When I first met Father Thad I was a Baptist minister and he was the priest at the neighborhood Catholic parish. A complete stranger to me, he popped into my office and stated that he must use our church baptistery. A brief reminder about baptism: Baptists practice baptism by immersion. They dunk converts completely under the water.
Typically, Catholics practice sprinkling or pouring. And that is just the beginning of the differences between these two faith traditions on the issue. The theological meaning reinforcing the practice of baptism puts the camps even farther apart.
So when a Catholic priest showed up wanting to dunk a convert in the Baptist church, I knew I was dealing with someone shattering my typecast. Refreshingly, this watery encounter led to a series of interdenominational gatherings (potluck dinners, actually) between his parish and my congregation. In the process, we learned a lot about each other, and I learned a great deal about Thad.
In addition to the priesthood Thad had been a military chaplain; and shockingly, Thad was married and had adult children. Thad had been an Anglican priest, but through an extraordinary dispensation from the Vatican, converted to Catholicism. This man was a depository of mind-warping experiences, not the least of which was a personal story I loved to hear.
A parish he once led desperately needed to expand its ministry. But one man in the parish absolutely resisted, always squelching prospective change by saying something like, “My grandfather gave the land for this church; my daddy cleared the trees for the building; and we’re not going to change a thing” (Catholics don’t have a monopoly on this sentiment).
Thad finally had enough. In his remarkable way, he secured a diocese blessing and obtained a piece of land on the other side of town. He called the local house builders, and had the church relocated! I have this charming picture in my mind of the church, steeple atop, rolling down the road on stilts led by a vestment-clad Father Thad, reading the gospel and splashing holy water along the way.
When I first heard that story I told Thad, “If you were a Protestant, you could have just started another church (And with a wink, I’d add, “A church with a real baptistery”). His response was priceless: “Why start another church, when you can take it with you?”
Truth told, that is pretty good ecclesiology. Ecclesiology is what seminarians call the “doctrine of the church.” It answers the question: “What is the nature of the church?” And after several hundred years of modernity and religious institutionalism, more and more people are recognizing that the church is not a building. Sure, we say, “I go to church at such-and-such place,” but the real church is a people, not a place. It is a body, not a building. It is a living movement, not a fixed mailing address.
When the last homilies, sermons, songs, testimonies, and prayers are offered at your congregation or parish on Sunday morning, you don’t leave the church. You will leave a specific gathering of the church, certainly, but you take the church with you – because the church is you. You take it on the road, across town, into your workplace or university, into your living room, classroom, and board room: You embody the presence of Christ in the world.
Yes, I learned a lot from Father Thad. I learned that holding to fixed stereotypes prevents us from embracing the extraordinary individuals we meet along the way. I learned that communication between faith groups is the best possible means of reducing misunderstanding and conflict. I learned that overcoming problems sometimes requires boldness and creativity.
And I was reminded that whether we are sprinkled, dipped, poured, dunked, barely damp or soaking wet, we will not be defined so much by “where we go to church,” but by whether or not we will be the church once we leave the building. As Father Thad put it so accurately: “Why start another church, when you can take it with you?”