In the COVID lockdown, should churches perform baptisms, and how?

In the COVID lockdown, should churches perform baptisms, and how? May 21, 2020

THE QUESTION:

With lockdowns in place, should U.S. churches do baptisms, and how?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

American religious congregations are implementing all sorts of accommodations during the COVID-19 crisis. Most are streaming services online to replace in-person worship till reopening is allowed. Under these conditions, many Protestant groups are allowing viewers to take Communion remotely by themselves at home during streamed services, which is not feasible for Catholic Mass.

Catholic priest Tim Pelc of St. Ambrose Church in Grosse Pointe Park, Michigan, even administered holy water via a squirt gun through car windows! And speaking of water —

Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Fayetteville, Ark., affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, follows the ancient custom of baptizing new members as part of the Easter Eve vigil. This year’s annual observance could not occur due to COVID. Now Pastor Clint Schnekloth is preparing to conduct the postponed baptisms during a live-streamed service, most likely on Pentecost Sunday, May 31. He hopes the video feed can allow close-ups of participants so members of the local congregation, and family and friends who live elsewhere, can “feel as if they are there.”

But how do we keep “safe” and honor the need for “social distancing,”  Schnekloth  wondered. He shared his thinking in a blog post for patheos.com. The first aspect to consider is that while some churches practice full immersion of the body (see below), Lutherans are among those who baptize infants or adult converts by pouring water three times over the candidate’s head. This occurs while pronouncing the triune names of the divine Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in accord with Jesus’ “great commission” in Matthew 28:19.

Schnekloth figures the only people allowed in the church building will be the pastor, those to be baptized, and minimum participants, all  carefully spaced throughout the sanctuary. Each candidate in turn will come forward with the parents and any godparents to receive the sacrament at the font of water. After a baptism, the pastor will thoroughly wash his hands before the next one.

To be extra careful, the pastor and others may wear masks throughout, and perhaps  a family member will conduct the actual baptism while the pastor stands apart. Non-clergy in many church bodies are allowed to conduct baptisms in emergency situations, normally for a hospitalized newborn in danger of death, and COVID certainly counts as an emergency.

Whatever, Schnekloth intends “to keep the total service brief, since we know a big part of staying healthy right now is related to the amount of time you’re in the same space.”  All of that seems quite feasible for Catholicism and those Protestant denominations like Lutheranism that administer the sacrament by pouring.

What, then, about full immersion, which is practiced by Baptist and many other churches that practice “believer’s baptism” and rule out baptism of infants? Their candidates must have reached the “age of reason” so they are able to personally profess their faith in Jesus Christ at baptism.

In immersion, a minister closely holds the candidate, who is lowered under the water and then lifted up. This typically occurs in a baptistry pool in the church building. However, certain groups will only conduct baptism in a river (to replicate Jesus’ own baptism by John), or may use a pond, lake, or ocean. Home baptisms in swimming pools or bathtubs also occur.

With immersion, even if witnesses maintain careful distance the minister and baptism candidate cannot, so there is inevitable risk even if they wear masks and practice careful hygiene so currently, immersion baptisms are rare.  One news report from Rome said a Baptist missionary proceeded with the planned baptism of a boy at home on Sunday, March 8, though Italy’s government the day before announced lockdown measures and the sponsoring church cancelled its in-person worship that Sunday.

America’s Southern Baptist Convention had urged congregations to celebrate baptisms on Easter 2020 until COVID disrupted the plan. Now the SBC’s North Carolina unit is recommending that congregations plan to hold delayed Easter services whenever in-person worship can resume and include the delayed baptisms at that time.

Though the theology is different, Baptists may be surprised to learn that immersion is allowed in the Catholic Church, though rarely practiced. Its Catechism teaches that the New Testament word for baptize means “plunge” or “immerse,” which symbolizes the candidate’s “burial into Christ’s death, from which he rises up by resurrection with him as ‘a new creature.’ ”  The catechism continues that “baptism is performed in the most expressive way by triple immersion in the baptismal water. However, from ancient times it has also been able to be conferred by pouring the water three times over the candidate’s head.”

In Eastern Orthodox churches and Catholicism’s similar “Eastern Rites,” infants are baptized not by pouring but by immersion in a font three times. (This is followed immediately by the sacrament of Chrismation where the gift of the Holy Spirit is bestowed, and then the child’s first Communion consisting of bread crumbs in a spoonful of wine.) With adult coverts, Orthodox churches immerse, using various means.

Incidentally, two distinct groups in the Christian tradition do not baptize new members of whatever age. The Friends (“Quakers”) and Salvation Army both believe baptism is not necessary for salvation and that reliance on external rituals might hinder authentic faith.

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