Why I Hate Baptismal Shells

shellI hate baptismal shells. You know, those tiny little silver shell-shaped scoops used to carefully drip water on a baby’s head at baptism. I’ve never wanted to admit this before since, not only was I likely baptized with one (along with water and the Holy Spirit, of course) at St. Mark’s in Milwaukee in 1968, but many of my friends and colleagues swear by them. Plus, what self-respecting Episcopal sacristy doesn’t have a beautiful antique baptismal shell that’s been used at the baptismal font for generations?

But, please, let me explain. My problem with baptismal shells is that, in my opinion, they domesticate the rite. The thing is, baptism isn’t merely a quaint rite of passage; something to precede the real event: catered brunch back at the house. When getting the baby “done” takes precedence over the power of God’s Spirit working within us, baptism loses its entire raison d’être. We might as well just take an ordinary bath or a dip in a hotel pool.

Baptism is a rite of commitment; it’s a rite of indissoluble relationship with Jesus Christ. It’s also a Baptism_infantrite of total immersion into the Christian faith and the ministry of all the baptized and of being marked as Christ’s own forever. In whatever manner we were baptized, we can’t live our lives as if we’ve been sprinkled with a few drops from a cute silver shell. We must live our lives of faith with the reckless abandon of total immersion.

Let’s face it, our relationship with God is not always a neat, tidy, orderly affair. It can get messy. And baptism, as both an initiation rite and as a continuing symbol of relationship with Christ, should reflect this messiness. There should be water splashing around! And the shell, to me, is just too precious. A symbol of trying to contain the Holy Spirit rather than unleashing it.

So if you come to a baptism at my church, you might get wet. I like to warn people that the area immediately surrounding the baptismal font is splashzonethe “splash zone” — you sit there at your own risk. No, I won’t go far as baptism by full immersion — trying to jam an adult into our smallish font just isn’t happening. But I’m all for full spiritual immersion, something the shell just doesn’t seem to convey.

And anyway, as we mark the Baptism of Our Lord, it’s hard to imagine John the Baptist, after screaming “You brood of vipers!” at the Pharisees and yelling at all to “Repent!” sprinkling just a few drops of water from a tiny shell onto Jesus’ head in the Jordan River.

12 Comments on “Why I Hate Baptismal Shells”

  1. Mary Thorpe says:

    With you on this one, Tim. I use my hands. The shells are too Victorian-precious for me…this is a visceral act, this baptism, and it shouldn’t be turned into tschotchke land.

  2. marguerite says:

    Not a fan of holding our sacraments out at arm’s length. The practice of intinction comes to mind. Germs schmerms!

  3. Dave Clinton says:

    Right on!!!! When we baptized
    Aly at St. John’s, our priest allowed me to pour the water into the Baptismal Font and e asked not pour slowly. I dumped it right in with water splashing! It was awesome and the congregation ( in the few couple pews) got wet. It was a great reminder of own baptisms! Great Blog!!!!!!

  4. Nancy says:

    AMEN! I refused to use them for 30 years. And water needs to splash! Thank you!

  5. Marty Garwood says:

    I have come to feel the same way about the chrism. No neat dabbing a thumb in the pyx and sketching a damp cross on the forehead. Pour that oil right on the baby’s head. The fragrance will waft around the sanctuary and the congregation’s sense of smell will tell them something special has been done even if they can’t really see what is happening. And yes, the altar guild will survive the initial case of heart failure when the water in the font suddenly looks like the pasta pot. Ears, eyes, and nose should all be involved.

  6. Jay Croft says:

    And, fie on so-called ‘private baptisms.” In my 40 plus years as a priest I’ve never done one. It’s a major service Sunday morning event!

  7. Sarah says:

    Not only do I NOT use the very nice silver shell that they always put out for me – personal preference – I like to get into the water – but we also always do aspersions after the baptism. That way, not only do we all reaffirm our baptismal vows, but we also ALL share in the water of baptism – every time. The children, of course, LOVE it

  8. Ann says:

    I never thought of baptism that way, messy like Christianity, I like it. I was ‘dunked’ back in my pre-Episcopal days, but even that was more scripted than not(tidy pool of water, warmed, with weighted robes). I always felt a little left out that I didn’t get the “shell treatment” when I joined the Episcopal church. I did go to a Catholic Church once where they stripped the baby down to his diaper and then flung a big pitcher of water at him. Everyone up at the font got soaked and the infant screamed for the rest of the service. The priest said that he wanted to make sure the baby gets a full dose and it’s memorable. I think he accomplished that. Perhaps when we renew our baptismal vows we should douse each other with a big water fight, like kids and enjoy it, like there is joy in being a Christian. 🙂

  9. Lois Schenck says:

    Whew. After reading this, I’m relieved that we don’t use a baptismal shell at the Church of the Redeemer in Baltimore!

  10. Julie Nelson says:

    Amen! and Alleluia!

  11. Marty Garwood says:

    A few years ago for Vacation Bible School we centered the whole week around baptism. We had water games galore every evening as we talked the kids (and us adults) through what baptism meant and continues to mean in our lives. We went home squishing every night. The kids still talk about that week.

  12. Jill Fox says:

    Amen on this one! When my daughter was baptized, the “shell treatment” was given and she didn’t like it at all. What I hear though is that churches are starting to go different routes. Maybe ours will do the same.

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