Blessing the Stranger (Who happens to be a Baby)
I was born in 1949; my father was a Unitarian minister, serving Follen Church in Lexington, MA. I was "christened" -- which, as far as I can tell, was theistic quasi-Christian step down from a Baptism, mostly involving a naming ceremony, but without the washing away from original sin.
The 1937 Hymns of the Spirit does not have a liturgy for any form of baby blessing service, although in its index of hymns it lists four as appropriate for "Christening services or dedication of Children."
When did the practice of baby blessing become absorbed into a congregational rite in UUism? Somewhere in my lifetime, I think. The baby blessing service became a "Dedication of Children", performed during the worship service. Its purpose was to ritually commit the congregation to the care and nurture of the child. It welcomed the child into the "extended family" of the congregation.
This congregational understanding of baby blessings became so ingrained that many UU ministers routinely turn down requests to ritually bless babies from families outside the congregation.
But think of the theological and ecclesiological implications of that development ! There is so much to unpack in that practice.
I think that this has to be seen in the context of the search for the transcendent in Unitarian Universalism, a search that became very complicated as we tried to manage the divide between humanism and theism.
In practical terms, the congregation became the source of the transcendent and polity became theology. The covenant, by which we meant the covenant that creates the local congregation became the functional equivalent of the creed. Building our local communities became the way that we evangelized liberal religion.
Thus we have arrived at our current cul-de-sac: most of our congregations offer membership in the community as our path to spiritual growth, yet the culture around us is highly resistant to leaping into that sort of commitment.
Young families are undergoing the life-changing experience of parenting a new human being, a child. They want a ritual celebration of this new life, and an auspicious launch of their child's growth, and a chance to pledge to the child, their own parents and family, and the mysterious powers that govern the Universe, that they will try their best to be good parents.
Like many young families, they are not connected to a religious tradition, and the traditions of the families of origin are not what they want, so they present themselves to the local UU church for help in that little ritual of blessing their baby.
And they are turned away. Because they are not members of the congregation already. All talk of "welcoming the stranger" and "radical hospitality" notwithstanding, they are turned away.
Because we have lost the capacity to provide means of grace to someone outside our community.
What is our ministry to those who are not Unitarian Universalists? Ministry is more than a service. It is a service AND an invitation: an opportunity to pray, to pledge, to promise, to confess, to say aloud, to thank, to praise, and to reflect. Ministry is a service and an invitation to make a relational gesture toward the ultimate.
The opening clause of James Luther Adam's "I Call That Church Free" is "I call that church free which enters into a covenant with the ultimate source of existence." Clearly, he is saying that the ultimate source of existence is not the church itself, but that which the church covenants with, that which the church and congregation point towards.
And is not parenthood one of the decision points in which parents and families are ready to make a covenant with past, present, future, and ultimate forms of existence?
The question, beyond the question of blessing strangers who happen to be babies, is how do we invite strangers into a covenant with the ultimate source of existence?