Baptism and Welcoming the “Differently Churched”
How a question about validity points to conversation, discernment and blessing
L. Celeste Gardner
The following question was recently posted to the listserv of APLM Members:
“Do any of you know whether Mormons baptize by water and in the name of the Trinity? I have a colleague trying to discern whether a Mormon becoming Episcopal should have baptism or conditional baptism. He was too young to recall any of the details.”
Responses to the question quickly pointed out that Mormons do baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but they mean something different than “our understanding” of the Trinity (caveat - no we don’t really understand the Trinity). In the conversation that followed, APLM members considered several questions including: Can there be true meaning outside of intended meaning? What weight does human understanding hold in these matters? Does the intention of the community that enacted the rite affect the validity of the baptism to effect incorporation into the body of Christ? Is there a difference between incorporation into the body of Christ and incorporation into the Church catholic? What about pastoral dimensions?
For my part, this brought up issues related to my own baptism in the Evangelical Free Church. When I joined the Episcopal Church, my baptism was accepted as valid without question or conversation other than to ask for some documentation so that I could be confirmed. But like Mormon baptism, there were questions about the purpose and actual effect of baptism that might have been explored. Did baptism make me a Christian? Did it “incorporate me into the body of Christ” and the Church writ large? Was the primary purpose of baptism public proclamation, personal devotion, or something else? And don’t even get me started on the purpose of confirmation…
Pastorally, the acceptance of my earlier baptism was comforting in that it recognized continuity in my life of faith, assuring me that I was already acceptable as a Christian. Yet there was an important measure of discontinuity that I was left to figure out myself. While my confirmation classes taught me much about church polity, the creed and other points of theological understanding, a conversation that engaged me by exploring with me my past ritual life rather than accepting it without question would have helped me carry the good gifts of my evangelical upbringing more fully into my new community of faith.
The community accepted my baptism as valid, and though it did not really make sense, I accepted their acceptance and the mandate to be confirmed. But casual acceptance is really not acceptance at all. As one APLM member pointed out, “…unless the candidate actually begins (at least) the process of constructing meaning for herself out of the received scripture, tradition, etc., the process has failed, becoming only indoctrination.” It took many years, many conversations, and countless instances of renewing baptismal vows that I had never originally taken, for me to make any sense of my ritual experience – both my baptism as an evangelical and my confirmation as an Episcopalian.
I hasten to add, however, that attention to the individual is not justified because faith is an individual matter. Engaging the individuals who walk through our church doors by giving their spiritual journeys more than a simple litmus test to determine validity opens up the possibility that we who are “in” might be blessed by those coming to us. What aspects of baptism and the life of faith has our denomination minimized in comparison to those hailing from other traditions?
So to the question of Mormon baptism, I don’t think the answer is either to simply accept or reject it based on a standard (water and the Trinity). Rather, the standards should be the framework in which the community engages each other in conversation and discernment. We are always enacting meaning dynamically, and Mormon converts, no less than anyone else, come to us with joys and sorrows. As one APLM member pointed out, Mormons are all too aware that other groups do not consider them "real" Christians. Let's try not to expose our half-informed prejudices, making it more difficult than it already is for anyone who happens to show up in our parishes; these people have likely fairly recently made a break with their families and communities that is so radical that my husband has referred to it as "dying to everyone you know." “My husband, in the first few years after he left the LDS church, would stay in his seat at communion during his visit to other churches, because he was not sure if his baptism was recognized. Mormons are all too aware that other groups do not consider them ‘real’ Christians. Let's try not to expose our half-informed prejudices, making it more difficult than it already is for anyone who happens to show up in our parishes; these people have likely fairly recently made a break with their families and communities that is so radical that my husband has referred to it as ‘dying to everyone you know.’”
What might the communities the former LDS man visited have learned from his new understanding of baptism and the cost of following Christ faithfully? The dynamic of blessing includes allowing the “other” to be a blessing. Such a dynamic is much deeper than inclusivity and is the key to discerning how to incorporate not only the un-churched, but the differently churched.
Celeste Gardner is Treasurer of The Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission. Her interest focuses on the performative aspects of ritual.