Saturday, September 30, 2006

Emergency Baptism for Everybody

On August 3, I wrote this post complaining about the fact that I hardly ever see chaplains on TV medical shows like ER or Scrubs. (I also complained about other medical-show cliches, like the Fallacy of the Uncrowded Code Room.) Yesterday, my friend Claire added a new comment to that post, part of which I'll quote here:
I almost never watch broadcast TV, much less an ER that isn't a rerun, but I did last night (9/28 already) and I'm sure you'll be gratified to know there WAS a chaplain in the episode! A mother called for the chaplain to join the OR team for emergency surgery on a teeny distressed preemie baby from the NICU (we won't say whose!) because the father had wanted to have the baby baptized and the outcome looked so iffy. My predictible plot-meter suggests there had previously been conflict between the parents over whether or not to baptize, but I missed the beginning so can't say for sure.

Anyway, the chaplain appeared in the OR scenes, all scrubbed, gowned and masked just like everybody else except he was praying over a big black book with with a big cross on the cover conspicuously displayed in the shot. He MAY have had some kind of purple vestment on over the scrubs, can't remember for sure.
I asked Claire, "Was the big black book scrubbed, too?" I've never been in an OR, but I'm pretty sure that a non-sterile Bible wouldn't be allowed in there, and I'm positive that non-sterile vestments wouldn't be. (If I'm wrong about any of this, I'm sure someone will correct me!)

While I'm glad that ER finally got around to including a chaplain, it sounds as if this episode perpetuated three more fallacies, two small and one large:

1. At least where I volunteer, chaplains don't lug Bibles around. In the Spiritual Care Department, there's a big box with bound copies of the Psalms and the New Testament, like those Gideon Bibles you find in hotel rooms. Sometimes I'll ask if an ER patient would like one of these, and if the patient says yes, I'll run upstairs and get one. But I don't carry them as a matter of course. I carry a clipboard case with pens, my cell phone, prayer cards, packs of tissues -- my #1 most-in-demand item -- and pretty plastic rosaries made by other volunteers (also often greatly in demand: an indigent patient once asked shyly for four of them to give to her family as Christmas presents).

2. Vestments are liturgical garments worn during church services. Nobody wears them around the hospital. Chaplains who are ordained will often (not always) wear a clerical shirt and collar, but vestments are different: heavy, hot, jaw-droppingly expensive, and strictly ceremonial. Those puppies cost the world to clean, and you definitely don't want to get hospital goop on them.

3. Okay, here's the biggie: you don't need a chaplain to baptize someone. Here are the emergency-baptism instructions from page 313 of the Book of Common Prayer:
In case of emergency, any baptized person may administer Baptism according to the following form.

Using the given name of the one to be baptized (if known), pour water on him or her, saying:

I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
That's it. Water and an invocation of the Trinity: that's all it takes. In a real emergency, if clean water isn't available, you can use saliva, although I trust that would never be necessary in a hospital.

If you don't know if the person's been baptized, say, "If you are not already baptized, Name, I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." If someone who's been given an emergency baptism recovers, the baptism should be recognized at a public celebration of the sacrament in the patient's faith community, with appropriate clergy presiding. In that case, the full baptismal rite will be performed, except that the water won't be administered again. But all baptized people can perform emergency baptisms: relatives, friends, nurses, doctors, security guards, volunteers, other patients.

I've never had to do this. I was only asked to perform a baptism once, and that was a joking request by a young man who was in the ER for something like a sprained ankle, and certainly wasn't in dire peril. I told him that if he was serious about wanting to be baptized, he should find a faith community and have it done there. Baptism recognizes someone as part of the Body of Christ, which means that ideally, there will be as many other members of the body in attendance as possible.

But I could and would do an emergency baptism if I had to, and so could all kinds of other people. While some patients (or their parents) might prefer clergy to perform the rite, it isn't always possible to find an ordained minister on short notice. If I were performing an emergency baptism for someone who was distressed that I wasn't clergy, I'd probably say something like, "I have a hunch that God cares much less about those little white collars than people do. Jesus wasn't clergy, either, but He loved everybody, no matter who they were or what they wore. Baptism is an assurance of God's love and forgiveness."

Actually, I strongly suspect that God also cares much less about baptism than people do, but an emergency baptism is an act of pastoral comfort and reassurance, and I'd never act dismissive of it to someone who requested one.

So now you know: if you've been baptized, you, too, can perform an emergency baptism! I hope that most hospital personnel, especially NICU nurses, are already aware of this. But if you weren't before, now you are.

(Note: if you haven't been baptized and there's no one around who has been, I suspect that the love and compassion you'd display by performing the rite would outweigh any theoretical risk to your soul or the soul of the patient. This is assuming, of course, that performing the rite wouldn't offend your own beliefs. Distraught patients and their loved ones probably aren't going to ask you to whip out a baptismal certificate. But I'm on truly heretical ground here, so you never heard me say this.)

So now can we get that non-sterile Bible out of the OR, please?

15 comments:

  1. Come on, you're a writer. You can't expect them to let facts get in the way of a dramatic cliche.

    You have to be a skiffy writer to do that, sometimes.

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  2. Hey, Martyn! Actually, I try to train my writing students to think very critically about believability issues, both when they write and when they read their peers' work. My standard way of describing this is to say, "If you were on a jury listening to this story, would you believe it, or would implausible behavior and sloppy chronology make you doubt the witness?"

    Some people never get the message, though; they just accept whatever they hear at face value. Which means that I really hope they never get called for jury duty!

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  3. The chaplain who emergency-baptized my little one in the operating room had a bible.
    No one in the family was a witness which makes me sad, I dont know why.
    But I think your heart would love my church's ceremony - oils and then the baby is held up above his dad's head on the alter facing the congregation and they call and answer "Christ has risen" "Indeed he has risen" - it's is overwhelming and fantastic.
    Im sure you dont need to know that but there it is anyway. Happy Monday!

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  4. Hi, That Girl. Thank you for your comment, and for sharing your experience. Was that chaplain scrubbed and gowned?

    And it completely makes sense that you'd be sad that none of your family could witness the baptism; it's meant to be a joyous community celebration, so when it has to happen in rushed, isolated, emergency conditions, there's a real sense of loss.

    The church service indeed sounds glorious! My favorite moment of our own baptismal service is the consecration with oil, followed by the priest saying, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own forever.' That line always makes me cry.

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  5. I think you're right about current Episcopal baptism practices, but I wonder if all Christian sects would accept baptism by people who aren't ordained (especially those sects which don't practice the ordination of women: do they accept baptism by women?). I know historically the validity of emergency baptism by midwives was hotly contested within the Church of England.

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  6. Hi, Bardiac! Thanks for your comment. The Catholic Church permits emergency baptism by laypeople, too, and they certainly don't ordain women. There may be some groups that don't permit this, but in that case, I hope they have vast numbers of clergy on hand to handle all emergencies.

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  7. I gave up watching ER a while back, so I didn't see this episode.

    However, not everyone in an OR is srubbed or sterile, in the technical definition of those terms. Everyone is wearing scrub garments, but only those functioning in the sterile field are "sterile" or "scrubbed" in the strictest sense of the term. We routinely bring reference materials into the OR on the cases in which I'm involved (and maybe I should add a pocket Bible...hmmm) and these are no more sterile than anything else found in a hospital ICU.

    And you're right about "baptism rights" (as opposed to "rites") as well...when working as a paramedic, I baptized one or two people in the conditional sense ("if you have not already been baptized, I baptize you...").

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  8. hapax1:21 PM

    Just stumbled on your blog -- what a terrific site. I'm sure to check back often.

    I thought I would mention that the Blessed African Doctor (that is, the often-maligned Augustine of Hippo) opined that even if non-baptized actors in a play on stage portrayed a baptism, and some of the water spilled on an unbaptized audience member, as long as there was water and an invocation of the Trinity in the vicinity, a valid baptism had occurred. In other words, both the status and intent of performer and recipient were irrelevant. (Of course, if said baptizand immediately fell into a state of sin again, as most likely would happen, such baptism would be insufficient for salvation, but that's neither here nor there...)

    This opinion has often been criticized as making the sacrament teeter on the edge of magic, but Augustine's point was very different. If God has decreed that THIS is the means by which THIS particular grace is to be conferred, no human agency or intent can possibly interfere or constrain the actions of the Divine Spirit, which "blows where it wills..."

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  9. Anonymous6:14 PM

    It has been a good 40 years since I had to study the Baltimore Catechism. But, I do recall the nuns saying that you didn't have to be a priest to do an emergency Baptism. Neither did you have to be Catholic or Christian. It was the intent to Baptize that was the issue.

    I, too, have wondered about what would happpen if someone was "Baptized" in a theatrical production. I vaguely recall some nun saying it wouldn't count because of the lack of intent. But, I may be making that part up.

    V

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  10. Intent to baptize is necessary -- as is consent if the person is of age and able to consent.

    The Roman Catholic Church not only permits, it encourages emergency baptism by lay persons. The priest who was chaplain when I started working in the NICU at my Catholic hospital only asked one thing of us:

    Ask the parents for permission if you don't know whether or not they are Catholic (Catholic parents are pretty much presumed to consent in a life-threatening situation) If you forget to ask the parents ahead of time and find out afterwards that they did not want the baby baptized, please do not document the baptism anywhere.

    I have long since lost count of the number of emergency baptisms in which I have participated, but I have always had the opportunity to ask permission and generally to invite the family to participate to the extent to which they are able.

    More often than not, we can have the family's clergy or our in-house priest perform the baptism except for delivery room resuscitations.

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  11. Intent to baptize is necessary -- as is consent if the person is of age and able to consent.

    The Roman Catholic Church not only permits, it encourages emergency baptism by lay persons. The priest who was chaplain when I started working in the NICU at my Catholic hospital only asked one thing of us:

    Ask the parents for permission if you don't know whether or not they are Catholic (Catholic parents are pretty much presumed to consent in a life-threatening situation) If you forget to ask the parents ahead of time and find out afterwards that they did not want the baby baptized, please do not document the baptism anywhere.

    I have long since lost count of the number of emergency baptisms in which I have participated, but I have always had the opportunity to ask permission and generally to invite the family to participate to the extent to which they are able.

    More often than not, we can have the family's clergy or our in-house priest perform the baptism except for delivery room resuscitations.

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  12. Thanks for the comments, everybody! Hey, I'm right that you actually don't even have to be baptized yourself? (Every time I try to be heretical, I wind up being orthodox instead . . . .)

    I'm intrigued by PJ's comment, especially in conjunction with Judy's. I'm wondering in what kinds of situation PJ performed conditional baptisms; if the patient wasn't able to answer the question, "Have you already been baptized," wouldn't that mean the patient also couldn't give consent?

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  13. Excellent post.

    You're not surprised that TV deals with religion clumsily, are you?

    BTW, not to nit-pick, but I'm aware of evidence to suggest that Jesus had smicha (ordination), that is, his teachers laid on hands and called him "rabbi".

    best,

    Flea

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  14. Thank you, Flea! All corrections gratefully accepted!

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  15. James6:31 PM

    The Catholic Church teaches that anyone, even a heretic or pagan, can perform a valid emergency baptism provided that they intend to do what the church does, uses the proper Trinitarian invocation, and uses water.

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