It’s all very warm, cute, cuddly and moving. Grandmas and grandpas, uncles and aunts have all gathered. The pastor holds the infant in the manner of a priest; the baby wears what looks like a wedding dress, its long skirts flowing down to the floor. Camera flash bulbs resemble a friendly lightning storm. It’s baby dedication Sunday at Anywhere MB Church. Is this all good?
In the 16th century, Menno Simons, rebel priest and radically subversive church reformer, and others like him quietly administered re-baptism to self-declared followers of Jesus. These followers had already been baptized as infants by their local priests.
Menno and his colleagues were aware that they were unleashing a whole new movement, called Anabaptism, somewhat related to but very distinct from Lutheranism. Did they also consider that they were robbing parents in subsequent generations of the blessed joy of seeing their infants baptized? Ever since, we Mennonites/Anabaptists have struggled to find a way to be true to Menno Simons’s revised understanding of the place and meaning of baptism in the life of the church and honour those who were persecuted and murdered for their radical, courageous, spiritual-political act of believer’s baptism and yet respond to what seems to be a deep, deep, nearly inherent and ingrained desire on the part of parents to somehow anoint their children with a spiritually significant public rite early in life? Well into the modern era, believers’ churches finally found a way, and baby dedication was instituted in many of our churches.
While water-in any amount-is missing, nearly everything else of the old Catholic rite is present. The pastor often teaches the parents that this is not a sacrament (a religious rite that carries within itself a measure of positive spiritual grace, a ceremony that will somehow magically transform the child). The pastor asserts that this is really about the parents dedicating themselves to raise the child in “the nurture of the Lord”, and about the whole community actively accepting that “it takes a village” to raise a child.
Nevertheless I, a pastor of nearly 20 years standing, still hear parents chatting in the nurseries and the foyers of our churches that their children are “done” or “not done”, and I hear grandparents expressing relief that the event has finally occurred. It makes me wonder whether there is a lurking perception for some of us that our child dedication ceremonies carry at least a tiny guarantee that the child is on the way to being saved by this event.
I fear that our baby dedications are too much, too often-despite our carefully worded pronouncements-poorly disguised infant baptisms. I think that we are still significantly pre-Reformation on the issue of infant rites in our denominational practice of child dedication, and I fear that we might be just a little spiritually superstitious yet.
We are still toying at the edges of sacramentalism, something we have so often said we don’t do anymore. I would suggest that we revisit why we broke with infant baptism in the first place and re-explore the biblical theology behind that decision (or, if we can’t do that, return to infant baptism, declaring it a religious celebration of God’s marvellous grace in our family life for which we can find no clear biblical basis).
While we are discussing this, however, we should more carefully conduct our child dedication services so that they don’t look like something that we say they aren’t infant baptism.
Dan Unrau is senior pastor of Fraserview MB Church in Richmond, B.C.