Tough calls

July 22, 2010

This summer, my divinity-student wife is doing a unit of clinical pastoral education.
As someone without any pastoral care experience, I’ve been fascinated
to hear about the scenarios (real and hypothetical) that come up in
CPE-related conversations. For instance, a classic: Would you baptize a
dead baby?

Not should you but would you, a fairly
different question. The issue is the potential tension between decency
and order and what may in the moment just seem like simply decency.
Such moments can come up in worship contexts as well as in pastoral
care, as in this somewhat lighter example: Would you serve communion to
a dog?

A Toronto priest did recently.
The story might be a real eye-roller if she had done so on principle
and offered an earnest theological rationale as to why. Instead, I
think it’s pretty interesting: A church visitor brought his dog to the
altar with him. Apparently the priest, faced with a surprising and
somewhat delicate moment, made a quick decision and went with it.

easy to name better ways she might have handled it. But is it as easy
to say with confidence that we would have come up with one of them on
the spot?


Anonymous said... Bless

Anonymous said...

Bless the dog. I've blessed babies, stuffed animals and action figures at the altar. But I don't give them communion. Geez.

Anonymous said... Yes, it

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is as easy to say with confidence that we would have come up with one of them on the spot. This isn't even interesting.

Ivy said... Blessings to

Ivy said...

Blessings to your wife during CPE. I did mine last summer and it was transformational for me.

Duane said... I liked the

Duane said...

I liked the bishop's comment - “I think the reverend was overcome by what I consider a misguided gesture of welcoming.”

journeyman37 said... One

journeyman37 said...

One of the issues raised by the question, it seems to me, is that of authority. Who has the authority to make such decisions? Do I, in myself, on my own discernment? Or do I (as an ordained United Methodist elder, in my case) because I have been given authority and am called to operate within it?

Our church has made the "baptizing of the dead" call in our official teaching document on baptism. We baptize the living. Period. So not only should I not baptize the dead of any age, I would have no authority to do it even if I should hypothetically wish to. Indeed, it could be understood as a violation of the doctrine of this Church for me to do so. Not only should I not-- I really must not.

Many other churches have made a similar call on the question of the proper subjects for baptism and have a similar understanding of the nature of ordained ministry. For many of us in the "mainline" denominations, at least, the ordained are not thereby made an authority in their own right. Instead, we entrust some authority to the ordained to act in certain ways-- and to refrain from acting in others-- for the sake of the life of the church. Our authority is always derivative of the authority of the the body of Christ who entrusts us with it, and so, we trust, of Christ himself.

Peace in Christ,

The Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources
The General Board of Discipleship of
The United Methodist Church

Anonymous said... Very

Anonymous said...

Very creepy and/or very obtuse thing to ask such an irrational question! Some fools may think they are brainy in order to ask such questions.
Why don't you ask the mutt if he/she is interested in receiving the holy elements, in the first place? My parents used to fast in order to prepare for Holy Communion in our first-century church - is your dog devotedly, conscientiously equipped to receive the holy elements?
Your rhetorical question is: Would you serve communion to a dog? Those who are trained to serve are expected to serve communion ONLY to those who have prepared themselves to receive the holy elements.
You better ask your mutt whether she/he is prepared to receive communion in which case I might have a different answer for you.

The Rev. Dr. John T. Mathew
Mississauga, ON

Daniel said... Why was

Daniel said...

Why was the dog in church?

Anyway Mary Ellen Ashcroft definitively answered this question in her book Dogspell.

Steve Thorngate said...

Steve Thorngate said...

Like I said, it's easy to criticize the priest's decision, and I've no desire to defend it on the merits. (Though if someone else did, I don't think I'd go so far as to call him or her names.) I'm more interested in this story as a (yes, extreme) example of how difficult it can be to IMMEDIATELY discern the best course of action in a strange and sensitive situation. If that's always easy for some others, great. It wouldn't be for me.

In God's Garden said... I

In God's Garden said...

I am perplexed and disappointed by the extent to which several comments here have failed to respond to what is, as I read it, the crux of the post: "Not should you, but would you...?" The former is both much easier and a lot more comfortable of a question to answer.

Steve's juxtaposition of this story with clinical pastoral encounters (whether experienced by CPE students or by seasoned clergy) presents another important and relevant nuance to consider: When we, as persons invested with spiritual authority, encounter an unorthodox request from someone in a position of vulnerability (a dying patient; parents of the dead baby; the man who was heckled on the church steps and took the risk of showing up (albeit with his dog) anyway), and it is within our immediate power to act in such a way as to make that person feel more welcome and accepted as-he-is, what does it say about us if we turn down the opportunity?

One thing I think it would say is that we are people who value rules and order over comfort, radical welcome, and spontaneity. All are important in the church, to be sure; in those thin moments where we're forced to choose, how do we best reflect Christ's work in the world in our actions?

Steve, I can't say with confidence how, or even if, I would have acted differently on the spot.

Anonymous said... A great

Anonymous said...

A great question Steve. Thanks for posing it.

It seems that the question is this: if sacramental theology comes into conflict with pastoral theology, which one wins?

As a CPE student this summer myself, I have chosen to err towards the pastoral. I think Jesus' own ministry supports this. In direct opposition to the Sabbath laws, Jesus met the material and spiritual needs of those he met. Although he lacked the authority of the official religious establishment, Jesus taught, healed, and spoke the truth in line with the Israelite prophets before him.

Considering Jesus' own reticence to allow hierarchical rules to limit his ministry, I will continue to err on the side of meeting pastoral needs in my ministry this summer as a chaplain.

Andrew Packman
M.Div. Student 2012
The Divinity School at the University of Chicago

Anonymous said... Yes, my

Anonymous said...

Yes, my immediate though would be just to bless the dog. My church practices an open table for the Eucharist as a gesture of welcome, but the invitation to that communion is couched in terms of an invitation to experience God- the implication being, that going up to the altar for other reasons is not something we're going to forbid, but this is how we think about the sacrament and how we would *hope* that you would consider the sacrament. A dog can't either understand what we mean or the symbolism of the act, so I don't think that communion should ever be an option for a dog, exactly because of what happened to the parishioner here- he was hurt and his faith in communion's sacred nature affronted, and no one benefited except a dog.

To the dead child issue- I would hope to have a chance to sit down and speak with the parents as to why they wanted baptism (ie, figure out if I could meet that need another way without baptizing the dead child), but I can't say that if they really demonstrated a pastoral need to have this ritual for their child that I could bring myself to say no. The job of the priest is not to make everyone happy, but in situations where canon law can truly force a priest to alienate someone from their faith without serving to protect some other person, I think that breaching canon law may be the more compassionate option. I'm not convinced it would be *right* to baptize the dead child, but I would probably do it.


journeyman37 said... @ In

journeyman37 said...

@ In God's Garden,

There are always better options than doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.

The challenge in such moments is to find that.

And that's both a pastoral challenge and a sacramental challenge. The two aren't pitted against other, like "rules" versus "grace," but rather support each other to help find what CAN be done in the moment.

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards

Travis Trott said... Rev.

Travis Trott said...

Rev. Burton-Edwards--

The crux of these stories, and Christ's ministry, is that yes, in fact, sometimes rules and grace are in direct opposition. Jesus the Christ certainly worked within an ordered Jewish society, but he eschewed many of those rules in order to take thoughtful and compassionate action for those the law had left out.

Again, the question isn't about should, it's not about "wrong" action; it's about taking the "wrong" action when it is, in the situation, quite right.

Pastor Mack said... Don't

Pastor Mack said...

Don't Mormons regularly baptize the dead? I'm not sure I want to be in that quasi-ecclesiastical company. But oh well.

My fiance, who is in medical school, is doing a unit of CPE this summer and did recently baptize a dead infant upon request in the hospital. Not sure what I would have done. I understand the rules as a Methodist - but then, Wesley wasn't supposed to preach out-of-doors, was he? I'm not sure if this is grace or the "heretical imperative" at work, but I think the Lord would understand if we chose to honor the grieving of parents instead of making a theological point.

One thing I am sure of - as a pastor in my first appointment, hearing about all the paperwork and chit-chat that is involved in CPE makes me never, ever, want to do it myself.

Anonymous said... There

Anonymous said...

There is no better preparation for ministry than a quality CPE program...ALL pastors should be required to do CPE.
Pastor Sara