Sunday, July 10, 2011

My Bizarre Baptism

Whenever people get into discussions as to who is a real christian, inevitably you get into talk of baptism. So big is baptism from a christian perspective that  in the atheist community they now have a
de-baptism ceremony to dry away the sin of being born again. Some say that de-baptism is like being born again, again. When I think back to my own baptism I always smile because for me the process was a bit unusual.

When I was 16 years old I started to attend confirmation classes at my Anglican church in Barbados. There was nothing especially significant about this.I suppose it was a rite of passage, but to most of us it was just something we went through so that we would be able to partake of the bread and wine on Sunday mornings. While it was cute to see  five year olds going up enthusiastically for their blessings pulling there reluctant parents along, it was different once you reached teen years. At that point it was just not cool to be up at the altar and have the priest pull away the cup from your face at the last moment as he recognised that you  were one of those " not quite there yet" members of the flock. In my case things were even worse, since the priest had to reach up a bit to place his hand on my head for blessing. So the way to avoid such continued altar embarrassment was to get confirmed. Yes, we all wanted to get to that promised land not of milk and honey, but of wafers and red wine.

That was the background to my motivation for confirmation.  It was no surprise then, that I didn't start the class with any great expectations. However, I actually enjoyed the year studying my faith and the bible with other young people. Truth be told, it was probably the first time that I gave a lot of thought to my belief system, exploring a number of the moral implications of the faith. Perhaps it was the first of many steps that got me to where I am today.

All went well until I got a call from the priest on Friday, two days before my scheduled confirmation ceremony. He gave me no further information other than I should meet him at the church the next day. He needed to talk to me alone urgently. This was a worry. For one thing it would mean missing part of the West Indies versus Pakistan cricket test match which was at an interesting stage. But ,more importantly, what could he possibly need to see me about? A request by your priest to see you urgently is only marginally second to a similar calling from your school principal.

So, as you can imagine, it was a nerve racking night. What had I done or left undone? As far as I knew I had followed all the pre-confirmation rules and had completed a successful year of training. I even went through the trouble of making up a  plausible story about how I betrayed a friend's trust, so that I could have a "confession." I was so sure I had all the bases covered. What on earth could he want to talk to me about at this 11th hour?

When I arrived at the church office , the priest was holding my baptismal certificate. We were required to provide these before we were confirmed. It was just a formality, or at least so I thought. The 'father' shook his head sadly. "This is not a baptismal certificate." he said coldly. " This only shows that you were christened. A christening is NOT a baptism. As far as we ( the Anglican church) are concerned the ceremony you had was simply to give you your name. To be recognised by us you have to be baptised in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. You have not gone through that and therefore cannot be presented for confirmation based on this."

My mouth dropped open. What was he talking about? Christening , baptism, po-TAY-to, po-TAT-to what difference did these words make? I, for obvious reasons, don't quite  remember the details of that B-day in question, but I had enough faith that my parents would have had me baptised properly. Surely it was just a misunderstanding. A  frivolous objection like the , "He's not an American"  tirade that Barack Obama has had to fight. It was true that I was not baptised Anglican or Catholic but I wasn't initiated by some fringe cult group. It was the " Church of God"  for God's sake, an established denomination in Barbados. But my priest would have none of it, what he held in his hand was not a bona fide baptismal certificate. I was up a creek.

How could I face my colleagues on Sunday? After a year of dutifully attending classes I had fallen tragically at this last hurdle. Then, out of the blue  my pastor hit on something. A smirk came to his face. I had no idea what there was to be happy about but I certainly hoped it would be some sort of resolution in my favour. He took up a wooden bowl that was lying around and sent me to the kitchen, with the simple instruction to fill it up to the brim. So, I went and did likewise.

On  my return he simply dipped his finger in the bowl, made a cross on my forehead and said, " I baptise you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy spirit. There! You are baptised now, all's fine for Sunday."  Once again I stared at the man incredulously. That was it, just like that he was able to get around this administrative technicality? There were no witnesses, no god parents, no prayers, no music, no liturgy we weren't even in the church proper. The priest didn't even have on robes.This was the Anglican Church, the masters of ritual and standing on ceremony, yet for this one evening no such details were necessary. It was a miracle if I ever saw one.

Yes, I was duly informed that all that mattered was that the deed was done in the sight of God. Now, we could proceed.  Still, it just wasn't fitting well with me, it was all too bizarre. I asked whether I could really get confirmed the next day since according to him I had only at that moment truly become a Christian. Wasn't there some rule for moving to 'graduation' so quickly? No, I was told that there are people in the bible who were baptised, confirmed and ordained all on the same day so this was really no big deal.

I went home still trying to take in what had occurred. I swore I was the first person in history that had a 'do it yourself' baptism. I had actually got my own holy water straight from the kitchen tap. I joked that if anyone questioned under whose authority I was baptised that day, I will tell the truth. It was under the Barbados Water Authority. I also remember thinking how unsustainable the whole thing was because I simply poured the rest of the holy water down  the drain when I was finished. At least  it could have been used to flush a toilet the next time the water went off.
Today I still chuckle at the thought that ordinary pipe water could suddenly become holy because a man dipped his finger in it. Even at that time, I remember thinking that he could as well have looked at me and just said " Abra Cadabra !"Anyway, I went ahead and was confirmed with no fuss. It took me 20 more years before I was able to break free of the superstition, but I like to think on that night before confirmation a few cracks showed up in my Christianity.

So, maybe I was baptised twice, maybe once, maybe even not at all. I guess it just depends on who you talk to and what perspective they hold. What I can tell you is that I have not had my de-baptism yet. I can only hope that the 'undo' process is not as complicated. To make sure, when comes my day to go under the dryer, to vaporise the dogma I once was washed in, I will ask the person administering the ritual, to let me go back through for a second cycle.

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