Monday, May 4, 2015

Baptism Under Fire in Central Florida

This is a story of church done wrong.
I was casually cruising through Facebook posts yesterday afternoon when I stopped to read a lengthy tale of baby Jack and his two dads, Rich and Eric, and their experience of looking for a spiritual home where they could have their son baptized and raise him in a faith community.  The couple has been together for 15 years and married a few years back in New York and then returned to their Orlando home. 
Rich McCaffrey shared what happened to them:
Being a gay couple, we knew we wanted to be part of a community that would be open to and respectful of our family. After some research, Eric and I felt the Episcopal Church would offer similarities to what we knew of the church growing up, and it could serve as a place in which we could grow spiritually as a family. We began attending the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Orlando and quickly felt at home. We spent time discussing our desire to baptize Jack with the Dean, Anthony Clark. We were open with him about our family and that we wanted the focus to be placed, where it should, on Jack. The Dean was welcoming and open about the congregation, explaining it was a mix of conservative- and liberal-minded people. He agreed to Jack’s baptism, and recommended we opt for the later 6 p.m. service, since those who worship at that time tend to be the most “open.”
We chose Sunday, April 19 for the baptism. We attended Sunday services and recommended classes, becoming more familiar and pleased with our choice. We invited friends and family, both local and from out of town, and we looked forward to celebrating with Jack on what was to be an important day. On Thursday, April 16 we received a message from Dean Clark asking us to contact him regarding “a development” concerning the baptism. With relatives in the room, I called and what I heard still creates a lump in my throat. The Dean shared there were members of the congregation who opposed Jack’s baptism and although he hoped to resolve the conflict, he was not yet able to (the Bishop of Central Florida, Greg Brewer, was also involved). After probing further the Dean said “the issue is with you and Eric being the first two men who will baptize their child at the Cathedral.” He offered his apologies and further explained this was a bigger deal because of the exposure that comes along with the baptism taking place at the Cathedral. In essence “this is not no forever, just not now.” Three days before our son was to be baptized he was turned away. At that moment, he was unwelcomed by the church, and denied his rite to be recognized as a Christian. I was speechless, angry, and heartbroken.
Jack’s baptism turned out to be the very opposite of what it should have been. It became about Jack having two dads, rather than a community opening its arms to a joyful little soul, one of God’s children.
How many sins can one see in this story?
Let's start with the main one. As Rich himself noted, the one being baptized and celebrated is their son, Jack, not Jack's two dads. There is no reason, zero, zip, nada, to deny a baby the sacrament of baptism. This is about the child's membership in the Body of Christ, the marking and sealing as one of Christ's own forever. 
Then there's the idea that the Dean is capitulating to pressure from "some members of the congregation" because the couple is gay and the cathedral would allow a gay couple to bring a child forth for baptism is a "thing." The whole, "Well, let's do it at the 6pm service because they tend to be more open" is also disturbing. I understand why, but does it not feel a little like how Nicodemus felt most comfortable speaking to Jesus "at night" when, presumably, nobody would notice? I'm sure the 6pm service isn't the main one for the day, and probably no other for people who might attend that service regularly... have been instructed to do the baptism at that time, so as to not ruffle any feathers. Just that type of negotiation would have made me think, "Hmmmmmm...."
And then to cancel a baptism? I can understand if there's a family member or other honored guest who can't make it and the parents decide it can't be done until later. But to cancel it because some unnamed members of the cathedral complained? 
The irony of all of this is that one of the readings used for the Fifth Sunday of Easter this year was the lovely story from Acts where the apostle Philip finds himself in the company of an Ethiopian eunuch who is studying Scripture. Philip is delighted and the eunuch is eager to learn and understand what he is reading, and Phillip teaches him. And then the men see a body of water and the eunuch turns to Philip and says, "Look, here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?" And indeed, nothing stopped him and Philip baptized the eunuch into the budding Christian faith. Now, can you imagine if Philip had said to the eunuch, "I'm sorry, but there's been a development and because you are too different from me, I can't possibly baptize you"? Wouldn't do much for that whole mission to bring the Good News to the world, would it?
As this story has been gaining speed on the internet, the diocese of Central Florida, long known to the LGBTQ+ community of this state as a big Black Hole that is barely remaining Episcopal, has been saying that this has all been a "misunderstanding." Bishop Greg Brewer says he had only become aware of this issue when the Facebook post went out yesterday (odd since it seems that he was included in the initial consult that led to this "misunderstanding.") I saw where Bishop Brewer posted on a friend's re-post of the Episcopal Cafe article on this debacle. The bishop appreciated seeing the article and noted "this is difficult to work out without throwing somebody under the bus." 
Well, I'd say that Rich and Eric and Baby Jack have already been thrown under the bus!
I have a way for this to work out: the dean and the bishop apologize for having dissed this family so badly, and they ask the parents of Jack for forgiveness. And then they schedule the baptism, and they sprinkle water on Jack's forehead in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Perhaps they also move more deliberately through the Baptismal Covenant.  Have the Dean and the Bishop really take in with the congregation of the cathedral what it means to affirm their belief in a Triune God, and commit to a life in Christ as a community, going so far as to seek and serve Christ in others, loving their neighbor as themselves and respecting the dignity of every human being.
They can do it...with God's help.


Anonymous said...

One other thing the parents should request (along with the clergy's request for forgiveness):

the baptism should not only take place in the church, but at the Main Service, not at some "cocktail hour." Further, it should be publicized, showing the happy parents with their beautiful child.

Otherwise, I'd find a new church home--and this time, a Christian one.

SCG said...

I totally agree, Anonymous. And BTW, please feel free to sign a name at the bottom of your anonymous post next time. Thanks!