On the mind of the Rev. Adrian Dannhauser

Jun 5, 2024

This is a first and hopefully a last – someone asked me to unbaptize them.

It was a woman who appeared to be in her thirties. She was soft spoken and a bit weepy. “I need to be unbaptized. Is there a ritual you can do for that?”

It’s not a totally outlandish question. In some instances, God’s blessing can be removed through human action. There is a service in the Episcopal tradition for the deconsecration (or secularization) of a church, for example. Deconsecration is the removal of a religious blessing from something that previously had been consecrated for religious use. This is what happened to the Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in New York City in the 1970s. It was deconsecrated, used briefly as a drug rehabilitation facility, and then sold off and turned into a nightclub. Now I believe it’s a gym.

Likewise, Episcopal clergy can renounce (or have revoked) the holy orders conferred on them by a Bishop so that they are no longer ordained ministers.

We also know that holy matrimony – while often sealed with the words, “Those whom God has joined together, let no one put asunder.” – is put asunder all the time. In some faith traditions, there may be a religious component to the dissolution of a marriage, such as an annulment granted by the Catholic Church or a “get” in Orthodox Judaism.

But baptism, well, that’s different. From the very beginning, baptism in Christianity was like circumcision in Judaism. It’s a mark of religious identity that can’t be undone.

“We believe baptism is indelible” I told her. “You receive the Holy Spirit and are marked as Christ’s own forever. I honestly don’t think there is anything I can do.”

“But I was baptized in the Episcopal Church, so I need to be unbaptized in the Episcopal Church.”

I appreciated the primacy she placed on the institution of the Church. She didn’t want a ceremony that might include drawing an inverted cross on her forehead, receiving ashes from and incinerated Bible, or having someone blow the top of her head with a hair dryer – all elements of unbaptizing rituals performed by Satanic or atheist communities. None of that would be effective in her mind. Only the Church held the authority to undo her baptism.

I also appreciated her desire for autonomy over her spiritual life. When I asked her why she wanted to be unbaptized, she said (rather cryptically and with much lament) that certain things in her life might have gone differently if she wasn’t baptized. And that it would make a difference going forward if I could please do this for her.

“Are you sure there’s not a ritual you can perform or prayers you can say? There has to be something, right?” She was imploring at this point. The tears started to flow.

“No, there’s not. But I respect your desire to be unbaptized. Really, I do. It seems like you’ve been hurt by the Church.” She nodded. “I’d like to hear about that. I think I can help.”

We talked a little more, and she handed me a pen and notebook so I could write down my email address. “You know where to find me,” I said as I handed it back. I hope she reaches out.

Here’s the thing that is both heartbreaking and hopeful.

This woman clearly believes there is spiritual meaning in her baptism, even though she understands it to be negative. She thinks her baptism is a bad and dangerous thing. Would it be better if she didn’t believe in baptism at all? Better to see it as meaningless than as a curse?

I honestly don’t know. But because she believes her baptism is real and carries spiritual power, maybe her journey — misguided as it is — will lead her to discover the power of God’s love for her. Maybe this child of God who has been “church hurt” (as one of my clergy colleagues calls it) will have a redeemed experience of the Church in her efforts to disengage from it altogether. And maybe the Spirit of Christ, who lives within her by virtue of her baptism, will bring her healing and wholeness and union with God made possible only through his death and resurrection.

That’s my prayer, at least, in the knowledge that (a) crazier things have happened and (b) Jesus goes after every one of his little lost sheep. Will you make it your prayer too?

And pray that all the baptized, who have been raised to the new life of grace, will find the way of Jesus to be the way of freedom, blessing, and truth.