Some time ago a friend explained to me that he had baptized his children at home. This was in the context of an Anglican church, so it wasn’t the baptism of children that was the surprising part. The surprising part was the ‘at-home’ part. I forget exactly why the family chose to do this—it had something to do with work schedules, children not behaving well in public, and a general frustration with the ‘institutional’ church. A parent baptizing a child at home was (and still is) welcomed by some churches in extreme situations, but in our own situation it’s helpful to think a bit about why carrying out practices like baptism or Communion at home is not generally a good idea.
The situation of the home baptism came to mind for me after a recent conversation with some of the leaders of the church I pastor here in Ottawa. For us, the question was whether or not we should try to find a way to lead our congregation in the celebration of Communion online. Alternately, should we encourage households to celebrate Communion themselves since we can’t do so as a whole church?
With the caveat that the teams I work with may well have a better sense of what’s needed in this situation than I do, my response is to say that baptism and communion are practices of the whole, embodied and gathered church. I hope that all the households represented in our congregation are finding ways to worship and pray together. However, I do not think we should start serving Communion or practicing baptism in these settings.
In some Christian communities the reason for not doing these things at home or not doing them virtually would be the fact that they aren’t ‘legitimate’ without the direct involvement of a pastor or priest. That’s not the issue for Anabaptists. However, that line of thinking does point to something important. Communion and baptism are led by a pastor because in that capacity a pastor represents the church as a whole. There is nothing magical about a pastor’s involvement. The issue is that these practices are practices of the church not the family. They represent a solidarity that crosses family lines. They represent the new community instituted by Jesus, which is not built with blocks of nuclear families.
In not celebrating Communion on our own or baptizing our own children, we affirm the reality of the church as an actual community that matters. In resisting the temptation to make these central church practices easier or more convenient, we affirm that the actual embodied character of the church is irreplaceable. Baptism and Communion outside that context is just an awkward washing and a bad snack.
If we reduce baptism to a family ritual or turn Communion into something we can celebrate without actually sharing bread and wine, we inadvertently deny the significance of the community of faith. If we decide to privatize these practices we contribute to the irrelevance of the real, embodied church. If either practice becomes something we do virtually, we extend the growing distance between ourselves and the natural world.
Now, with all that said, I will reiterate the pastoral caveat that decisions about how to practice communion and baptism in strange circumstance like our own are ultimately ones that requires local wisdom. In some situations there may well be needs that outweigh the values and concerns I mention here—that is, as always, a matter of pastoral judgment.