Lesson 16: Electronic Separation (Online Baptism )

Yesterday I participated in an electronic baptismal service. At the appropriate time in my live-streamed worship, a recording of a baptism that had taken place the previous week was played. The father, mother, child, and godparents were gathered in the nave around the baptismal font. A retired pastor officiated from his home. The parents wanted him, because he had baptized one of them and presided at their marriage. He spoke his usual words, the father poured the water, the godmother lit the candle. The congregation participated by later watching the video and responding as I did with their usual words of welcome. Before continuing the service, the pastor leading the liturgy remarked with an appreciative grin, “Brave new world!”

I was really impressed. It worked. In fact, it worked better than many baptisms I have observed lately. The participants were not passive. Their actions demonstrated their intentions. You felt you were witnessing the priesthood of all believers in action, not some institutional ritual. The pastor had a significant but realistic role. He served more as an official witness than an authority figure. Much as in the marriage service, he represented the community, making sure things were done appropriately.

The action that raised the most questions in my mind was the father pouring the water over the child. My church has always recognized lay people can baptize in emergencies. For instance, a nurse when a baby’s life is threatened or a traveler when asked by a dying accident victim. Did the father baptize the child? The pastor? The community? Was it an emergency baptism because of the pandemic? Does this set a precedent?

These questions might not be unsettling if confined to the Sacrament of Baptism. However, if you ask similar ones in regard to electronic Communion meals, you are deep into controversy. Traditional churches have insisted you need an ordained priest to consecrate the elements of the Communion meal.

Does the priest at the altar electronically consecrate the elements in the worshipers’ home? Is this a Communion, because the priest is present electronically? Is it a genuine means of grace, because other church members are sharing the bread and wine at the same time? What if some participate via a video at a later time? What if a family or individual celebrates the meal without the electronic connection, i.e. without a priest participating at all?

One of my friends thinks asking such questions can easily lead to nonsense. Trying to define grace has constantly gotten the Church in trouble. He points out this usually ends up with priests defending their authority with some silly idea such as Jesus insisting all priests must be male and celibate. He believes it is time for the church to stop trying to control God’s grace.

Once again, the pandemic has brought to the surface an issue the society must now confront. Vatican II and Pope Francis are two of many voices that have recognized for some time the Church has entered a new period in which she must equip a priesthood of all believers. Now the need to use electronic media has raised the question of priestly authority in a new manner.

Perhaps the best way forward is not to get ahead of ourselves. Theology is a reflection on religious experience. The people’s hunger, not the institution’s theology, has led to electronic baptism and Communion meals. Everyone can see being bodily present for the sacraments offers a far more intimate and satisfactory experience. However, at this time we might be best served by simply accepting my two sons-in-law slightly different perspectives on these new electronic uses. One explained the introduction of an electronic Communion meal to his congregation as an extension of our understanding of God’s grace. The other referred to it as facilitating the practice of home communion during extraordinary times.

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  1. Fritz Foltz says:

    Scott brought up an interesting point when he asked if the father who poured the water also said the word, I baptize you…” He thought it would be most appropriate that way and it would qualify as as a baptism in an extraordinary situation.

    Actually in this case, the retired pastor spoke all the words from his home and the group assembled around the font performed all the actions. .It still worked for me, but this like online Communion is a work in progress.

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