Sunday, August 19, 2012

Religion that serves you

There are a lot of twenty- and thirtysomethings at the church I attend, which isn't particularly surprising: my parish is a lively and active one, located smack in the middle of an artsy neighborhood popular with college students and recent grads.

Some of the young people are energetically involved in the life of the parish, while a larger number are more or less just passing through: they're living in the area for a few years, they're in the habit of going to mass, and this is the most convenient church. Others really just seem to be passing through: probably once a month we wind up seated near a young couple who seem ill at ease and uncertain about even the basic responses or the order of the mass. My standard assumption is that such couples are church- or faith-shopping, or contemplating marriage: one or both might have been raised Catholic and been away for a while, and they're trying us on to see if we fit.

I've got no problem with that, or with passers-through of any variety; I've tried on churches myself. During one period of my life I was so unable to decide between one extremely conservative and one extremely progressive parish that I just floated back and forth between them for four years. (What attracted me to the one repelled me in the other, and vice versa.)

What I do have a problem with is those people who act as though whatever it is that they want or expect from a church requires nothing--no effort, no participation, not even a little friendliness and good humor--in return. They want to walk in and feel immediately comfortable, immediately special. Having some tenuous identity as Catholics means they should have RIGHTS! Rights to rites, in fact, for nowhere is this attitude on greater display than in nonpracticing Catholics who want to get married or have their kids baptized in the church.

Today was a baptism. We have a lot of baptisms at my church, sometimes as many as three or four a month, and I generally find them delightful. Babies tend to be cute; their families tend to be happy; and the two priests who serve our parish are warm and genial and extremely well-practiced (rarely does a baptism add five minutes to the usual length of the service). But today was not one of the delightful ones.

I was serving as lector, so I'd heard the parish administrator talking to the presider before mass about the baptismal family. She mentioned that they seemed confused and unfamiliar with the service, so would need more guidance from the priest than usual. Whatever, I thought. New parents are allowed to be flakey and confused, or the baptism might have been the grandparents' idea; who knows.

But I spent all mass staring at this family (they were seated in the first two rows and I was seated up in the sanctuary) and I couldn't figure out whose idea the baptism could possibly have been. They all looked like they'd been dragged there against their will. The parents, the godparents, all four grandparents, and several adult siblings were present, and no one seemed to have any idea what was going on. One set of grandparents made an effort--they sang the songs from the hymnal and used the pew cards to follow the new responses--but no one else did. No one else attempted a response, recited even the Lord's Prayer, or so much as picked up a pew card or opened a hymnal (though they all received communion). The baby's parents nudged each other and whispered during the homily. Throughout, the looks on the faces of the family members ranged from stoic endurance to sour displeasure.

And you know, I'm all for being welcoming. I'm fine with meeting people where they're at, and I understand that lots of cultural Catholics have a sentimental attachment to ritual and fetishize various signifiers of the religion without actually wanting to be a part of a community of faith. I don't love that attitude, but insofar as cultural Catholicism indicates a genuine attachment to the religion of a person's childhood, my position is that it's a net good for those of us who are practicing. Such people often send their kids to Catholic schools. They show up en masse for the baptisms and first communions of their nieces and nephews. They have relatives who go to church regularly--they may even have an aunt or uncle who's a nun or a priest--and many of them think occasionally that they really should start going to church again themselves. They belong to a community, in other words, that supports the community of actual believers.

As I say, I get this. What I do not get is people who think religion--or whatever symbolism or meaning or social benefits they think accrue to religion--comes entirely without participation. Belief may be personal, but religion is relational. It's about community. It depends on community. And being a part of a community means that you have to give at least a little something in return. Like, say, your engaged and interested presence, however infrequently you may show up.

But for some people, even that seems a terribly high bar.


Comrade Physioprof said...

Maybe these people were there because some deluded member of their family would go shittnuttes if they didn't baptize the baby, but the rest of them were aware that religion is fucken absurd bullshitte, but it was more important to them to make grandpa happy than it was to take a stand? Instead of blaming these people for not participating avidly enough, you should be praising them for playing along with the religious gibberish some of their family members apparently subscribe to.

Anonymous said...

Comrade, I think you'll find she said she couldn't figure out who in this bunch was behind this, since everyone looked surly and sour or bored and annoyed. If a handful of folks looked engaged, it would have a different effect.

This bothers me a great deal, too. We see this often except our priest actively encourages the families not to stay after the baptism itself if they don't want to be there for communion. So we end up with a mass exodus just before the consecration starts. It's really strange. I don't see why people who can't attend the whole of a single service want their baby baptized at all.

Concord Fowling Pieces said...

I'm squiffy on infant baptism in general (I consider it a solution to a problem that we no longer have), but to the extent that I don't find it problematic, it is solely because of the relational aspect to religion. For me, the entire point is to bring a new person into the community of Christ. So, I, too, share the puzzlement at people who show up and just want to be married or baptized in the church.

But I think that's mainly because we can't relate to the people making those choices. Religion looks so different from the outside than the inside that people literally don't know what's significant in the Bible or in church teachings. And so they may have a transactional understanding of sacraments, or they may be uncomfortable taking away this thing from their children that they have had provided to them, or because of some other understanding of the construct of religion they have built in their heads.

And, of course, from a ministerial perspective, the only way to change that image is by getting them in the church. So awkward people, ho!

Flavia said...


What Anastasia said. Believe me, I've seen plenty of families where that's pretty clearly the case; it's not a phenomenon I'm ignorant of.


Exactly! (And oy, that arrangement at your church sounds like a disaster.) As my spouse said, "getting a kid baptized is giving him a ticket to attend a whole lot of masses. And you're pissed you have to attend one?"

I think it's possible that some of these people don't realize that this is how baptism works in the Catholic Church these days: it's part of a full, Sunday mass, not just a 15-minute family ceremony. I understand that nonpracticers might be uncomfortable with that, and would rather have this small private thing. . . but dude. There are a couple hundred people here, who are here every week. Our service has been reoriented around your kid getting baptized. And you're the ones who feel put out?


Sure, agreed. And I know that awkwardness can often look like rudeness or indifference (the young couple we've seen for several weeks now, who don't speak any of the responses or sing any of the hymns or engage with anyone around them? well. . . no one's holding a gun to their heads, so they must be getting something out of coming). But though I am, as I say, all for meeting people where they are, I'd like to see a little more openness and willingness to engage.

What Now? said...

I see a similar phenomenon with confirmation, although in that case it's usually that the parents (or maybe grandparents) have decided that their teenager should be confirmed and go through the classes, etc., to make that happen, but the family agreement is apparently that after that, the kid never has to go to church again. And often the parents don't come back to church either. At which point I have to wonder, What is the value that they place on confirmation, since they apparently aren't actually interested in being part of the church in which they're being confirmed? This phenomenon starts to feel like magical thinking to me, as though the rite somehow carries enough power in and of itself such that there's no need for religion after that. (And maybe that's exactly what they're thinking; I'm a low enough sacramentalist that I find this thinking odd.)

Anonymous said...

that this is how baptism works in the Catholic Church these days: it's part of a full, Sunday mass, not just a 15-minute family ceremony.

Well, no, not necessarily, it depends where you are. We baptised my second nephew last month and the baptism was a small private 15 min ceremony with no mass. The priest explained that this is now the new practice, because there were constant complaints from long-term parishioners about babies being too loud during baptism-masses and were disturbing their prayers. So the priests pragmatically separated baptisms from the main mass and made them into short private ceremonies and everyone is happy with this solution.

Flavia said...


Thanks for this; I didn't know it was still done much of anywhere (and I've moved around a lot). But I'm not sure that I consider it a better solution, necessarily, in the case of nonpracticing Catholics--what it means is that the priest and the church are actually being asked to take more time out of their schedule to serve people with no necessary connection, commitment, or interest in the life of the parish.

But I'll admit that this is the first parish I've attended where I actively enjoy the baptisms, which are incorporated in a joyful, dignified (and, yes, time-efficient!) way into the mass as a whole. It's made me believe in baptisms as something that really are about the community, and an occasion for communal celebration--which I suppose is why I'm so bothered by those who don't respond even minimally to what I see as a generous and well-executed welcome.

(And yes, I get that some people--as Comrade PP suggests--are there against their will, so don't wish to be welcomed. But I'm talking here about those who are actually seeking baptism for their kids.)

hd said...

Ha! I think there are a lot of activities like this for new parents. it's easy to get seduced into a vision of "family life" that isn't yours but that you thought would be... there's a tendency to think that parenthood will CHANGE you. it does, but not always that immediately. anyway, i found myself in an infant yoga class and on listservs that i used to mock. but i could see how, in a different universe, it would be a baptism.

I know this isn't your main point but the dazed and clueless rude new parents made me laugh and brought me back.

Flavia said...


Heh. Yeah, I get that--and I'm neither surprised nor offended that some parents get their kid baptized (either at their own initiative or with some prodding) with only the haziest or most wishful intention of maybe starting to try to be the kind of people who go to church. . . but who then never follow through, or who are turned off or alienated by the experience. But I guess I'd expect there to be something at least guardedly optimistic about the initial attempt!

i said...

It would be logical to assume that if some of the family members were pushing for the baptism, then some of the folks present at the baptism would look engaged, or be regular church-goers, or the like. It would be logical, but untrue. Two members of my family have recently tried to push for me to baptise my kid, and they rarely attend church themselves. Also possible that the individual(s) pushing hard for the baptism may be too aged to attend, or worse. That might explain all the unhappy faces.

But what a timely post! I'm due to attend a Catholic baptism in about a month. It's cool though -- the little girl has asked to be baptised, which I can roll with. Husband is due to be godfather, which means he has to get some special document from the local church, which I guess he does by not telling them what a Christopher Hitchens fan he is. However, if the local church decides they are entitled to an automatic ten percent of our income through taxes (as is customary in the country where I now am), I will throw a fit.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I was thinking along the same lines as i: that it sounded like whoever was pressuring the family to have the kid baptized was not present, perhaps due to distance or illness/age/frailty, but was no doubt expecting not only word that the event had happened, but a photo of all the family in attendance. Presumably they smiled while taking said photo.

I sung for quite a few years in the chapel choir at my graduate school. The service for which we sang was ecumenical Protestant, but with a strong flavor of the Reformed tradition in which I'd been raised (and which was the university's original affiliation). The chapel was popular for weddings, but we weren't generally involved in those unless one of our number was getting married (in which case we turned out happily to provide music if desired). But many couples who had been married there returned to have their children baptized, which I found very strange, since the questions were the ones I was used to -- about welcoming and teaching the child, and supporting the parents -- but we knew we'd never see either child or parents again. Especially in the Protestant tradition, there's really no point to infant baptism if it isn't about welcoming the child into a community which will actually play some role in hir life. The feeling that there was something significant missing from those baptisms (though I certainly don't blame the presiding clergy for performing them, and I'm sure the clergy did their best to encourage the parents to become involved in a congregation; that's a line the clergy at my current church still have to walk, especially when a grandparent is a member, but the parents are not) really helped clarify for me what I felt a congregation should be, which is just what you name: a community in which everyone, at least over the course of their involvement, gives as well as gets (there are, of course, exceptions to that rule, such as when members move elderly parents who can no longer contribute to be near them, but often those parents were very active themselves once upon a time, and their children have followed in their footsteps, making the contribution one of providing an example). Of course we're welcoming to people who simply want to attend (and I suppose warm bodies in the pews are a contribution in their own way), but I think it's hard to get much out of a religious community unless you also give something back, or at least make some effort to participate.

By the way, a Catholic friend's child was baptized in a fifteen-minute family-only service about 10 years ago. I'm told the local diocese is a notoriously conservative one (another friend's housekeeper, who had immigration-related reasons for not getting married, but was in a stable, committed relationship, had a priest refuse to baptize her child, which seems wrong any way you look at it to me, and altar-girls are forbidden; I'm not sure about female lectors); I don't know if that played a role. The separate service seemed like an odd approach to me, but I thought maybe that just meant that my Protestant assumptions about the sacrament's purpose were showing. Whatever the differences, my denomination considers Catholic baptisms fully valid (and vice versa; in fact, one of our pastors is married to a Catholic, and both her husband and in-laws seemed perfectly comfortable with their children/grandchildren being baptized with their mother as one of the participating clergy).

Susan said...

My former parish in Shoreline (Episcopal) had a rule that you had to attend for a certain amount of time before you baptized a kid, and if you were a newbie, we gave you a "parish sponsor" in addition to your family chosen godparents. It really emphasized that in welcoming a child "into the household of God" we took *our* responsibilities seriously, never mind what the family thought. And it sometimes worked -- in some cases the parish sponsors stayed deeply involved in the kid's life...

Flavia said...


I like that policy very much!

And all:

I'm interested in the various baptism stories and policies you've noted, and they've given me some useful context for thinking about my own parish's policies.

However, this post isn't really about baptism, per se--and in fact, for the very reasons you've all pointed out, baptism is actually an idiosyncratic and possibly un-useful example of the larger phenomenon that really interests me here. I'm interested in an attitude toward religion that understands it as not requiring much other than just showing up--or possibly not even that much!

This just-show-up model reminds me of attitudes toward education that we've all encountered, where the class is understood as a t.v. show or movie, or simple content-delivery. And though I'm willing to believe that nonparticipators experiences themselves as getting something out of their attendance, it's hard for me to believe that it's not inferior to what they'd get if they engaged more. In that respect, they're like the students who never talk, never come to office hours, and never solicit feedback on their work. They may like the class, they may even be learning. And some of them may be very smart. But they're missing out on a more challenging and more rewarding experience.

And of course, for some people, even showing up doesn't seem to be required in order to have religion, or believe in oneself as religious--something I've noted before, in a different context. Such people are free to believe this about themselves, of course. But I'm likewise free to challenge their definition of "religious." Which is what I'm doing here.

i said...

Well, there's an easy way to solve this problem... roll back Christianity to the days when it really was a mystery. Have a rigorous and lengthy educational process before baptism is even allowed, and keep the really good bits for the baptised alone. And while you're at it, have a free hand with the ol' excommunication, and mean it. Make confession and repentance a once-in-a-lifetime process, the kind that inserts a solid break into an individual's life.

In other words, up the stakes. Or get Late Antique about it.

What you have is a much, much smaller church, though I guess those in it would find it a more profound, and certainly a more exclusive experience. But really, I think what you're hoping for goes contrary to a growth strategy your own church has followed for over a millennium. My mind wanders back to some of the mass conversions in Bede's History, or Charlemagne's forced conversions of continental Saxons, to name two examples. Or to the "highly religious" later Middle Ages, when your average Schmoe could stand to get communion about once a year. You are free to define "religious" however works for you in your context, but for most of Catholic Christian history, it's really been a matter of just showing up. Of knowing a few basic things. And not being heretical. I think it's a bit unfair to be so critical of people coming into your church who are, frankly, playing by the rules.

(My own bias is that, while I wouldn't describe myself as "religious" at all, I have had positive experiences with two churches, Romanian Orthodox and Canadian Anglican, that managed to serve their communities quite well precisely by being open about the ways and extents to which different people could participate.)

Re: the educational example. Not every student is interested in maximum engagement with every single course they take. That kind of thing works when you have a tutor you're writing for every two weeks, but N. American students tend to juggle a lot more. I've had smart students who produce good work for me, and I know they could probably produce even better work and so on, but my course is just not at the top of their priority list. They may be doing a different major, or have a different focus within English. They may be doing intensive research with a professor, but in another department. They can't maximize everything!

Flavia said...


What you have is a much, much smaller church, though I guess those in it would find it a more profound, and certainly a more exclusive experience.

I'm really not sure how you're reading this into my post or my comments. As I have said multiple times in post and thread, I'm pretty tolerant of people trying things on for size, wandering in and out, or having an attachment to religion that's partly cultural, nostalgic, tribal, whatever. (I don't want such people making policy, or dictating religious terms to others, or acting like their interpretation of the religion is the only one, but that's a separate issue.) I'm a big-tent kind of person. What I'm ASKING for is openness and receptivity, and I read a willingness to participate--or just, you know, smile at the people around one--as a part of that.

That's pretty much exactly the opposite of what you're understanding me as wishing for.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that I am now itching to deploy the phrase "get Late Antique about [x]" at my next engineering conference. It sounds so cool. Though they probably won't know what I'm talking about.

Come to think of it neither would I. But still. (And by "I" I mean "me.")


Bardiac said...

Flavia, What you say sounds a lot like what my Mom expressed about similar issues when she was a long time member of a parish altar guild (an organization that in that parish helped with all services, cleaned service-related stuff, and took care of all sorts of necessary chores around the parish.

My sense from my Mom and her colleagues on the altar guild was that they cherished the parish community and wanted other people to treat the community with respect, if not a level of cherishing. When my Dad died and his service was held, the altar guild put on a reception after the service that made me (as someone no longer part of the parish) feel cherished and cared for by connection. Most of the people there weren't members of the parish, but I hope everyone else felt some of the cherishing and care.

It wasn't exclusionary at all (and I didn't think your post was, either) but more got across a sense that community is mutual caring and responsibility. That's also what I got from your post.

Flavia said...

Thanks, Bardiac! Yes--respectfulness, or really even just pleasant mild agreeableness. Or, you know: an apparent desire to be in that space, at that time.

What I'm reacting to, and what I think i. misunderstands, is not the individual person or family who seems rude or disoriented or disengaged. I don't get all het up about an individual student (or three, or four) who's not fully engaged either. I'm displeased when there's a dominant attitude, or a large-minority attitude, of disengagement. It's depressing to teach a class where, no matter how encouraging and lively you are, everyone just stares at you, and it's depressing to be in church--especially when it's a warm, welcoming church--surrounded by people who similarly seem to have no reaction to and no engagement with anything that's going on.

As a teacher, I relate to the priest who's running an efficient, smart, well-thought-out, but also friendly & accessible service, and seemingly not getting much back-- but I also feel like the frustrated eager students I sometimes have in bad classes, who are surrounded by silent sullen classmates (and who sometimes stop participating themselves, because the energy is so bad).

In both the classroom and a church service, there needs to be some energy and responsiveness. Most of what happens in the room may be shaped and directed by just one or a handful of people (the teacher, the priest), but the experience is meant to be relational. They can't sustain it entirely alone.

i said...

Flavia, you're right that I was misunderstanding you. I think it's helpful to describe what you're feeling as a reaction to general trends rather than to individuals, as the anecdote in your OP seemed to suggest. Because, well, individuals have their individual stories, don't they? They might be unhappy to be there, they might be thinking hard (I know from dance classes that I look downright angry when I'm concentrating on something), they might feel uncomfortable, uncertain.

They might even be having some kind of experience which makes them less interested in how their facial expressions come across, or in performing a social role at all. I'm certainly not a model for any kind of religious experience, but I do know that:

1. When I did have spiritual experiences during religious services, I wasn't at all aware of the people around me.

2. When I've been in a service and been aware of the people around me, it was because I was either forced to be there by others, and so had to "play nice," or was there for some kind of social reason -- a wedding, a baptism, a friend preaching for the first time, doing a reading at evensong -- but certainly got nothing spiritual out of it.

Again, this has to do with my own particular experience of things. But I can imagine that I'm not the only one who feels this way. (And, well, I know some people in TX who go to services and are complete unbelievers, but they want to be part of a church community. I guess they're "religious" because they participate and smile at everybody?) But when I've walked into a church of my own accord, without any kind of social obligation to anyone else, I haven't been there because I wanted a better relationship with the people sitting next to me in the pews, or with the lector, or the choir, or the priest. I went because I was interested in a relationship with God.

Flavia said...


I get what you're saying. But I think this returns us to the distinction I made in the original post between "belief"--which is personal--and "religion"--which is communal.

Canuck Down South said...

To add another possible explanation to those discussed upthread for your initial anecdote, it's quite possible that everyone at the baptism is there under serious duress, and is only performing the rite for someone elsewhere. Seems odd, I know, but the disengagement you describe could be the result of some other massive religious disagreement underlying the whole thing: for example, to add another anecdote to the pile, I'm acquainted with one young couple who have hit a brick wall in trying to determine baptism arrangements for their newborn. One parent comes from a fiercely Catholic country on another continent; the other parent is Protestant, from a strong Prostestant family; they live the North American homeland of the Protestant parent. The non-North American Catholic grandparents are insisting on a Catholic baptism in their home country, but the (very conservative) church leadership in that country will not baptize a baby with a non-Catholic parent; I could see that electing for a Catholic baptism in a more flexible North American diocese could be a convenient compromise in a such a situation, with the result that no one actually able to attend the ceremony would be happy with that compromise--and there could be a lot of unhappy baptism-goers, who have some kind of personal or doctrinal problem with the Catholic Church or Catholic baptism, not just a simple lack of interest or courtesy.

While you've acknowledged that there are often individual, unknown (and often unknowable) reasons, for public disengagement in places like churches and classrooms, such as a student having other calls on his/her time, I think we need to add active resentment to that list. In a classroom setting that might be resentment towards a required course or a major that was not the first choice of the student's (bowing to family pressure, not enough program spaces, etc.); in a church that might include strong personal resentment or doctrinal disagreements (esp. considering the many controversies that have recently rocked the Catholic church). When I first started teaching, I assumed that a particularly bad student reaction had to reason (other than perhaps rudeness) behind it, and while I still think that's true 75% of the time, I've found that unusual levels of disengagement often serve another purpose. Sometimes it's not just discourtesy, it's protest--however ineffectual or inappropriate.

Canuck Down South said...

Correction--the third-from the last sentence should read "When I first started teaching, I assumed that a particularly bad student reaction had NO reason (other than perhaps rudeness) behind it..." Clearly I need to proofread my comments better!

Britta said...

I just found out an interesting backstory to my sister's baptism, which is that my grandfather had a falling out with members in the church over the organ, and from then on refused to set foot in the church. When it came time for my sister's baptism, my grandfather refused to make an exception, and in response, my grandmother ran away from home. After a week of frantically looking for her, my grandmother returned, and grandfather agreed to go to the baptism.

Not that this is likely, but it is possible there was some sort of odd backstory to the baptism that was totally unrelated to religion (maybe the parents hadn't approved of the marriage, and were unhappy that a child was born, or maybe there'd been a giant fight beforehand, or maybe the child had some sort of fatal illness.)

I come from this from the more Norwegian side of Norwegian-American, but I grew up assuming everyone was a baptized and confirmed atheist. Although I don't see myself as a regular church attender as an adult, I'm an agnostic and I don't really believe in the sacraments, something would feel off if my chid weren't baptized.