Something very disturbing happened recently in Orlando and the Episcopal Diocese of Central Florida. The diocese had been known as a conservative part of the Episcopal Church for the last couple of decades, and there has been much resistance there to the opening up of the Church and its sacraments (including ordination) to gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.
However, this week saw the Dean of the Cathedral of that diocese struggling with the decision whether or not to baptize the infant child of a gay couple. The sacrament of baptism is so basic to Christianity and so foundational to any theology of the Church, it is seldom the battlefield on which such differences of opinion get fought.
Rich McCaffrey and his husband, Eric, have been together for 15 years and were married out of state last year. As part of their family life, they joined the worshipping community of the Cathedral of St. Luke in Orlando. When they adopted an infant son, Jack, it was natural and faithful to want to see him baptized. They attended classes on the meaning of baptism, and invited friends and family to join them for little Jack’s welcome into the Church.
The Dean of the Cathedral, Anthony Clark, suggested to the couple, however, that given the fact that they were a gay couple, perhaps it would be better to have Jack’s baptism take place at the usual Sunday evening service rather than the main worship service on Sunday morning, since the people usually worshipping at that evening service were more “open.” Presumably, he meant more open to people like Rich and Eric McCaffrey. That should have been the McCaffreys’ first red flag, a signal that somehow their (and Jack’s) membership in the Church might be considered by some as second class.
Then, three days before the scheduled service, Dean Clark notified the couple that little Jack’s baptism would have to be postponed because of negative feelings about it among some of the members of the Cathedral. The matter would need to be referred to the Bishop of Central Florida, The Rt. Rev. Greg Brewer, they were told, partly because of the high profile any cathedral has in the life of its diocese. The bishop said he would meet with the couple “to remedy this very sad situation.”
By his words, I hope that Bishop Brewer meant that the “very sad situation” of which he spoke is one in which Jack, an infant and child of God, is denied the sacrament of baptism because of the negative feelings some parishioners have about his parents. Very sad, indeed!
Ironically, the assigned reading for all Episcopal parishes from this past Sunday, and presumably heard by those objecting parishioners, was from the Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 8. It is the early church’s story of Philip, the apostle, encountering an Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza, who is returning home from having worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem. This presumably dark-skinned servant of his Ethiopian Queen’s court asks Philip to explain the Isaiah scripture he is reading.
Now, Philip probably had all kinds of reservations about engaging the eunuch—not just his skin color, but also his physical “impairment” and his political station. Philip probably thought he shouldn’t even be talking to this guy. Yet the man seemed sincere about wanting to understand the scriptures, and Philip takes that desire seriously.
Then, after hearing about the recently resurrected Christ, foretold in the book of Isaiah, the Ethiopian eunuch asks a challenging (and highly appropriate) question: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8: 36-37) Philip understands that the eunuch makes a good and irrefutable point, and baptizes the eunuch. My guess is that this moment is as transformative for Philip as for the eunuch.
This is not unlike the experiences that Peter and all of the disciples are having in these earliest days of the Church: God’s love and mercy and forgiveness know no bounds, and God’s love is to be proclaimed to ALL (including those hitherto deemed to be notorious sinners according to the ancient Law). It is a radically inclusive love that God has for God’s children. All of them.
The bishop did meet with Rich and Eric on Thursday evening, and then announced on Friday that little Jack would indeed be baptized sometime this summer. The bishop indicated he might even participate in Jack’s baptism—a symbolic but important gesture for sure. Rich and Eric have been patient, thoughtful, and generous throughout.
I would suggest that the bishop’s pastoral care of his flock might not be over with the “successful” meeting he had with Rich and Eric McCaffrey, despite its resolution of the present problem. It might even be that the bishop met with the wrong people! Perhaps the bishop might meet with the objecting parishioners, and do some talking and praying about what Philip’s baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch might mean for the Cathedral of St. Paul.
Perhaps they might look at the service of baptism itself in which all present are asked to affirm the baptismal promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” and “respect the dignity of every human being.” Perhaps they might discuss the belief expressed in baptism that no one, not even an infant, has earned or deserves baptism, but that God invites us into the family of faithful followers anyway. Perhaps the bishop might rephrase the Ethiopian eunuch’s question to those parishioners: “What is to prevent [Jack] from being baptized?”
Earlier in the week, Bishop Brewer was quoted in the Orlando Sentinel as having said, “I want to get to know [the couple] as people and for them to get to know me…My focus has to do with them. Why is this important to them? That is what I want to know.” It seems from the outcome that his conversation with Rich and Eric was productive, both for the bishop and the couple.
But one has to wonder why the parents of the other children baptized as scheduled weren’t questioned by the bishop about their reasons for having their children baptized and the depth of their commitment to raising their children in the faith. He might want to inquire about whether or not any parent among them is divorced and remarried (Jesus clearly says it’s a sin), exactly how much money they give to the poor on a regular basis (Jesus insists it is our duty), and whether or not any of them has ever committed adultery (it really is a “lifestyle” condemned in Scripture). Does the bishop intend to meet with the parents of every child before permitting them to be candidates for baptism? Why were Rich and Eric subjected to greater scrutiny than the rest?
I do not know what the motives and concerns of the dean were in postponing the baptism of Jack. The best interpretation is that perhaps the dean was seeing this as a pastoral and teaching moment for his congregation. But it at least appears that the dean simply caved to those who condemn Jack’s parents’ so-called “lifestyle.” And if the latter is true, perhaps the bishop might meet with the dean and discuss Jesus’ teaching in the Beatitudes that “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10) Sometimes, clergy are called to “take the heat” for doing the right thing and lead, for the sake of the Gospel.
What troubles me most is that for many unchurched people, and for those who have left the institutional church, this situation underscores their own experience of what a judgmental and hypocritical place the church can be. Though now solved for the McCaffreys’ and Jack’s sake, my prayer is that this situation will continue to be a teaching moment, not just for the couple, but for members of the cathedral, its dean, and the bishop. It can be. It ought to be.
The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, Washington, D.C., and the IX Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter @BishopGRobinson