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Book: A Place for Baptism

Regina Kuehn. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1992.137 pages.

"All you've ever wanted to know about baptismal fonts." You will find that and more in Kuehn's book. The text is directed largely at a Roman Catholic audience, and most of the examples are from Catholic churches (except those fonts illustrating immersion, which are borrowed mostly from Baptist churches).

Anything here for folks with Presbyterian and Reformed inclinations? Yes! Much of what Kuehn has to say is instructive for anyone interested in the theology and history of baptism. Kuehn's chapters on fonts shaped as womb, tomb, tub, cruciform, and octagon open up the discussion of the biblical and theological intent of baptism. For example, Kuehn makes frequent allusions to being buried and raised with Christ, and illustrates that biblical theology with the various baptismal fonts. Although one might occasionally raise a Calvinistic eyebrow, most of her treatment of baptism and the importance of baptism in the Christian life is thoroughly biblical.

One intriguing chapter deals with the placement of the font. In medieval times the font was often in a side chapel, and baptism became a private or family rite. The Reformers appropriately insisted that baptism is a congregational sacrament, which must be administered in the midst of the congregation. The font was therefore placed in the front of the sanctuary, near pulpit and table.

That placement continues to be appropriate, since it captures the Reformation insistence that Word and sacraments are complementary means of grace. However, a congregation might contemplate two alternative locations. One is the ancient practice of placing the font near the entrance of the sanctuary—as a continual reminder to all who pass by that entry into Christ's church is through baptism. Kuehn also pictures several examples of the font placed in the middle of the sanctuary in the midst of the congregation. Such placement highlights the centrality of baptism in the life of the church.

Kuehn's book is helpful and pertinent. But one wonders how many building committees will take it to heart. The Protestant tradition has a long history of minimalist use of symbols. We have become so immersed in the teaching that the amount of water makes no difference that we are satisfied with a mere touching of a moist fingertip. The old Reformed communion form allows for the 'dipping in or sprinkling with water," but in practice we often are content with a mere dabbing. Most would therefore find Kuehn's example of a baptismal pool with a capacity of 10,000 gallons hard to swallow. So with the font itself. Some churches have no permanent font, but have to scurry to find a container when needed; others relegate die font to a dusty corner.

Today this tendency is reinforced by Seeker Services—hiding pulpit, table, font, or crosses to make the gathering space more friendly to seeking secularists. The bar stool for the master of ceremonies now occupies the place of the scandalous baptismal font, which proclaims that sinners need cleansing.

But if your congregation is interested in reclaiming a heritage of the importance of the sacraments, a discussion of Kuehn's book is a place to start. To Calvin baptism was a gift for the "arousing, nourishing, and confirming of our faith.. .. God is pleased to lavish all these things [graces] upon us. And God does not feed our eyes with a mere appearance only, but leads us to the present reality and effectively performs what it symbolizes." And a pool of 10,000 gallons may well symbolize God's lavishing.