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? 


  1. Elisabeth5:51 PM

    So much is written about churches that hang the "All Are Welcome" sign outside and the "but not if you are (fill in the blank)" sign inside. It makes me sad and angry that UU congregations seem to be hanging the same kind of signs. What you have written about, Tom, seems like some kind of "faith test" or a ploy to get more members, i.e. more money, for the congregation. Thank you for writing.

  2. I'm going to play devil's advocate here. Vaguely deistic rhetoric (which frankly means less and less to the kinds of people we need to reach) aside, we in actual fact know nothing of any "ultimate source of existence" and can't credibly promise to place anyone into a covenant with it. (A covenant in any case is an agreement, something that by definition one can only make with another person. How many UUs, even if they like to use language like "ultimate source of existence", think of it as a person?) Practically none of us believe in some supernatural source of "blessings" that we are somehow able to convey to any child who is brought through the doors of one of our churches. Our child dedication ceremony is all about our communities and their responsibilities toward the parents and children who are part of them, and is meaningless to parents who don't plan to be a part of a UU community.

  3. I'm with you Tom. Just the other day a young mother came to my office with her baby seeking a christening. Plenty of people want and need these rituals, and I feel honored and glad to offer that to them. I see it as part of my ministry to the wider community. I think it was Clark Dewey Wells who told the story of a mother coming to him for her child's baptism, and he talked for a while about what baptism or christening or blessing means in our tradition. That person listened patiently, and then said, "I just want to know that God blesses my baby." And Wells assured her that he could offer that.

  4. A BAPTISM She called to ask if I would baptize her infant son.I said, "What we do is like a baptism, but not exactly. And we normally do it only for people who are part of the church family. The next one we have scheduled is in May."She said, "Could we come to talk with you about it anyway?"They came to see me, the very young woman and her child and the child's very young father. She explained that the child had been born with a heart defect. He had to have a risky heart operation soon. She had asked the clergyman of her own church if he would baptize her son, and he had refused because she was not married to the baby’s father.I told them that their not being married would not be an impediment to anything we might do, but that our child dedication ceremony still might not be what they were looking for.I explained that our ceremony does not wash away any sin, it does not guarantee the child a place in heaven, it doesn't even make the child a member of the church. In fact, I said, it doesn't change the child at all. What we expect is that it will change the rest of us in our relationship with the child, and with all children.She listened patiently. When I was through she said, "All I want is to know that God blesses my baby."In my mind I gasped at the sudden clarity in the room.I said, with a catch in my throat, "I think I can do that."And I did. Robert R. Walshfrom Noisy Stones, Skinner House, Boston, 1992

  5. Elisabeth9:34 AM

    I tried to be snarky with this, but I can't. The NY Times reports that the Mormon Church is now refusing baptism and membership to children of same sex unions. Now, the Mormon Church, unlike UU congregations, has strict membership requirements. But, I am exceedingly uncomfortable to know that UU congregations/ministers are willing to exclude children from blessings/dedication based on membership in "the community". An open rule book is so much better than a hidden rule book.
    I ask again: Does Welcoming Congregation mean "all are welcome, but..."?

    And, Steve, thanks for the "devil's advocate" caveat. Because I have found UU congregations in my geographic area are not welcoming to those of us who believe in an ultimate source and even less welcoming to those of us who call this source "God".

    Joanne and Frank, thank you for the parables of love and welcome.

  6. Elisabeth, I'm sorry to hear that. It thankfully is not true of my historically Universalist congregation, which is genuinely welcoming to all. I would not belong to a UU congregation that wasn't.

  7. Elisabeth2:37 PM

    Steve, thanks for your good words. Blessings.


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