects here personally and pastorally. The debate within Rome, as I’ve come to understand this case, is whether the judgement here could not have been that the Baptisms were illicit but not invalid but the judgement is what it is and it is made and so the people concerned go forward.
That is exactly how it is for all of us. A judgement is made or a decision or a choice – it could be by the courts or science, or it is personal – our decision to get married, go into business, vote – and it is said or we say that this is how we understand things – this is our truth, what we believe, and what we should do – and then to have it upended or overturned is very destabilising. That is why lying, deceit, betrayal are so devastating and destructive. That why is the Christian Church needs to be clear about what it says and does and why it is saying and doing it because we did not create the Faith but we have received it and we are to ‘pass it’ on faithfully.
Lutherans believe that the goal in all our theology and practice is the care for the sinner – God’s care for us all – and therefore it is important that we are clear and seek to minimise any and all doubt about who Jesus is and how words, water, bread and wine are used in his name. This task grows as Christian history grows and as truth and practice develop but the goal remains the same that people – individuals – no matter their time and place – can be assured that God has encountered them (yes, you!) in Jesus – really, actually, maybe experientially, definitely hiddenly – and through faith in Jesus we can live. The words and deeds are always important as well as knowing why. GS