Sunday, 3 August 2008

Ask to be "debaptised" or leave the church to pay less tax?

Le Monde 2 has an article this week cleverly titled "Une croix sur leur baptême" - (this is a play on words faire une croix means to give up on or to stop, and when you are baptised this often takes place with the sign of the cross being made in water on the baptisee's forehead). The article is all about people who have asked to have their baptism in the Catholic Church revoked. All those interviewed who have taken this step were baptised when infants, often more for reasons of social conformism than because their parents were particularly religious. No Protestants were quoted as having taken such a step, but that says alot about France's religious landscape.
What struck me reading the article is how strongly anchored a certain rage against the perceived power of the church is. These are people asking to leave the church for reasons of personal conviciton. Amongst the reasons they give are public pronouncements on contraception and abortion, and scandals about sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. Quite a number asking to have the words "baptised against their will" written into the baptismal register next to their names are converting to another religion - Islam or Buddhism, but most are taking this step so that they no longer be counted amongst the church's believers.
Father Angelo Sommacal the French Catholic Church's head of pastoral and sacramental affairs says that these people are "Asking to renounce their baptism" and adds, "Baptism is an act of God, it can't be undone, at best it can be renounced. But that's as if you refused to be considered to be the child of your parents."
It really is an article for the French context, where even committed Christians can be anti-clerical and where enormous value is placed on "laicité" (the supposed secularity of the state). The numbers mentioned in the article are really very low. An anarchist site has apparently created a "débaptisator" which about 3,500 people have used over three years. That's hardly a huge wave of convicted atheists but it makes a good story in Catholic France.
One interesting aspect is that according to some French diocesan sources quite a high proportion of the requests come from French people now living in Germany. In Germany leaving the Church - either Protestant or Catholic - is financially advantageous as you no longer have to pay church tax or "Kirchensteuer" on your salary. There can be a financial advantage but if you are not a member of the church you cannot usually be employed in church run institutions - and in Germany the churches are the second employer after the state. Statistics available here show that there are high numbers of people officially leaving both the Protestant and Catholic churches in Germany.
So what is the importance and meaning of baptism in secularised western societies and the churches in them? Is our theology of baptism completely outdated? When I was training for the ministry I can remember one of our lecturers (Rev. Dr Jonathan Draper who is now a Canon of the chapter at York Minister) saying that he felt the mainstream church had got its theology back to front on baptism and the eucharist - we tend to baptise all comers often as children but then tend to set conditions for access to the eucharist. Perhaps we should set higher criteria for baptism and invite all to Christ's table for the holy meal?
In the French Reformed Church local churches often live with the reality that the most committed families don't baptise their children as infants but the social Protestants do. Sometimes it's hard to hold the very small confessing, believing congregation together with the "visiting" hatch, match and dispatch congregation. You baptise trusting that God's grace abounds and hoping that the parents will actually give the children the opportunity to learn about and experience the faith they have asked they be part of.
I believe in radical openness as a congregational model; in somehow imperfectly trying to bear witness to the welcome I believe God wants to give to each and every person - so many people have internalised centuries of feeling judged by religious institutions and by God. Yet how does integrity of belief and conviction still speak through that kind of openness? I'm left thinking about the one marriage and the one baptism I said no to in 12 years of local ministry - did my attitude mean that those people felt closer or further away from God? After three meetings with the couple about the marriage I encouraged them to write their own secular wedding service and find a beautiful place to celebrate it; The baptism I said no to ended up becoming a marriage and presentation of the child. Did I bear witness to Christ through that or through saying yes so many other times? I wonder.
I also reflected on the deeper meaning of Christian baptism this week when interpretting for a Presbyterian sister from Rwanda who spoke about the deep questioning of the existence of a God of love which has been part of the aftermath to the 1994 genocide. What does it mean to be baptised if you go out and kill your brother or sister baptised into the same faith? Through religious, national, civil and other wars Christians have been doing that for centuries.