This question was raised in an e-mail inquiry in which the questioner asked if it were "legal" for pastors to administer infant dedication.
Question: What is the stance of The United Methodist Church on the practice of "infant dedication" ?
Answer: The stance of The United Methodist Church on dedication in place of infant baptism has not changed since the actions of General Conference in 1996. That General Conference:
Adopted "By Water and the Spirit" as an official statement on baptism and related rites, which specifically states:
The baptism of infants is properly understood and valued if the child is loved and nurtured by the faithful worshiping church and by the child’s own family. If a parent or sponsor (godparent) cannot or will not nurture the child in the faith, then baptism is to be postponed until Christian nurture is available. A child who dies without being baptized is received into the love and presence of God because the Spirit has worked in that child to bestow saving grace. If a child has been baptized but her or his family or sponsors do not faithfully nurture the child in the faith, the congregation has a particular responsibility for incorporating the child into its life.
Understanding the practice as an authentic expression of how God works in our lives, The United Methodist Church strongly advocates the baptism of infants within the faith community: "Because the redeeming love of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, extends to all persons and because Jesus explicitly included the children in his kingdom, the pastor of each charge shall earnestly exhort all Christian parents or guardians to present their children to the Lord in Baptism at an early age" (1992 Book of Discipline, par. 221). We affirm that while thanksgiving to God and dedication of parents to the task of Christian child-raising are aspects of infant baptism, the sacrament is primarily a gift of divine grace. Neither parents nor infants are the chief actors; baptism is an act of God in and through the Church.
We respect the sincerity of parents who choose not to have their infants baptized, but we acknowledge that these views do not coincide with the Wesleyan understanding of the nature of the sacrament. The United Methodist Church does not accept either the idea that only believer’s baptism is valid or the notion that the baptism of infants magically imparts salvation apart from active personal faith. Pastors are instructed by the Book of Discipline to explain our teaching clearly on these matters, so that parent(s) or sponsors might be free of misunderstandings.
The United Methodist Book of Worship contains "An Order of Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of the Child" (pages 585-87), which may be recommended in situations where baptism is inappropriate, but parents wish to take responsibility publicly for the growth of the child in faith. It should be made clear that this rite is in no way equivalent to or a substitute for baptism. Neither is it an act of infant dedication. If the infant has not been baptized, the sacrament should be administered as soon as possible after the Order of Thanksgiving.
- Paragraph 331.1b of the 2000 Book of Discipline makes no provision for "infant dedication" as an alternative to the sacrament of baptism, nor for what pastors are to administer or prepare parents for.
The sources of attention to infant dedication among United Methodists are twofold. One is the Anabaptist tradition for whom dedication is an appropriate practice in light of their theological assumptions. The other is the memory of some former Evangelical United Brethren (one of the two bodies that formed The United Methodist Church in 1968) of an unofficial practice of infant dedication in that tradition. For a clear and historical perspective on infant dedication from the point of view of a seminary professor who was formerly Evangelical United Brethren, see The Dedication of Infants: A Ritual Historyby Kendall Kane McCabe.
The question of legality is troublesome in that we are a covenanting and conciliar community as United Methodists. We move together by Christian conferencing. Only in extreme circumstances do we turn to questions of legality, charges, and trial. It seems the issue revolves around ministry and doctrinal matters: What do we believe about grace and the sacraments? What do we teach? How do we exercise sacramental discipline? When what people want and what the church teaches are in conflict, how do we use the tension as a means of grace and growth for their sake and for the vigor and fullness of the gift God gives in holy baptism?
In considering these matters, we should certainly consult three aspects of our covenant and the constitution of the church:
- The examination question at ordination about "loyalty to the United Methodist Church" and acceptance of "its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline" (United Methodist Book of Worship).
- Article XXII of the Articles of Religion in the Discipline, which is pretty strong in its robust critique of those who willfully and openly "break the rites and ceremonies of the church to which he [or she] belongs..."
- The fact that General Conference has authorized and specified the liturgy of the church in ¶1112.3, which does not contain directive, allowance for, or ritual of dedication of infants.
Such a tripod invites some very frank and continuous conversation among the clergy and the laity.
Pastors and people may want to consider the guidance of "By Water and the Spirit" in the text cited above in dealing with the desire for some act of celebration of birth or adoption.