After my ruminations last time about the dangers of becoming a state church, we were faced with a situation this morning regarding just those sorts of issues. I imagine this is going to open a can worms with some of my Baptist readers, so hang on. A woman and a child had scheduled an appointment to see Father John. The potential godparents to be also showed up. We learned subsequently the woman was the grandmother and guardian of this 4 year old girl. They were both from Phoenix, apparently up for the big Rosebud powwow this weekend. The grandmother, interestingly a niece of a former bishop of this diocese, wanted to have the grandchild baptized.
We tried to explain that current diocesan policy frowns but does not prohibit private baptisms. We ultimately did the baptism, but Father John told me afterward he almost refused because there was a strong possibly that this was a "drive-by baptism" and the people involved were likely to walk out the church door and not be back for years or possibly never return.
Personally, I did not have a real problem with it because I have a fairly high sacramental theology. I don't think I would ever refuse a sacrament like baptism unless someone was obviously being forced against their will. Especially in this cultural context of a minority group that has historically gotten the shaft and has historically had low self-esteem as a people, my major fear in turning down the request in this context would be that such a refusal would be seen as us saying, "you are not good enough even for us to baptize."
I say this because the Catholic church here has been trying to make it a policy that sacraments, especially funerals, will only be given to active church members. I have had people here tell me this was interpreted by the community as "you're not good enough for us." In a place where there are huge extended families like the Reservation, this policy has gone over like the proverbial lead balloon. In fact, its been largely a publicity nightmare for the Roman clergy here. Though no one has come out and said it, I suspect some Lakota are even seeing a racist intent here.
On the one hand, I guess I am arguing that private baptism is okay in this context on the grounds of pastoral sensitivity. I feared that if we had refused, they may have walked out the church door and intentionally never returned, believing that the even the church had no use for Native people. The Church just doesn't need that kind of press in an area where there is hostility in some quarters to "white man religion."
On the other hand, I think the occasion presented a grand opportunity for one-on-one teaching that would not have occurred in a traditional Sunday mass. In fact, as a baptism gift aside from the usual certificate, pin, and such, Father John pulled out a copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Interestingly, two of the godparents asked if they could have a copy as well. Luckily, Father John was able to oblige because he uses that novel as an evangelism tool and keeps a stockpile of them. I had never considered doing that, but we had a really great discussion about that novel's allegory and Father John tied it in to the meaning of baptism that I think really struck home. I am convinced if we had declined to do that baptism, that conversation would never have occurred.
At least from the Anglican understanding of baptism, baptism is community based. I know this smacks of the role played by a state church, but even in a private baptism, the godparents take vows to bring the child up in a Christian home. Even though we might not ever see that family again, at least we were there as an affirming presence of Christ's love. If they walk out and never come back, we did what we could do. We can pray for them, but the theological ball is in their court, so to speak.
Note to self...I apparently have gone over to the dark side and become Anglo-catholic because I just tried to to defend being a sacramentalist.