In September of last year, the MCC Theologies Team launched the first in a series of surveys attempting to map both community practices and individual experiences and beliefs in MCC. The project has begun with our sacraments, looking first at Baptism, and planning to follow up with Holy Communion.
Though the surveys are still being collected, we are eager to share a snapshot of the first responses, along with some interesting highlights that illustrate some distinctive characteristics of MCC. Once again, we are discovering a rich diversity of beliefs and experiences within our congregations.
View the Church Practices snapshot.
View the Individual Experiences/Beliefs snapshot.
Some interesting highlights include:
Demographics. So far we have received responses from 57 churches in 5 countries, as well as individual responses from 421 members, friends, and MCC clergy. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Straight, Pansexual, Same Gender Loving, and Queer... the variety of self-identifications is broad. The respondents tend to be older, with fully half over the age of 50.
Our practices reflect our diversity. A quick look at the church practices survey illustrates the rich diversity of theologies and practices within MCC. We baptize in churches, in swimming pools and lakes, in rivers, streams, and ponds, oceans, and even (as one respondent reported) in bathhouses! We immerse, we sprinkle, we pour, and we use ritual elements ranging from blessings, to anointing with oil, to baptismal garments and candles. Some of these customs can be traced from our former denominational roots, while others are fresh expressions within MCC.
What we mean by "sacrament" could use some further reflection. In our survey, we defined sacrament as "a visible sign of the communication of a spiritual grace or gift," but results indicate a possible slippage between historic understandings and the perceptions of our respondents. Nearly 77% of individual respondents report that they were taught that Baptism is a sacrament, followed by an increase to 84% when people identify their current beliefs.
Sacramental views of Baptism are commonly contrasted to Baptism as an ordinance, viewed either as following the example of Jesus or obeying his commandments. While some Christian faith traditions view Baptism as sacramental (e.g., Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, the Reformed Tradition, and Anglicanism), many others do not.
Many respondents reported their religious background as Baptist, Assemblies of God, Pentecostal/Charismatic, Quaker, and Anabaptist (including Mennonite and Brethren) -- all denominations that historically do not teach that Baptism creates a supernatural change or that Baptism is in any way necessary for salvation. Most of these groups consider Baptism a public act indicating a prior conversion experience, while Quakers generally do not practice water baptism at all.
With this in mind, it is curious to see individuals from these traditions reporting that they were taught that Baptism is a sacrament. It is unclear whether this is an ambiguity in Christian education or perhaps a result of the wording of our original question. We are interested to see how a similar question is received in the forthcoming Holy Communion survey.
"Re-baptism" is common in MCC. Roughly 70% of individual respondents reported that they had been taught that baptism is an unrepeatable act. Yet the number who now believe Baptism to be repeatable is about 70%. Further, nearly 70% of our churches report that they re-baptize, while 34% of individuals report being baptized more than once.
The reasons given for these beliefs are various, from rededications, to folks coming out or marking a gender transition. Others have responded to various calls at MCC gatherings where a general invitation has been opened at the pool to join in a mass Baptism service. (Photo at the top of this article.)
Within ecumenical dialogue (talks between various Christian faith traditions), re-baptism is generally discouraged. For those who believe that salvation is effected by Baptism, once is all it takes (whether the person baptized remembers the event or not) since the saving action depends on God rather than any conscious decision of the baptized. Further, a general agreement that Baptisms performed (1) with water and (2) in the name of the Trinity has helped these churches to recognize Baptisms from churches outside their own tradition, without insisting on a "do over" for anyone that they didn't baptize themselves.
With this in mind, more "holy conversations" around both traditional teaching and our unique contexts and experiences could help us to articulate the rationale behind this distinctive practice.
Church Membership & Baptism. While MCC By-Laws state that any baptized Christian can become a member of an MCC congregation, approximately 21% of churches report that they do not require Baptism for membership. Baptism has historically been the key not only to membership in a congregation but to participation in the Church at large. But MCC congregations with practices at variance with the By-Laws suggest that their understanding of radical inclusivity leads them to extend membership even to those who do not seek baptism.
We are clearly seeing a tension between allowing all people full participation in the life of the local church and the understanding of the local church's relationship to the Body of Christ: the "one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" of the Nicene Creed. With this shift in practice, it is unclear how membership in the local MCC is related to historic understandings of participation in the larger Body of Christ. This is another opportunity for "holy conversations" that explore connections between traditional teachings and our emerging practices.
There's much more...
We cannot summarize the complete snapshot provided so far by our respondents, but we welcome everyone to take a look at both the church practices and the individual responses that we have received. While we have shared almost all of the data, we have removed information that would personally identify any unique individual.
We want to hear from you!
If you have not participated, there's still time to fill out the survey right now!
If your church hasn't participated, please contact your clergy or board and urge them to complete the church practices survey.
Participation by the largest pool of churches, clergy, members, and friends of MCC will help us to create a detailed picture of our diversity and gifts. And understanding who we are will in turn help us to identify areas for further holy conversation and to share our insights and experiences with the larger Body of Christ.