Baptizing babies, baptizing culture

* I do not approve of the post image for oh, so many reasons.

Over Advent I was teaching a Sunday school class on the ACNA’s new Book of Common Prayer. One feature of the Prayer Book, in line with earlier prayer books in America, is the inclusion of ostensibly secular holidays. Namely: Memorial Day; Independence Day; and Thanksgiving.

One of the other participants in the class asked an important question about the inclusion of these.

Why should the Church celebrate these days, and especially why should we mark these occasions with the Eucharist? Are we underwriting the government’s or culture’s narratives about war? Are we invoking God’s blessings wholesale on everything done by the State?  Is the Church unambiguously calling ‘good’ those things which need to be more carefully discerned?

It is of course a great danger in any age, but perhaps more-so today, to confuse a Christian identity with a national, ethnic, or affinity identity. Hauerwas popularizes this distinction with his now famous ‘Tonto principle’.

I always say I represent the “Tonto principle of Christian ethics.” When Tonto and the Lone Ranger found themselves surrounded by 20,000 Sioux, the Lone Ranger turned to Tonto and said, “This looks pretty tough; what do you think we ought to do?” Tonto replied, “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?”

In the Prayer Book, does the American “we” replace the Christian “we”? Any liturgy celebrated on a secular holiday will include the Lord’s Prayer. Who is included in the ‘our’ of the ‘Our Father’? The Nicene Creed may be recited. When we say ‘We believe…’, do we mean to say that all American citizens share this creed?

A Priest standing at the Lord’s Table and celebrating the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood on the Fourth of July could very well be accused of adding the Church’s AMEN to all that is commonly understood as the American mythology, tacitly equating the State’s account of God (or Providence, or Manifest Destiny if one prefers), and the Church’s witness about God.

This hesitancy to name God in the midst of a state or public holiday is understandable. Stuart Murray and others who have written about the decline of Christendom rightly identify this marriage of the State and the Faith as that thing which allowed professing Christians to act in ways which did not accord with the teachings of Jesus Christ or the example of the early Church.

The dialogue about how Christians should respond to the disintegration of Christianity as a part of public life has led to a reexamination of Anabaptist and Dissenting groups from European history. Again there is a wisdom here,  as Christians need to find a way of sustaining a common life which does not depend upon the approval of the status quo. Though such a radical claim might seem appropriate to churches who are open to an evolving or progressing understanding of doctrine and ethics, a moment of reflection might help us see that is it those Christians who are committed to preserving a more ancient understanding of morals and dogma who are in far greater need of a different relationship to the powers-that-be.

It was the case that those dissenting groups, who in many ways were more distinctively holy and pious than their conventionally Christian neighbors, were largely Anabaptist (re-baptizing) as they taught that to be a member of the Church required an intelligent and considered profession of faith.

Anglicans, and all those traditions of the Church which are descended from the Catholic Tradition, baptize those who cannot profess a faith of their own. Though the Mennonites and Anabaptists (or at least sensationalized accounts thereof) have dominated contemporary discussion about the Church’s relationship to the State, we would be wise to reconsider whether the Catholic tradition has any more resources to offer.

The 2019 Book of Common Prayer includes this Collect after a Candidate has been baptized:

Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon these your servantsthe forgiveness of sin, received them as your own children by adoption, made them members of your holy Church, and raised them to the new life of grace. Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit, that they may enjoy everlasting salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The theology expressed here is consistent with the 39 Articles and teaches that in Baptism God bestows a grace which is not chosen by either the Candidate, their Sponsors, or the Church. It is God’s grace which in baptism makes a person alive, regenerate, and a full member of the Church. The Church boldly stands upon God’s promise when she baptizes someone, ministering in them that which ‘by nature they cannot have’ (BCP P.162). The Church has been given the deposit of faith, which is the news of salvation in Jesus’ name, and through her ministry people are brought into and sustained in that new life. It is clear that God’s intention and initiative bring about this salvation, including the outward profession of faith which forms part of the liturgy.

Baptism is God’s work through his Church to bring souls into the way of truth, the way of truth which they did not know before they were baptized.

This boldness about God’s word, God’s promises, and God’s intention which is expressed in baptizing those who cannot profess faith for themselves makes sense of why the Church would also participate in secular national holidays and even give us liturgy with which to celebrate.

When we baptize we tell a story which is true whether or not it is understood. That is the nature of truth, after all. Similarly, to read the Collects and study the appointed Lessons, and even to celebrate the Holy Communion on a day like Fourth of July is a similar working of God through his Church to tell a story which is true whether it is understood, or not.

The Collect for that day names God as the one by whose ‘providence our founders won their liberties of old’ and intercedes for the people asking that we ‘may have grace to exercise these liberties in righteousness and peace’. There are many competing accounts of the Fourth of July, but the Church stands upon the witness of Scripture to describe how America came to be, and then what calling we as a nation may have. Obviously in a sense it is always the case that God’s providence is the cause for all things that happen, and it is the calling of all people to live in righteousness and peace. But it is significant to announce and proclaim this truth on a day when many will be celebrating that which is not true, perhaps believing that it was might or guile which caused America to be born, or that the freedoms of the Constitution are a carte blanche to do whatever we desire.

The Lessons point us toward the calling of Israel when they entered the Promised Land to ‘love the sojourner…for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt’ (Deut 10:17-21) and the Disciples to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven’ (Matt 5:43-48). 

The Church rightly joins her neighbors on a shared day of commemoration, and she also rightly proclaims the truth in the midst of that confused and cacophonous celebration. Like the service of Baptism, the Church does not wait for the people to agree and consent to this calling, but boldly proclaims a better story than whatever vain myth might be touted by the State or the wider culture.

The conscience need not be provoked by questions of the optics of such a celebration on these national days. It is not the responsibility of Christians to control what other people think about the Church or about God. We are responsible to do and be what God has called us to live and proclaim. On these national and even secular days, the Church is called to proclaim that the true source of the delight and deliverance for all people is God, and therefore to him in fealty and fear all people are called to bend the knee.

The danger in abandoning these culturally appointed days and occasions is that our neighbors, and worse still other Christians, will be enamored by the lies told by the unsanctified imagination and be converted to the myths sung in those hymns which do not proclaim the true God.

The Church is responsible to proclaim a truth which otherwise could not be known. This is most clearly the case in the Sacraments, where water and words make a person alive who was dead, and where bread and wine are divine sustenance. Is it so far off for the Church to tell America that their story begins with God and that all the peoples of that land are called to live in his love?

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