Using Water in Baptism and Reaffirmation: How Much and By Whom?

Liturgical Musing #7
by Taylor Burton-Edwards

If you ask United Methodists how they would compare their distinctive practices of baptism and reaffirmation to those of other denominations, some might offer something like this: Baptists dunk. Mennonites and Catholics pour. Methodists sprinkle. Baptists "come forward to rededicate their lives to Christ" at the end of a worship service; water is probably not involved. Episcopalians have a bishop preside at a service that may gather several congregations, and water may be involved. Methodists? Well, we're not so sure what we do, but we know what we don't do! We don't rebaptize anyone, period!


Of course these "common responses" don't necessarily do justice to the teaching or lived reality of the churches involved, including ours. Baptists did not originally immerse; their earliest emphasis was not on the mode, but on the timing of baptism. Valid baptism for them was for those able to repent and believe for themselves. The mode was very often by pouring. All new construction for Roman Catholic sanctuaries is required to include an immersion pool with flowing water. Our rubrics and teaching on baptism allow us to offer it by sprinkling, pouring, or immersion; but, however it is offered, our official teaching document, "By Water and the Spirit"says "water should be utilized with enough generosity to enhance our appreciation of its symbolic meanings." Meanwhile, on the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant, whether done corporately from time to time (using Baptismal Covenant IV from The United Methodist Hymnal) or by individuals at specific times, such as confirmation, the one directive we have in our rubrics is:

"Here water may be used symbolically in ways that cannot be interpreted as baptism, as the pastor says: Remember your baptism and be thankful." (From The United Methodist Hymnal. Copyright © 1989 by The United Methodist Publishing House, p. 37, also p. 52. Used by permission.)

One of the results of this statement has been that in some congregations, no water leaves the font at confirmation or reaffirmation, despite the fact that it has been blessed for use, lest anyone be confused that we are rebaptizing people.

Let me suggest two guidelines about the use of water in baptism and reaffirmation that may help us both to enrich our current practice of baptism and help reaffirmation be differentiated ritually from baptism without abandoning the use of water altogether. A basic principle behind the development of the worship resources in The United Methodist Hymnal (1989) and The United Methodist Book of Worship (1992) is that we recommend practices that represent the best of the current ecumenical and scholarly consensus while remaining true to our heritage as Methodists. These two guidelines seek to do just that in our current context.

First, there is an emerging ecumenical and scholarly consensus based on what we've been able to recover about early Christian practice (and now reflected in the official practice of the Roman Catholic Church) that baptism should normally be administered with flowing water in some form — whether in an immersion pool or by pouring over a font — and that practices using only small amounts of water (such as droplets via sprinkling) should be discouraged. Consider this encouragement to take our teaching about using water in baptism with "enough generosity" even more seriously. Let's consider using and administering relatively large amounts of water in baptism and using smaller amounts for rites of reaffirmation.

Second, let's be clear about who is using and administering water in which ritual. In baptism, the presiding pastor both blesses and administers the water upon those being baptized. This is because baptism is a gift from God that we can only receive, not take for ourselves. In confirmation or reaffirmation, the pastor still offers the prayer over the water, but those making reaffirmation may be invited to "come to the waters" of the font to use them in ways that may be meaningful for them. For some, this may be dipping their hand in the water and making the sign of the cross on their own foreheads; while for others, it may be scooping out a relatively larger amount of water to place or pour over their own heads. People may choose different ways to embody their thankful remembrance of their baptism. And that's the point. While baptism is a gift of God through the church (and so through the hands of the presiding pastor), reaffirmation is a thankful response by the individual who makes it. Inviting those coming for confirmation or reaffirmation to use the water themselves supports and affirms this distinction ritually.

So how much water should we use in baptism? As much as we can! After all, God's grace that invites and bestows new birth is overflowing! And for confirmation and reaffirmation? Let those seeking to make these commitments decide what works for them. Just have enough present for both to enable all to receive from the font at least enough so that all will recognize the amazing grace God makes available by water and the Spirit, both at baptism and throughout our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Categories: Baptism, Liturgical Musings