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Topics of interest to Clerks of Session, Session Moderators and others who are interested in Presbyterian local-church governance.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Do Presbyterians Dedicate Infants?

I was recently asked about whether it's wise for Sessions to offer parents the option of "dedicating" their infants in worship, deferring baptism until the time when the children are ready to make their own profession of faith. Here are a few thoughts in response.

1. There is no such thing as "Infant Baptism" or "Adult Baptism" in the Book of Order. There is simply "Baptism." In W-2.3008 ("One Baptism": Its Meanings) are found these words: "Baptism, whether administered to those who profess their faith or to those presented for Baptism as children, is one and the same Sacrament." That means a worship bulletin should never read, "The Sacrament of Infant Baptism," but simply, "The Sacrament of Baptism."

2. W-2.3007 declares: "Children of believers are to be baptized without undue delay, but without undue haste." Sessions considering the wisdom of offering an infant dedication rite as a regular alternative to baptizing infants ought to ask themselves how delaying a child's Baptism a dozen years or so is not "undue delay." I can think of a few cases in which it may be prudential to delay baptism until the time of a child's profession of faith - for example, in the case of a family in which one parent is Presbyterian and the other Baptist - but these are rare exceptions. In such a case, it may make sense to offer a special prayer for the infant and the parents during a worship service, making it clear to the congregation that this is a way of honoring both traditions within that particular family.

3. Nowhere in the Directory for Worship is there mention of the dedication of unbaptized children. True, it's not prohibited, but considering how the Directory goes out of the way to mention every other conceivable liturgical observance, the omission is noteworthy. It's not as though parents are offered two choices, as on a menu, and it makes little difference which one is selected. On the contrary, the preponderance of material in the Book of Order dealing with the Baptism of infants indicates that this is the normal practice. This is clearly seen in W-2.3007, which states: "Baptism calls for decision at every subsequent stage of life's way, both for those whose Baptism attends their profession of faith and for those who are nurtured from childhood within the family of faith." The assumption here - while not explicitly stated - is that those for whom "Baptism attends their profession of faith" were not "nurtured from childhood within the family of faith."

4. Unbaptized children are not members of the church. Although we may sometimes hear Presbyterians describing confirmands' profession of faith as the occasion of their "joining the church," that's sloppy language that doesn't take account of the fact that our churches keep a Roll of Baptized MEMBERS" (G-5.0301). Why would parents want to receive the benefits of membership for themselves but not offer those benefits to their infant children?

5. If parents elect to delay their child's baptism, their child is not invited to receive the Lord's Supper (W-2.4011). While it's true that few ministers, seeing an unbaptized child approaching the Lord's Table, would turn that child away, that doesn't alter the fact that they are not included in the invitation to partake. There have been several overtures to the General Assembly in recent years to amend this section so as not to limit the invitation to the baptized, but they have failed to get through the Assembly.

Bottom line? All things being equal, Presbyterians consider it the norm to baptize children of church members when they are young, without "undue delay," and Sessions ought to encourage this practice.

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