Some years ago, our Governing Body was tasked with identifying our mission and values as we were simultaneously looking at our dated bylaws. What is it that we believe and how will practice it? The third question of an emergent community was the one that we had wrongly assumed came pre-answered. Who are we?
The question crept in with a question of practice; do members need to be baptized? In an era where essentially all children are baptized into one house of Christendom or another, the question of whether to require baptism seemed largely irrelevant. The question that our parents’ church faced was whether to recognize baptisms from other communions, with few exceptions, new members came pre-baptized. But more and more, our new members are not “pre-baptized” and adult baptism, in a tradition practicing infant baptism, is not always comfortable. The offering of baptism is a no brainer, but the requirement implied in our bylaws suggested an assumed identity that was no longer universal in our community.
The question of adult baptism in a tradition that practices infant baptism was for me a personal one. Born in 1962, I was neither baptized as an infant nor raised in a church that practiced believer baptism. I was un-churched in an era where that made me an odd duck. Coming into adult church and seeking membership, baptism was a hurdle. I was seeking membership in a mainline denomination, having theologically pilgrimmaged out of fundamentalism. Although churches were and are more than happy to share baptism with adults, I did not find the invitation of public submission before a priest to be empowering. For years, in fact, I opted out. But in opting out, I was not welcome in membership or (in some communions) at the table. At what point is does humility become humiliation? And at what point does avoiding humiliation require humility? Personal power, agency, is one key to that distinction. When I was able to identify a pastor/priest with whom I could feel comfortable kneeling, I chose to be baptized and indeed found it a life altering and affirming experience. Even to this day, however, I feel discomfort with the forced choice and also with the inequity that, by virtue of parental religious preference, this was not a shared experience. Choice is an important key and it was missing.
Fast forward two decades and the issue had emerged with new members in our faith community, some of whom had never been baptized and did not choose to now engage in that sacrament. Is it necessary? Is baptism part of our identity? In what ways would a change in practice reflect a change in beliefs and, more fundamentally, a change in our identity?
After some polite posturing at the Governing Body table, the leadership team dared to move the discussion to a personal plane and began to name their own diverse belief systems. Hearing the diversity in the expressions around the room, a shared passion emerged that whatever mission statement we adopt be inclusive of theological diversity and even religious identity. Statements and practices which signified an in/out or us/them were carefully avoided in favor of a table increasing diversity.
What then shall we say about Jesus? The conversation was heartfelt as words and phrases were offered and parsed. Finally words came together that described us: “Following the God made known in the life and teachings of Jesus, we gather as an Open and Affirming community to worship, learn, and serve.” This then is a statement of our believing and of our intent to practice. But what is our identity?
I wonder at the significance of the central phrase, “we gather as an open and affirming community”. This is of course about our statement of inclusivity regarding sexual orientation, but it is so much more than that. In the struggle to make the Open and Affirming statement, now nearly a decade ago, we found that our coming together in community was more important than we ever could have imagined. Our statement wasn’t about buildings or denominations or even about religion; it was in fact as step away from institutional identity of any kind. Our statement was about our commitments to one another to embrace the fullness of whatever humanity we brought to the table. Gathered together at the table, we believed we would discover our identity.
Because our commitment was to embrace the fullness of whatever humanity emerged, this commitment itself becomes central to our identity. Who we are is a people committed to discovering God in one another, what we believe is that Jesus’ life and teachings illumine our path, what we practice is worship, learning, and service. Simply put, we believe Jesus about God as we welcome one another… and we agree to disagree about all the rest.
Ours, at the Other Evangelical, is the is the essence of an emerging Christian community. And it is good, very.