WV-WMD Synod :: COVID-19
Baptism by Zoom
Responsum ad propositum dubium

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Posted by WV-WMD Synod, ELCA on Wednesday, March 25, 2020
Dubium: Whether it is appropriate to baptize by Zoom.
Responsum: No.

The question has been posed as to whether a pastor, during self-isolation, could perform a baptism by Zoom (or other digital means), the proposed plan being as follows: the family holds the infant and administers the water, presumably according to the rubrics, while the pastor, over Zoom (or other digital link), pronounces the Trinitarian baptismal formula.

We might, in more leisurely times, engage in wild speculation about the validity of such an act with respect to the physical proximity of the formal cause and instrumental cause, but such speculation is utterly pointless in determining the decorum of baptismal discipline and practice to be observed, even in the midst of a pandemic. The historic teaching and practice of the Lutheran Movement is sufficient, there being nothing novel in the current situation that would suggest departure from historic norms in favor of novel and strange practice.

Without even addressing the question of the validity of a “Zoom baptism,” we note that it is utterly unnecessary. Consistent with historic practice, when the imminent death of a baptismal candidate is likely, baptism is not withheld for lack of a pastor. Under such a circumstance, i.e., when the pastor is not present and cannot arrive in time to baptize, any lay person may and should baptize, using water and the Trinitarian baptismal formula. This practice of “emergency baptism” is well documented in the church, and rubrics may be found for it our current liturgy.

The apparent root of the question raised is a doubt about the appropriate instrumental cause, the instrumental cause being the person who administers the water with the Triune baptismal formula. Confusion may arise, however, when we fail to distinguish between the validity of the instrumental cause and the licitness of the instrumental cause; thus, we should separate those two categories for the sake of clarity.

First, validity: there is no immediate presenting question of validity in emergency baptism as we have known it. Ordination has never been understood, among Lutherans, as a prerequisite for a valid baptism. This is a point of significant agreement in the greater part of the Western Church, and the Lutheran practice is a continuation of pre-Reformation Roman Catholic practice. Midwives, for example, have long baptized whenever the death of the newborn seemed imminent. Even in modern times, it has been common practice to teach OB nurses how to perform an emergency baptism. Not even the most Tridentine notions of power (potestas) made claims about the necessity of ordination vis-à-vis the validity of the instrumental cause in baptism in order to perform a valid baptism.

Second, licitness: licitness, while not affecting the validity of the baptism, does apply to questions of good order. Under normal circumstances, the one who baptizes is an ordained presbyter (pastor, in Lutheran terms, though bishops count too). This is addressed, in part, by Augustana XIV. Now, some, wishing to deconstruct the Public Ministry, have argued strict adherence to Augustana XIV precludes the laity sharing of the Word and thereby hope to demonstrate that any adherence to Augustana XIV in any matter (baptism included) is antithetical to the Gospel. Such a reductio ad absurdum, however, is sophistry, as it intentionally omits the distinction between the Public Ministry and the proper work of all those who participate in the Universal Priesthood of Christ. In the same way that all citizens of a city are to instruct their children in proper citizenship and even encourage and admonish their neighbors to the same, so should all Christians teach their children the faith and encourage and admonish their neighbors to lives of faith and holiness. At the same time, just as some (but not all) citizens of a city are magistrates and hold office (Amt), exercising certain powers for the same of the community with an authority that does not belong to all citizens, so to, in the church, some hold office (Amt) and exercise certain powers with an authority that does not belong to all members of the church. This should not shock. In the most mundane, left-handed operations of the institutional church, only the congregational treasurer and those others authorized to cut checks do so. In the same way, mechanisms exist that allow the church to authorize some to discharge specific duties for the good of all. The pastor, under Augustana XIV, is the licit baptizer under normal circumstances because it is the pastor, per our ecclesiastical norms, who has been authorized to discharge the Public Ministry, baptism falling within the scope of the Public Ministry, again, under normal circumstances. In extremis, however, e.g., when a candidate for baptism is faced with imminent death, it is, per our ecclesiastical norms, licit for any lay person to baptize. We see here, that the determination of licitness is dependent upon context, but, even so, that determination is made within the larger context of ecclesiastical norms.

Given the historic Lutheran tendency to insist upon good order, especially in terms of the Public Ministry, why is it that a lay person is a licit baptizer in extremis? Emergency by laity in the absence of clergy is so not only a matter of inherited pre-Reformation Roman Catholic practice. It is also a matter of Confessional theology. Augustana IX states, “baptism is necessary (daß sie nötig sei),” in the German version, and “necessary for salvation (quod sit necessarius ad salutem),” in the Latin version. Echoes of this are found in Luther’s catechetical teaching on baptism. For this reason, Lutherans retained emergency baptism, and this retention became a distinguishing mark between Lutherans and Reformed.

It is likely that the laity, if requesting the pastor to perform a “Zoom baptism,” are unfamiliar with the teaching and practice of the church. The remedy for this is sound teaching, and, if there is time to contemplate a “Zoom baptism,” there is certainly time to instruct. Instruct them that the validity of the baptism does not depend upon the ordination of the baptizer. Instruct them also in the norms related to licitness so that they do no baptize illicitly when not in extremis. Instruct them in the proper way to baptize, and instruct them to do so should it become necessary.

It is also possible that the request is rooted not in any notion of Sacramental necessity with respect to the person who baptizes but rather in sentimentalities that have no authentic place in the administration of the means of grace whether “Zoomed” or not. While a pastor may invite another pastor to baptize for a variety of reasons, some of them admittedly sentimental, such sentimentality should never impede baptism.

Lastly, it is possible a pastor may want to “Zoom baptize” because of the pastor’s own issues with pastoral authority, pastoral identity, co-dependency, or sentimentality. All these should be guarded against scrupulously.

“Zoom baptism” is rejected. When a pastor is present, the pastor baptizes. In extremis, when the pastor is not present, a lay person can and should baptize. “Zooming” undermines the teaching of the Lutheran Movement and introduces an unnecessary novel practice. When it is possible to follow the norms of the church, even norms that concern only matters of licitness, knowing and willful deviation is hubris.

As mentioned above, instruction of the laity in this matter is appropriate, necessary, and salutary. An emergency baptism must use water, either by immersion or affusion, with the Trinitarian baptismal formula. Only this is necessary in an emergency baptism. Other prayers may accompany it. The chrismation and “confirmation” should be done at a later time by the pastor. The baptism should be reported to the church immediately and recorded in the parish register with appropriate notation. Details for emergency baptism can be found in the Occasional Service Book, Agenda, etc. and can be easily copied and transmitted to those who may have to use them. It is prudent for pastors to instruct all expecting families and individuals on how to perform an emergency baptism should it become necessary. In general, baptism should not be delayed under the best of conditions; thus a child should be brought to the church sooner rather than later for baptism.


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West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod, ℅ St. Paul Lutheran Church, 309 Baldwin Street, Morgantown, WV 26505
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