My friend and colleague, Kevin Martin, achieves “Onion-esque” success at his blogspot with a satire that raises a serious question. What happens when we transplant liturgical acts and sacraments from sacred space to the public domain?
Baptismal Font Goes on the Move
Even though heavily endowed, Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Kelso, Ohio, a town just outside of Columbus is facing hard times. The Rector, an Assisting Priest, and a Deacon have only three remaining Church members. That is when the Reverend Alice Fairweather and her staff got an idea on how to reach out to others. At the beginning of Lent In 2012, the staff took to the streets of Kelso to offer ashes to anyone who wished them. “This January, as we prepared for the Sunday that remembers the baptism of Jesus, we realized we should do the same only this time with the baptismal font,” said the Rector Fairweather. “We removed the silver bowl lining from the stone font, blessed the water and headed downtown to our main intersection. We wanted to offer baptism to anyone who wanted it.”
The staff faced an immediate crisis because the temperature was so cold the water started to freeze. “That is when we headed to the Tri-Cities Mall,” said Art Dunning, the Deacon of the congregation. The group moved to the fountain inside the Mall’s rotunda and set up a sign declaring “Free Baptism for Anyone.” The group drew a crowd, but at first folks were reluctant to step forward. Finally Jimmy Dietsel, ”Moonshine” to his friends, a 17 year old son of lapsed Roman Catholics stepped forward and asked to be baptized if he could do it while standing on his skate board. “At first I thought it was some kind of joke,” laughed the heavily tattooed Dietsel, “but they even blessed the skateboard.” According to Jimmy, the experience was “cool.”
By the end of the day, nine people had stepped up and received baptism. Unusually, Margo Schwartz, a member of Beth-el Temple in Kelso, accepted the invitation. “I felt bad for the folks, all dressed up in their special clothes and all and no one coming forward,” Schwartz declared. So I asked myself, “What would Moses do? And I went right up to the fond.” Rev. Fairweather poured the water over Margo with the words “May the Holy One fill you with new life.”
“It was sweet,” said Margo, “but then Sparky started barking.” Sparky is Margo’s purse size Chihuahua. “So I asked if Sparky could be baptized too.” “Why not,” said Fairweather. “Sparky is one of God’s creation.” Sparky seemed to enjoy it all and after a few shakes of the head, ducked back inside Margo’s purse. Deacon Dunning explained that “We are a very welcoming and inclusive community and baptizing Sparky seemed like the right thing to do at that time. After all, many churches do animal blessings and there really isn’t much difference if you think about it.”
In the aftermath of the mobile baptism, there has been some controversy. The Rev. Harold Glummer, long time pastor of First Lutheran in Kelso said, “I think the whole thing was ridiculous. Maybe Grace Church should change its name to Cheap Grace Church.” This was a reference to an obscure 20th Century theologian. The Rev. Fairweather however was undaunted. In a later written statement she said, “There are and always have been reactionary people in the religious community that resist change. In the Episcopal Church, we had those who disliked our 79 Prayer Book, then women’s ordination, then same sex blessing. We can’t let such people stop us from doing what is right.” “Besides”, Fairweather added, “John the Baptist, and Jesus and his disciples didn’t sit around in churches and wait for people to come to them. They went out in the world and baptized anyone who wanted it.”
Some people questioned the appropriate use of Tri-Cities Mall, a secular retail center, as venue for the event. When asked, Joe Marshall, the Mall’s manager said, “At first we weren’t sure what to do, but then Rev. Fairweather pointed out that this was a spiritual act and not a religious one, so we let it go on. It really drew a crowd after a while and it seemed good for business.” Mr. Marshall did not say whether such events would be encouraged for the future.
The Rt. Rev. Sydney Atwater, Episcopal Bishop of Central Ohio, was asked his take on all this. In a statement released by his diocesan office, Bishop Atwater, who was attending a House of Bishop’s meeting in the South of France dealing with “God’s Mission and Global Hunger, was quoted as saying, “I commend the leadership of Grace Memorial for their creative action and I have called for a taskforce of key Diocesan leadership to study ways that this action of inclusiveness could be extended to other congregations.”
Although none of the nine people receiving baptism (nor Sparky) indicated any interest in attending services at Grace Memorial, all felt that the baptism was a good thing to do. Bishop Atwater also noted that, “Nine new baptized persons in one day was the largest number of baptism at one service in the Diocese since 1988. In addition, the baptized membership of Grace increased over 300% in one day. Now that is a story of a real miracle and is exactly the kind of mission activity that The Episcopal Church needs to rebuild our membership at a time when so many are disillusioned with the Church’s seemingly irrelevance to society,” Bishop Atwater’s concluded.
When I first read Kevin’s post, I confess that it took me a while to realize that it was a satire. I’ve become so accustomed to the gimmickry of modern church life that it struck me as the predictable next step in our flailing efforts to connect with the world. Of course that is also the story’s genius. Kevin pushes the boundary between the plausible and the implausible and he just hard enough to help us weigh where we are going and what we have already done in taking Lenten ashes to the street.
So, why not take ashes, the baptismal font, and the Eucharist to the street?
One, our failure to draw people into the life of the church has nothing to do with the way that we worship. What keeps The Episcopal Church from connecting with the world is self-satisfied classism; ice cold, clubby parishes; and an absence of deep, spiritually engaging preaching. Those are the problems that we need to tackle.
Two, taking the liturgy to the street without the context of a baptized, worshipping community, renders the liturgical acts meaningless, if not bizarre. Liturgy is not the work of the people. It is the work given to the people — by God — as the Body of Christ. From baptism to the funeral rite, the church’s liturgy is meant to initiate people into that Body and nurture them in the life of Christ. Take those acts out of context and they cease to mean what they were meant to mean. As a friend of mine observed, “Just think. The one symbol the church is taking to the street isn’t a symbol of reconciliation or resurrection. It’s the sign of our mortality, ‘momento mori, remember you will die.’ What are you supposed to do with that information in the absence of the rest of the message?”
And then there are the troubling, unintended consequences. Those who favor the practice argue that the Ashes to Go connects the church with the world. I doubt it. To be sure, there will be a person who occasionally says something endearing or appreciative. But when we dispense ashes or sacraments like a flyer or candy from a pez dispenser we aren’t saying, “Paying attention to God can change your life.” Instead we are saying, “You don’t need to stop, or slow down. You don’t need to give your spiritual life focused attention, and the shape of the redeemed life has nothing to do with the Body of Christ. Carry on, go to work. What we are handing out here is just a little something to send you on your way, which makes us feel just a little more relevant. We’ll see you at the mall.”
Which, of course, is where America already lives and worships.