James Flahive’s baptism in East Gippsland’s Johnsonville Uniting Church was very much a homecoming for his father Andrew, who grew up attending the small church and married James’ mother Elaine there eight years previously.
“During the service I was reflecting on other events held at the church like our wedding,” Andrew said.
“Even seeing some of the artwork on the walls of the church that my sister and I did 30 years ago brought back memories.”
While Andrew’s parents Peter and Wendy still attend Johnsonville, Andrew and Elaine live in Queanbeyan just outside Canberra. They normally attend the Uniting Church there, where their first son Dennis was baptised.
However, last Christmas the extended family, including Andrew’s sister who lives overseas, gathered in Johnsonville and Andrew and Elaine decided it was the opportune time to baptise James.
The family only met with Rev Kharis Susilowati to discuss baptism a bit over a week before the service.
“Perhaps the baptism preparation was a little rushed but we’d definitely been thinking about it for some time,” Andrew said.
‘We were patient and God presented the perfect opportunity for us. It would have also been nice to have the baptism in Queanbeyan but I’m glad we were able to share it with our extended family in Johnsonville.”
Andrew also decided to hold the baptism at Johnsonville to support the church, which has not seen such a service for many years and normally hosts only a small contingent of regular attendees.
“I guess there was a feeling of cautious awareness of the fragile membership of the Johnsonville Church,” Andrew said.
“Could this be the last ‘major’ event at the church as there are only a few people who live more than 20km away keeping the church viable?”
In the Christian tradition, baptism is a powerful signifier of new life and the promises of God for both adults coming new to the faith and infants.
For the Banyule Network of Uniting Churches in Melbourne’s north-east, baptisms are becoming a regular feature of the new expression of worship known as Messy Church.
“Messy Church is church, so it has communion and baptism just like any other church,” Banyule Network minister Rev Sandy Brodine said.
Five baptisms have taken place during three years of Banyule monthly Messy Church meetings and other participant families have conducted baptisms during regular Sunday services.
Sandy said in keeping with the family orientation of Messy Church she makes sure all ages are engaged with baptism.
“I always make sure the kids know what is going on,” she said.
“There’s a thing called Godly Play and there’s a Godly Play baptism story that explains what’s happening.When we do baptism we have the kids sitting on the floor at the front, straight after they’ve been through the story of baptism so they understand what it is.
“We might also blow bubbles as we walk around the congregation as a sign of the Holy Spirit. Or children might do a dance.”
Sandy said that for family members attending for baptism who are only familiar with the traditional forms of worship this can be a revelation.
“They come and they really enjoy it. They’re often astonished that they have had such a wonderful time,” Sandy said.
“I had one particular grandfather who had been alienated from the Catholic church as a younger man and he came up to me at the end of the service in tears.
“He said ‘I never expected being able to see my grandchildren enjoying church and growing up as part of a church community and it’s just so wonderful to see them running around and enjoying it, being engaged in it’.”
Sandy said the communal aspect of baptism was vital.
“The most important thing for me about a Messy Church baptism is that the child is being baptised into a community where they will grow up and be nurtured in the faith,” she said.
“They’re not just having their kid done as something that grandma thinks is a good idea. It’s very different to that.
“For me it’s really important that the family wants something to do with the life of faith – because they’ve got to make promises – and we make promises too as a community that we are going to help this child be nurtured in the faith.
“The nice thing I can say is that with every child I have baptised since I’ve been in the Banyule Network I still have a relationship with the family.”
Sandy said that even if Messy Church is a non-traditional way of worship, baptism is treated with due reverence and the liturgy is a standard one contained in Uniting in Worship 2.
“The words I say at Messy Church baptism are exactly the same as the words I would say on Sunday morning. I don’t simplify that,” she said.
Rev Peter Gador Whyte, who is part of an Assembly working group on worship, said he believed it is essential to ground baptism, which along with communion is a sacrament of the Uniting Church, in this deeper theological understanding.
“Baptism is seen to be the way we enter into the life of the church,” he said.
“There are a lot of people in the church who don’t understand baptism; it’s just a rite that we do.”
Peter said he believed that baptism had to some extent fallen victim to trends of theological thought.
“In the 1950s and 60s there was what is called the ‘God is Dead’ period in theology. I think it was a very arid period of liberal theology,” he said.
“That stream of theology is not really into sacraments, it tries to demythologise everything.
“What has happened for some people who got into that is they realised it was dead end and they became neo-orthodox, almost went the other way.
“So, I think, there is a real need for people to recover a depth of what baptism is all about. If we do that we’d be a stronger church.”
Peter said that in early church times preparation for baptism was extensive and essential, especially when there was fear of persecution.
During what was then the eight weeks of Lent, baptismal candidates prepared for at least two hours a day with Bible study in the morning and an evening spent with the bishop learning the creed and prayers.
“We really need to prepare people well so they can enter more fully into the life of the church,” Peter said.
“It’s what some people call getting onto the veranda of the church.”
Peter, who is minister at St John’s Essendon Uniting Church, recounts the story of a woman who asked him if she could get baptised on a Sunday afternoon when no would be around.
He asked if she would undergo what he calls a process of preparation.
“I’ve run it with several people now and it’s where the whole congregation is involved,” he said.
“Every time I’ve done it people have said ‘Wow, gee if we did that more often the church would really come alive’.”
Peter invited the woman to make a covenant to attend church and grow her faith alongside a mentor, one of the church elders.
The congregation made a covenant to pray for her and they did so when she came forward during subsequent Sunday services.
The woman was also presented with gifts.
“One Sunday it was a hymn book because that is part of the treasury of the church, another Sunday we gave her a creed, again one of the treasures of the church, then the Lord’s Prayer and so on,” Peter said.
Peter also arranged weekly one-hour meetings with the woman and her mentor for Bible study and other teachings.
Sometimes those sessions stretched to two and a half hours.
Peter eventually talked to the woman again about baptism.
She replied that “when I get baptised I want to invite the whole church and have a party”.
Peter says it is also important to equip parents with an understanding of baptism.
The 2005 UCA Assembly paper How do we understand Baptism? asks what should be done about babies who are baptised and then never seen at church again. The paper suggests that problems arise when parents say that they intend to work with the congregation in nurturing the child in the faith and then fail to do so. Peter said this makes it difficult or impossible for congregations to fulfil their responsibility.
“This is a genuine pastoral issue, which many ministers and church councils continue to wrestle,” he said.
While in the UK, Peter saw some innovative approaches to preparing families for baptism.
He recommended the book We Welcome You: Baptism Preparation with Families by Jacqui Hyde.
“I think it’s a really excellent resource for the church,” he said.
Later this year Peter will be teaching a course in Parkville on the Starting Rite program developed by Jenny Paddison.
Peter said Starting Rite was similar to a playgroup for parents and babies but with the aim of nurturing the Christian message in a multi-sensory fashion, often on the floor and with songs.
“It’s become quite a big thing in the UK. It’s been very effective in getting people to that point of wonder and mystery at the birth of their child and saying ‘here’s a wonderful opportunity for you to grow in your faith and teach your child about the faith,” Peter said.
“It’s very gentle but it’s also giving young parents some clear teaching about God, the mystery of God.”
While the program does not necessarily lead to baptism, it can be used as preparation.
Murrumbeena Uniting Church minister Jay Robinson faced something of a challenge when she was asked to baptise a mother from India and her young daughter.
“The mother wanted to be fully immersed because it was very culturally connected with what they do in India,” Ms Robinson said.
The problem was that the church in Melbourne’s south-east did not have a font for full immersion.
However, a solution was found in the shape of a portable pool from Clark Rubber.
The pool was set up in the church and filled almost to brim with a hose on Saturday.
“On Sunday morning I made sure it was topped up with every ounce of hot water it could take,” Jay said.
“Having conducted baptisms in Western Port bay I know how chilly it can be.”
As is traditionally fitting, the baptisms took place on Easter Sunday at the end of what Jay called a “very blessed Holy Week”.
“It was a wonderful vibe to baptise the mother and her infant daughter,” she said.
“To have the baptisms uplifted the energy of the whole congregation; we felt the presence of the Holy Spirit.”