Baptism II: the Letter

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Today is an in-the-office day, and I'm trying to use this blog to make church administration easier by networking with others, thus proving that blogs are more than exercises in self-indulgence.

I'm thinking about the letter I'll be sending out to church members and constituents who are parents of small children about dedications and baptism. Since this is hardly a private matter, I thought I'd rough-out a letter here, and open it for comments its substance.

A minor baby boom leads me to write the parents of small children about what ceremonial services are open to them, and at the same time introduce greater clarity and understanding in what we do.

This and other Universalist churches have a history of using ambiguous terms in its religious services with children, especially the term "christening." Is this baptism, or something else? Inquiries in the last two years from a bride and Lutheran convert needing proof of baptism intensify this need for clarity. Hereafter, I will speak of baptism and dedication respectively, the later being roughly equal to a service of presentation, thanksgiving after birth or adoption, or blessing.

John Murray, the pioneering Universalist minister, is credited (justly or not) for developing the service of child dedication. He did not believe in baptism of any kind but was responding to sincere parents who felt a need to "do something" with their infant children. Some churches that practice adult baptism have a similar service for infants, and defer baptism to adolesence or later. The theological meaning of dedication is not clear, but it has been an emotionally-fulfilling gateway service for many. I will give parents interested in this service sample copies of the rite.

But as for baptism, I come from a different direction than John Murray. While there has been no unanimity among Universalists about baptism, some did have strong opinions that it should be given to infants, while others argued equally strong that it should be reserved for adults. As early as 1790, Universalist recognized that options should be provided that compromized neither the conscience of parents and baptisands nor the minister. This focus in personal belief should not be overlooked, but invites deeper exploration. Talking to church members and visitors, it is clear that the following inherited logic is present in most discussions about baptism: "Because baptism is a washing-away of original sin, and because I don't believe in original sin, I don't believe in baptism." Without going into detail here, let it suffice that there are a number of ways that baptism is understood, both within and outside Universalism, that does not include the original sin dilemma. I welcome conversations with parents of infants and older persons interested in baptism about the details, theories, and practices.

Lastly, I would like to update the church on my pastoral views. When I arrived at UNMC, I was in favor of baptism but for adults only. Since then, my mind has changed and I am willing to baptize a person at any age, and also respect the wishes of parents who want a dedication ceremony only.

Do you wish to proceed? Has this sparked questions? Please contact me, and I would be happy to meet and speak with you.

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