Do you desire to be baptized?

This is the first of a three-part article.

By Donald Schell friend Lynn Park shoots all her photographs from chair level, so here she takes us to this girl’s perspective to give full attention to living water as it flows into the rock basin and spills down the face of the rock.

How can a moment feel so complete, but still charged with expectancy? The girl stands in warm springtime shadow. Sunny radiance plays on the water and hillside behind her. The girl’s steady eye draws us beyond any ‘figuring things out,’ or ‘thinking about.’ Water on stone reflects the sky above.

Lynn’s photo brings us so close that we feel the girl’s wanting to touch, to feel, and to know, and seeing her gaze and touch stirs our curiosity and piques our desire.

The rock is the outdoor baptismal font at St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco. I know this rock well – I commissioned the sculptor who carved it, and I’ve baptized adults, children, and babies at this font with two hundred people crowding close around it.

But I’m not St. Gregory’s pastor any more, this is a different moment from a baptism, and I don’t know this girl. Has she seen baptisms at this rock or was she baptized here herself? Is she seeing the rock for the first time? I don’t know. But I hear her quiet and feel how she’s taking in the rhythm and melody of the water’s even splash at the base of the rock’s face.

What’s stirring her? Is it scientific curiosity about water flow and surface tension? Will she stand on tiptoes to look into the basin? My own history with this rock moves me to wonder whether she hears Someone beckoning or feels here the mystery of Something that could change everything. So the longer I look at the photo, the more persistently I hear the Prayer Book’s wonderful question –

‘Do you desire to be baptized?’

When we ask someone that fascinating question, what do we imagine they desire or hope for? And what do we hope, by God’s grace and in God’s name to offer them? Are they looking to be enrolled in a new society? Might it be something even bigger than that? The flow and fall of water in the photo speak to me of a great river, something flowing from this spring that could carry us to the wide sea we were made for.

And so I recall Archbishop William Temple’s saying, “The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members,” and I wonder just how we exist for the benefit of those who are not members. (I’ve tried to track down the context of the saying with no success, so I’d welcome a reader telling us where it came from.)

Some in our church would equate commitment to those outside our membership with a ‘Great Commission’ (the oft quoted early editorial addition to Matthew’s Gospel of a post-resurrection saying of Jesus, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”). Was that what Temple meant? Is our commitment to those outside our membership to bring them inside our membership even if for their sake? That kind of commitment to those outside is typical of any self-perpetuating society or organization. Is Temple calling us to something riskier than making sure church visitors get nametags?

The freestanding quotation challenges us to look beyond our expectations to see who God is including in “the blessed company of all faithful people.” Could God be calling us to understand the holiness of all people’s deepest desires and bless them wherever we found them? Where would the Spirit take us if church formed us to ask each person we encountered what new thing she or he could each us about desire?

What does the girl in the photograph (or anyone we meet) most want, desire and hope for?

Do you desire to be baptized?

I’m thinking differently about baptism after watching three performances (two different productions) of Equivocation, Jesuit playwright Bill Cain’s new mind-bending, heartbreaking play about Shakespeare and his company of players, James I, the Gunpowder Plot and the English Jesuit martyr Henry Garnett. Cain’s Fr. Garnett makes very good sense as a priest. Watching Equivocation I knew I had to learn more about the Gunpowder Plot and Guy Fawkes Day.

So remembering the girl at the rock, let’s think back to 1605 and the time of the Gunpowder Plot.

James I succeeded Elizabeth as England’s Monarch in 1603. Shakespeare’s company had been performing his plays since 1598. They performed for James as they had for Elizabeth. The King James Bible would come out in 1611. Shakespeare’s last new work was performed in 1613. 1605 was barely a hundred years past the Spain’s 1492 discovery of the New World – lands, peoples, treasures, and civilizations no European had known before – what Shakespeare called the “brave new world.”

We celebrate the renaissance for its rediscovery of forgotten classical literature and brand-new appreciation of the beauty and poetic power of vernacular speech. Advanced naval and military technology also made it a time of enormous colonial expansion of Europe’s Atlantic naval powers – Spain, Portugal and England. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation disputes over how to use new knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, new appreciation of common speech, and the new technology of the printing press for Christian formation erupted in violence and literal war. Ferdinand and Isabella and Elizabeth I in their different ways had created nation-states.

In 1605 Shakespeare was an established playwright with great work completed and more to come, and Cervantes published his masterpiece Don Quixote. In their two countries, everything was possible and everything was at stake, and the question of who to trust at home and abroad seemed on everyone’s mind, including the minds of newly powerful rulers and emerging parliaments, councils, fraternities, universities associations that saw in print, literacy and widespread new learning the opportunity for propaganda and the constant danger of insurrection. And in this global ferment of ideas, encounters with new peoples, in this time of intrigue and warfare, creativity, compassion, love, terror, and oppression, Christian Europe (we’ll be thinking here about England and Spain) was re-making baptismal practice for the sake of political and social unity.

Unity was the urgent concern in religion and in politics. Spain and England in their different ways counted on vigilant censorship to enforce good order (which included religious conformity). English censors scrutinized any play Shakespeare’s company produced and Spanish censors read any book Cervantes wrote to make sure what they regarded as popular entertainments would usefully distract the population from politics and support Good Order. Catholic Spain and Protestant England knew literature could equally well incite rebellion. And it wasn’t just literature the establishment scrutinized. The royal establishment counted on fear to keep neighbors suspicious enough of one another that many eyes and ears could help keep stable order, peace, and security.

Do you desire to be baptized? Antonia Fraser’s Faith and Treason, the Gunpowder Plot offers a painful, enlightening perspective on Elizabethan society’s everyday experience of baptismal compulsion. What does it cost faith to make baptismal conformity (rules about who does the baptizing and where) the ticket to full membership in society?

In England neighbors were supposed to look for hints of Catholic sympathy and so wonder whether a stranger passing through the village or visiting the manor house might be a Catholic priest in disguise.

In Spain, neighbors and trade associates might reap substantial reward (or wreak vengeance in a feud) by sniffing out hints of apostasy among recently converted Jews and Moors or hints of ‘Lutheranism’ or Erasmian tolerance and freethinking among “Old Christians.”

Do you desire to be baptized? Careful how you answer that one! Whether on Catholic or Protestant soil, what someone might desire had become a matter of life and death.

In Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s mind-bending play about “the quality of mercy,” Portia, having invoked mercy in one of the most theologically nuanced arguments for compassion and forgiveness in English literature, reverts to the punitive voice of Law and Judgment, offering Shylock, the Jewish banker, a bitter forced choice.

Shylock’s offense was attempting to claim his due in the vengeful ‘pound of flesh’ loan pact (the penalty Antonio had willingly agreed to forfeit in lieu of interest should he fail to pay the substantial sum he had borrowed from Shylock). Portia appears in court as Antonio’s attorney for the defense, but after saving Antonio’s life, she deftly moves to become Shylock’s prosecutor, refusing to allow him to accept simple re-payment of the loan and stripping him of all his property, before presenting him with this choice:

– convert and be baptized or

– suffer execution for the capital offense of making attempt on the life of a Venetian citizen.

To our modern ears the whole play is dangerously, appallingly anti-Semitic. To Elizabethan ears the play was safely anti-Semitic. Shakespeare’s ready defenders can rush to tell us that the character of Shylock is an empty stereotype because three hundred years after England had expelled all Jews (sent them to places like Spain), Shakespeare’s audience would not have known a Jew, so the play couldn’t have caused direct harm to anyone, incited a riot, or launched a pogrom. And, I add, a play about ambiguous justice in Catholic Venice wouldn’t trouble the crown’s Master of the Revels.

Jesuit Bill Cain’s Equivocation and Fraser’s Faith and Treason set me to wondering why Shakespeare created this Jewish villain-victim no one could have known, and what else Shakespeare could have had in mind writing about Christian mercy, the rigors of the law, and forcing outsiders to conform for Good Order?

Is Merchant of Venice a Protestant window on a distant Catholic country’s prejudices and dilemmas? Did censors see the window and not notice how it mirrored the audience making them see themselves and wonder how they treated outsiders and people judged dangerous, deceptive and unworthy of mercy? And who were the outsiders in Elizabeth’s and James’s England?

Did Shakespeare create this Jewish (not Catholic) Shylock and set his play in Catholic Venice (not Protestant London) to challenge his own church and country’s oppressive shadow? The anti-Semitic prejudice that frightens and angers modern audiences made the play so safe and harmless in Elizabethan England, that Shakespeare could slip a politically dangerous meditation on Christian mercy, justice and desire past the censor who would gladly have closed the Globe theater and done Shakespeare himself far worse.

In the peace of the Elizabeth settlement, Parliament and crown demanded that everyone be baptized in “their” local Church of England parish church by “their” parish priest. What could English Roman Catholics who persisted in “The Old Faith” do? They baptized their children. But how? Some called on Roman Catholic clergy, living In England under assumed identity to risk their lives to baptize their children (as they risked their lives every time they presided at a Eucharist). If they chose NOT to have the child baptized in the local Church of England parish, the child was reckoned not baptized and the parents faced a stiff fine. A boy child secretly baptized by a Roman Catholic priest was reckoned “unbaptized” when he was old enough for university and so barred from Oxford or Cambridge. Parents who could afford the fine could also afford to send their sons to the continent for an education.

Some Roman Catholics chose a different solution. They’d call on their Roman Catholic pastor (again, at risk of his life) to baptize their children, and then, acting like ordinary Church of England parishioners would take their child to “their” parish church for a legal and politically expedient second baptism. Those who chose this route would attend the same church to meet their legal annual requirement for attendance at Church of England Eucharist (think ‘communicant status’), and would also double sacraments there (and with their Catholic pastor) for a family wedding.

Again remember that a Roman Catholic priest presiding at a baptism (or Eucharist or Marriage) did so at risk of his life. If a servant or neighbor betrayed the (disguised, secret) priest and he was captured, he would be tortured and executed. English law that made it a capital offense to be a Roman Catholic priest on English soil.

Do you desire to be baptized? Why does desire matter to what the church says baptism IS? When we ask people about their desire, do we want to hear their answer? Can we pre-determine or compel desire? Can we frame it as forced choice, without closing our eyes and forgetting the girl’s bright attention and hope in the photograph?

Tomorrow’s piece looks to the other side of the coin, how these questions shaped baptismal theology in Catholic Spain, and our question will be “Is blood thicker than water?”

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is

President of All Saints Company.

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