When I started to be a parish priest, as opposed to being a prison Chaplain, I was exposed to a way of thinking that emphasized baptism. We learned the phrase ‘The Church is the Evangelizing, Catechising (Forming) and Baptizing Community’. I was grasped by the picture of a community focused outward. Church life was focused around the Font as the sacrament of being ‘plunged’ into the life of Christ for the first time, at the door of the Church, and the Eucharist became the repeatable part of that first plunging; the regular communion and immersing of myself into the life of Christ and Christ’s Body through the Eucharist.
So along with that picture went the questions about how best to represent it physically. I remember one priest saying ‘We don’t want any more ‘bird baths’ (meaning small bowls as fonts, from which people could be ‘sprinkled’. ) The power of a sacrament from the human side is enhanced by the degree to which the physical element of the sacrament matches and mirrors the truth of the relationship with God that is being forged. Are we ‘sprinkled’ with Christ, or are we ‘plunged into Christ’ as the Greek verb ‘baptizo’ means? As I often say ‘Is Christ the icing on an already cooked cake, or is there a whole new and regular ‘re-cooking’ of our cake by participation in Christ’s life?
So the thing that I did when I went t be parish priest in Bulleen was to get a big font. I found a big copper container, that used to be used for boiling clothes, and polished it up, and suspended it from the beams of our church. Then those who were baptized as babies could be ‘plunged’ into the water, and adults could stand and have lots of water poured over them from this font.
When I left Bulleen, the very first thing that went was the font!
The same happened at Alexandra as I recently found out on a return visit there on my holidays. I had a notice board out the front of the Church where we could write pithy sayings and invite an engagement with the community. It was not really ‘beautiful’ but it did the job, everyone read it, and commented on it. We also had a very big font! This came about because some members of the congregation of a Baptist way of thinking wanted their daughters baptized, and thought it would be better by immersion. So we got the top half of our old pulpit that was pushed to one side, out of sight, and filled in one side. We got a pool liner made to make it waterproof, and made stairs for going up and down into the water. Brilliant! (I thought). But then when I leave the first two things that are changed are that the sign is taken down and the font is removed and replaced with, you guessed it, a bird bath!
Now I do understand that new clergy have a right to shape places as their sense of things demands. Everyone has the right to try to place their mark on a new setting. It is what I am doing here in Montreux, after all. The Priest in Alexandra changed the sanctuary around a bit so that the president is sitting in a big chair behind the altar. I would not have done it, but that, it seems to me falls within a legitimate making of the place comfortable for he priest who after all has to work in it.
But I really am worried by the fact that the first moves in both places were to, it seems to me, withdraw into ‘churchiness’. I mean this: If you are a Nineteenth Century clergyman, you have ‘duties’. The job is mostly about pastoral care and managing church life. There are services to hold, people to visit, fetes to organize, money to raise. You know the thing. Clergy are trained to ‘manage’ church life. But the idea that the Church is designed for the process of initiation and formation: that is of helping us all to move from the sphere of illusion that is ‘The World’ into the sphere of Truth which is Christ is not on the agenda of clergy training much, and so many don’t think it, or know how to do it.
Congregations that focus only on the belonging of existing members to a community, but do not know how to engage in the contest of ideas and actions which helps people move from illusion to reality will be either dying congregations, or ‘church shops’ which provide religious services to people who ‘like’ them.
My own view is that Church exists for the purpose of transformation. First it exists for he purpose of the transformation of its members. We sing ‘O wind of God come bend come break us, till humbly we confess our need, then in your tenderness remake us, revive restore for this we plead.’ That is what is on offer in the Eucharist, as our hearts are ‘opened’ and ‘cleansed’ by the ‘in-breathing’ of God’s Spirit.
But then the Church’s job is to show forth and witness to the reality of Christ as ‘the Real’ in a world that is captive to a lot of things that are illusory. Now if we are unpopular or very few because not many people ‘get’ Christ, then I don’t mind. But if we are few and unpopular because we have nothing much to offer, into which people can be ‘plunged’ which will change their life, then I do mind. If we want to be more ‘nice’ and ‘pretty’ than compelling, exciting and perhaps even a bit dangerous, then we deserve to decline and go out of existence.
What seems unavoidably true however is that most of the Church would rather not have big fonts that by their size and presence ask the question ‘Who is being plunged into this water and under what circumstances do they come?’ This is a ‘bridge too far’ for most, since it is the first thing that is removed when I go.
More than this is it that such a big font is an ‘offence’ or a scandal that needs to be removed? For me the font is the primary sign of what we are for. It continually asks us by its presence ‘Who is coming?’ What purpose is this piece of furniture serving?
The Font draws our attention to the cutting edge between the world according to Christ and the ‘World’. That is the most interesting place for me to be. I am a bit sad that the thing that I thought was my ‘best contribution’ is the first thing to be removed. But then, ‘It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like Him, for we shall see him as He really is.’