Bill Long 2/1/09
A Call Whose Time Has Come
While struggling desperately, and ultimately unsuccessfully, against boredom in worship at my local Episcopal church, I decided to thumb though the Book of Common Prayer. The "action" going on at the time in the service was a baptism. Just about the time that the family decided solemnly to renounce Satan on behalf of their mischievous-looking boy, my mind fell upon another kind of baptism apparently permitted by the Episcopal Church: Emergency Baptism. I was immediately engaged because it said that it could be performed by anyone who was already baptized (I fit that bill). Here are the words from the BCP.
"In case of emergency, any baptized person may admininster Baptism according to the following form."
I scanned the page and surrounding pages, looking in vain for instructions on what constituted an "emergency." I felt for sure that the concept was defined somewhere but, since the BCP gave no insight as to what it meant, I decided that it reasonably should be interpreted according to the context in which the words appear. After all, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas would have to "Amen" me for that.
The problem is that there are no contextual clues as to what the word means. So, I have to go deeper and broader. The Episcopalians didn't invent this concept. In fact, they have invented hardly any theological or liturgical concept. The traditions from which they borrowed the practice have a pretty tight, or limited, interpretation of emergency--where a person is facing imminent death through illness or accident. But, since American Episcopalians are notoriously lax in interpreting almost anything or, more charitably said, they liberally use the concept of individual freedom as the hermeneutical touchstone of truth, I as interpreter should be able to interpret "emergency" as I see fit. Thus, as we say in law, the concept of "emergency" has a subjective dimension to it.
So, armed with that concept, I began to imagine the types of situations where I might be useful in performing emergecy baptisms. I don't often come across people breathing their last. If I felt, then, that I was called to the ministry of Emergency Baptism, I should at least have someone to baptize. Perhaps I could specialize in baptisms after fender-benders or after especially vitriolic exchanges between academics over almost nothing (indeed, most disputes are often over almost nothing--as the stakes get smaller, the decibels go higher). Maybe I could wade into playground rows between children, deftly performing baptisms before they knew it. In fact, in the current climate of bad blood between Mormons and Jews, where the former want to baptize the latter's dead relatives in their secret services, maybe I can sneak in and baptize the Mormons before they baptize the dead Jews. The possibilities for using this special ministry are numerous; only our imaginations limit the possibilities. But how, indeed, is it to be administered?
The Administration of Emergency Baptism
If, then, you liberally interpret the idea of "Emergency Baptism," you are ready to preform it. But how actually do you do it? The BCP gives spare advice:
"Using the given name of the one to be baptized (if known), pour water on him or her, saying..."
Now we have to stop here for a moment to reflect. We want to use the name of the person, to be sure. We don't want to confuse God, nor do we want just to dispense emergency baptism without a personal touch. But what about if you come upon a car accident, the person you feel called to baptize is unconscious, and his friend at the scene calls him "Yo Bo" or something like that. Can you go forward? Well, our advice tells us that we ought to use the "given name" of the one to be baptized, if it is ascertainable. "Yo Bo" is probably not the given name. So, we are in a bit of a quandary here, since we don't know if we should go ahead and say, "Yo Bo, I baptize you..." Should we rifle through his pockets to find a driver's license so that we might know his "given name?" Should we take his cell phone, call one of the people on his list, tell them that "Yo Bo" has had a little accident and, before we can administer Emergency Baptism we must have his given name? That surely would evoke the most anguished responses on the other end of the line. "You want to do what to Yo Bo? How bad is he, anyway? You say you are going to put your hands on Yo Bo? Pour water on him??" I can see how my good intentions at trying to fulfill the words in the BCP may end up causing a good deal of upheaval.
So, we see how there can be problems here, and it might just be best liberally to interpret that parenthetical thought ("if known") by assuming that, in general, we won't know the guy's name and really are under no duty to try to discover it. Phew. Then, we can proceed with the baptism. But another potential problem arises. We have to pour water on the guy. Well, many people carry a flask around with them containing something liquid, but this means that one called to the ministry of Emergency Baptism must carry around a flask also--of water. We must always be prepared with the water because there is no saying that if you have to break up a playground fight people will wait around to be baptized while you run to the nearest water fountain to fill your flask.
Maybe that is what the world needs now--not just a "fix" to the financial mess caused largely in the United States and which is seeping inexorably into every corner of the world, but a baptismal fix. We could come into any situation in life, sanctify it with Emergency Baptism and set the world on a course of correction. It would probably do a lot more good than the men in the suits who keep lecturing us about subprime meltdowns.