Al Kimel from 2004—Oh how I wish I could in conscience practice [Baptism without preparation] !

Posted by Kendall Harmon

(I am taking the liberty of putting this on in full text since this is soon to be lost to posterity, I am sorry to say. Please remember that I intensely dislike the terminology of "open" baptism [or ""open" communion] because it confuses the practice being advocated by some in TEC with something altogether different; this is why I plead for what some TEC reappraisers advocate to be described as "communion of the unbaptized" --KSH).

Seminary ruined my ministry. By this I do not mean what we tired old priests often mean by this statement. I am referring here very specifically to the understanding of Holy Baptism that was beat into my head. Actually, it wasn’t beat into my head at all. I drank it in and embraced it in the heart. I was taught and have ever since believed that Baptism is the foundational sacrament of the Church and therefore must be attended to by as much prayer and catechetical preparation as is possible. The key influences here were my liturgics professor, Fr Louis Weil; the Lutheran theologian, Robert W. Jenson; but most especially the writings of the Catholic liturgist, Fr Aidan Kavanagh. Later on William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas would come along to reinforce what I had already learned, that we no longer live in a Christian culture and therefore can no longer rely on the culture to transmit to our children the beliefs, values, and practices of Christian faith. The Church must become what it once was–a disciplined community.

Ecclesial discipline begins with the sacrament of Holy Baptism, the gateway into the community of faith. If we do not practice discipline at this point, we cannot effectively foster discipline later down the road. Baptism is not a right. It is a privilege and gift that the Church is authorized to administer under very specific conditions.

I remember years ago hearing an apocryphal story of Catholic missionaries to Indonesia who would beat drums and make a lot of noise in a village, so that its inhabitants would come out of their huts to see what was going on–at which point they would be met by the missionaries, water buckets in hand: “Ego te baptizo …”

When may the Church baptize? The Scriptures are clear. The Church may baptize an individual when that individual has responded to the gospel in faith and repentance. The Church does not baptize everyone indiscriminately. Faith and conversion are necessary conditions. In the second and third centuries, we see the Church developing a catechumenal process to prepare adult converts for baptism. This process would often last one to three years, concluding with examination by the bishop and sacramental initiation at the Great Vigil of Easter. Kavanagh describes this catechumenal process not so much as intellectual instruction but as “conversion therapy.” He notes that the early Church was not interested in indiscriminately baptizing the multitudes. It wanted to make Christians.

Tertullian had already observed that Christians are not born but made. Augustine and his colleagues over a century later would have agreed, perhaps extending the epigram to say that they do not just wander in off the streets either. They are honed down by the teaching and discipline of the catechumenate until their metal is tough, resilient, sharp, and glowing. The “enlightenment” of baptism was not a flickering flame but a burst of God’s glory in those whose capacities to receive it had been expanded to their utmost. And although things were different since the pagan Celsus had written archly in 168 that “if all men wanted to be Christian, the Christians would no longer want them,” being prepared in the fifth century to absorb a whole society did not mean that the churches would do so indiscriminately. The fathers’ catechetical homilies suggest that they still needed more Christians less than they needed better ones, even as they wished and worked for the conversion of all.
What about the baptism of children? They are the exception, not the norm. We risk the baptism of children only because their parents are practicing Christians and have demonstrated that they will raise their children within the household of faith, in the fear and admonition of the Lord. If their parents are not practicing Christians, then the Church has no authority whatsoever to baptize their children, no matter what the grandparents want!

And so this young priest took this understanding of Baptism and catechumenate out into the world. No other issue has caused me more trouble than this in my ministry of twenty-four years! Indeed, it is probably safe to say that it destroyed my ministry in one parish and has caused me nothing but grief in my present parish. How I wish I could in good conscience offer “open baptism.” Disciplined baptismal policy always offends, no matter how gently and graciously it is articulated. No one wants to hear that there are conditions and requirements that must be fulfilled if baptism is to be administered with sacramental and spiritual integrity. No one wants to hear that the faith and commitment of the parents necessarily and rightly affects the Church’s decision to baptize a baby. No one wants to hear the word no.

So when I read about “open baptism” I am filled with both envy and anger. I am envious, because these priests are able to avoid all of the grief and problems of trying to communicate to nonbelieving parents they must begin to take their baptismal vows seriously if they wish their children to be baptized into the Church. The open baptism policy makes everything so easy. There are no conditions to be imposed. No requirements are insisted upon. Difficult conversations are avoided. We just toss the water and say the magic words and everyone is happy. Oh if only I could in conscience offer open baptism. How nice it would be for me and everyone else if I could just adopt a no-conflict, no-grief, no-aggravation policy like St Bart’s in Poway, California:
We are an open and affirming church. No classes are required and no judgments are passed at St. Bartholomew’s. If you wish to be baptized and become Jesus Christ’s own forever, just ask and you can be.
But as I said, I was ruined in seminary. When I read a baptismal policy like the above, I become angry. These open baptism priests are prostituting the gospel. Baptism is not a spiritual tonic that we dispense to everyone who asks for it. Baptism is conversion, the renunciation of evil, and the embrace of love, self-denial, and the way of the cross. It’s all so cozy for these open baptism pastors and their congregations. No judgments are made. No discipline is imposed. No one has to say “no.” Baptism becomes a nice little ceremony of cultural affirmation. Everyone is blessed. Everyone feels good. But the identity and mission of the Church is sold out for a bowl of pottage.

(Please note that for now you can find the original post there. You may be interested to read the comments--KSH)

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalEpiscopal Church (TEC)* Christian Life / Church LifeLiturgy, Music, WorshipParish Ministry* TheologyAnthropologyEcclesiologySacramental TheologyBaptism

17 Comments
Posted April 11, 2012 at 7:00 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. c.r.seitz wrote:

Part of the irony here is that proponents of CWB tend also toward the position Kimel was trained in (so he claims) and which caused him so much grief in pastoral application (again, as he claims in his own ministry). That is, they hold up a ‘baptismal covenant’ on something of the same terms as Kimel credits Aiden Kavanagh et al. Not so much as a necessary threshhold to pass through via adult catechumenate (in the manner Kimel apparently sought to instill and assure), prior to baptism (Tertullian), or by solemn pledges of parents (infant baptism of BCP; presbyterianism). But rather, as we are now hearing, as a kind of solemn pledging we made and that our baptism is sort of derivative of. That is, our baptism is now, effectively, our promise to do certain things. We ‘live out our baptismal covenant’ and so forth.
Perhaps this understanding goes back—again probably ironically—to the Kavanagh/Weil liturgical historicism, even Hauerwas/Willimon cultural differentiation-ism. That is for liturgical experts to decipher in respect of 1979 BCP. So maybe Kimel had reason to be disappointed in his training. But what he opines was so attractive in CWB (maybe archly) was not devoid of the same strains. Yes, you welcome to communion those who are not baptised and so ‘avoid certain kinds of problems’ of training, etc. But then you get as a bonus a ‘baptismal covenant’ doing an awful lot of the same thing that same training said was important anyway—now only obliquely related to a sacramental baptismal rite altogether.

April 11, 9:12 am | [comment link]
2. francis wrote:

#1, I think not.  Kimel is speaking, ‘tongue in cheek’.  He is looking to conversion to Jesus: people and families.  That is the basis of the 1979 rite; no more, no less, but the culture drives it on from there.  That is the controversy, as it always has been.  And even the ‘79 rite is oriented to the converted community; not a quiet, solitary “do”.

April 11, 9:25 am | [comment link]
3. cseitz wrote:

#2 You are surely partly right: AK is being ‘tongue in cheek’ (or as I said, ‘arch’) re: Communion of the Unbaptized and his ‘envy’ of that. But he is being serious about his training and how it had a negative effect. Your further comment I don’t understand (‘not a quiet, solitary “do”’).

April 11, 10:43 am | [comment link]
4. Catholic Mom wrote:

Umm…am I reading a different article?  This is not about “communion of the unbaptized.”  It’s about not baptizing children unless their parents are practicing Christians with a demonstrated committment to the faith.  He’s saying that when pretty much random strangers wander into the church and say “when can we schedule our baby’s baptism?”  he has to say “when you become committed Christians” which is not the answer they want to hear and people become extremely angry when he has to tell them he’s not baptizing their kids.

Why do people think this is about “communion of the unbaptized”???

Am I missing something??

April 11, 12:07 pm | [comment link]
5. Bill McGovern wrote:

I realize I’m in way over my head here but I thought the Anglican Church taught baptismal regeneration. Baptism is an act of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  For God’s chosen and His elect, the efficacy of the act is His doing and not dependent upon completing a course of study or having faithful godparents and parents. Have I been mistaken all these years?

April 11, 12:23 pm | [comment link]
6. Hakkatan wrote:

Bill, in a word - yes.  Of course,  if you talk with Anglo-Catholics, they are likely to tell you that baptism works ex opere operato, but for those of us Anglicans who are not Anglo-Catholic, baptism and what happens are dealt with in the Articles. We require believing parents; we also assume that God is at work in and through baptism and that the child will exhibit and profess faith in due course - but we do not guarantee that the act of baptizing will produce effects just because it has been done.

April 11, 3:30 pm | [comment link]
7. Catholic Mom wrote:

The Catholic Church teaches that baptism has “effects” in and of itself, but those “effects” are equivalent to the planting of a seed.  Planting a seed is a very real and very powerful action, but it does not always result in the growth of a plant.  CCC 1253-1254:

Baptism is the sacrament of faith.  But faith needs the community of believers.  It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe.  The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop…For all the baptized, children or adults, faith must grow after Baptism….  Preparation for Baptism leads only to the threshold of new life.  Baptism is the source of that new life in Christ from which the entire Christian life springs forth.

In other words, just as a gardener would not throw seeds onto dry concrete, the Church does not baptize those who are cut off from the faith community and who are have no opportunity to move beyond the “threshold” of faith which is Baptism into the full Christian life.  For adults, that means those who are not ready to join as members of the Church (via preparation and committment). For children, it means those who do not have parents or other adults who will raise them in the Faith.

What the author of this article needs to explain to those who come seeking baptism for their children when they themselves are not commited Christians, is that he is not somehow punishing them or being exclusive when he refuses to do so.  He needs to explain that the analogy would be that someone goes to a landscaper and asks to have planted in their yard numerous expensive plantings.  When the landscaper asks if the ground has been graded, and weeded, and ploughed up, and topsoil put on, so that it is ready for the plantings, no one would say “don’t worry about that…just be there on Wednesday and lay the plants on the ground.  Here’s the money.”  If they did, the landscaper would flatly refuse to take their money—or be highly unscrupulous if he did so without explaining that they were certainly wasting their money, his time, and a number of beautiful plants.  The landscaper has a responsibility to be sure that the plants have a chance to be planted in “good soil” before he proceeds.  A minister of the Gospel has a far greater responsibility to be sure that the soil is prepared for the grace of the sacrament of Baptism.

April 11, 3:58 pm | [comment link]
8. Ad Orientem wrote:

Just as a side note, I would surmise that Al Kimel’s views on Baptism have evolved somewhat since he wrote this.

April 11, 4:24 pm | [comment link]
9. driver8 wrote:

I loved the Pontificator’s old blog. It was the single place I discovered in which Anglo-Catholic Episcopalians, Continuing Anglicans, Catholics and Orthodox fruitfully dialogued. The Pontificator was a gracious and thoughtful host. I have never met Father Kimel but after all his restless searching I pray he has reached a safe harbor amongst the Orthodox.

April 11, 5:57 pm | [comment link]
10. Vatican Watcher wrote:

#10, is that where he ended up?  I don’t remember now.  It’s interesting that this is posted now given that I mentioned AK on my blog last month in a post reminiscing about blogs I used to read that are now defunct and I wondered what he was up to these days.

April 11, 6:59 pm | [comment link]
12. driver8 wrote:

I should say of all the blogs from the “old days” I most regret that the catholica.pontifications.net incarnation of Pontifications is not even available from the Wayback Machine. There were some wonderfully informed conversations that seem to have completely lost.

April 12, 2:44 am | [comment link]
13. Ad Orientem wrote:

Re # 12
I agree. Unless my memory has failed Fr. Al was pretty steamed with whoever was hosting his blog.  I think there were some issues beyond the technological sort there. But I was never privy to any details and it’s quite possible my memory may be faulty here.

April 12, 2:52 am | [comment link]
14. MichaelA wrote:

I think most reformed evangelical anglicans would agree very much with Catholic Mom’s post at #7, especially her practical comments.

There was a time when evangelical anglicans in Australia were declining baptism to unchurched parents, whereas now churches seem to use the request as an opportunity for evangelism.  Most parents (and yes, even grandparents) who seek baptism for a child are willing to listen to teaching and training as to why its done.

The worst thing that can happen is to baptise a child and the parents walk away thinking, “Thank goodness that’s done, now my child will go to heaven if they die”.  Not what Jesus taught, nor the early church.

April 12, 3:36 am | [comment link]
15. Brian from T19 wrote:

#4 Catholic Mom

I agree that this article is indeed about Open Baptism.  As I understand Communion of the Unbaptized, the term refers to the Eucharist.  Open Baptism is Baptism without a period of training/commitment.  I sent Kendall+ an e-mail to see if he means something else by ‘Communion of the Unbaptized,’ but as far as I know, the term refers to Holy Communion.

April 12, 6:18 am | [comment link]
16. Vatican Watcher wrote:

Driver8, thank you for the link in #11.  I just spent the last hour reading and skimming that thread.

April 12, 12:14 pm | [comment link]
17. Kendall Harmon wrote:

I apologize that I was insufficently clear…

My comment about “open baptism” was related to the way in which this practice and terminology gets conflated with the use of “open communion” which is taken to mean anyone can receive, i.e. you do not need to be baptized to receive communion.  In fact, in TEC, you will see the same two practices used in the same parish.  Thus, you do not need to be baptized (but you can if you wish with no preparation) and of course then the same goes for communion.

The problem is the terminology of “open Communion” actually applies to something else (usually and I think more helpfully) i.e. the practice of allowing any baptized Christian to receive Communion no matter what their specific background.  This is the current practice of Anglicans but as you know not of all Christian traditions, some of whom restrict communion to those in their own part of Christ’s flock.

If you used the term “open baptism” to refer to baptism without any foundation or preparation then you encourage the parallel use of “open communion” meaning communion under the same circumstances.

This is of course raises the question of how to refer to this specific practice about which Al Kimel is writing.  I would prefer baptism without preparation or some such but perhaps others could make similar suggestions.

April 12, 7:16 pm | [comment link]
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