Thursday, April 27, 2006

One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism?

I have been thinking further about the Baptismal Covenant, as we call it in the American Book of Common Prayer. Specifically, I have been thinking about the difference I noted between the Covenant in the American Prayer Book and its parallel in Common Worship of the Church of England.

The first difference, the one I noted in my last post, is in the last question. In the Book of Common Prayer (1979), it is phrased

Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among allpeople, and respect the dignity of every humanbeing?
People: I will, with God’s help.

In Common Worship it is phrased differently:

Will you acknowledge Christ's authority over human society,
by prayer for the world and its leaders,
by defending the weak, and by seeking peace and justice?
With the help of God, I will.
(Note that I distinguish American or Episcopal usage from Common Worship, rather than "English usage," because I'm not reflecting on the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.)

Now, that seems an interesting difference. It clarifies who’s in charge in a way that our American usage does not. Of course, in a society that still has an established church, that may be easier to include. At the same time, there is something lost if we in the Episcopal Church imagine that the call to justice and peace is our own, and solely our, responsibility. I also think “defending the weak” puts some teeth, as it were, into striving for justice and peace and respecting dignity.

There are other differences in the use of the Covenant, or as it is called in Common Worship, the Commission. These are things you have to read the rites themselves to find. In Baptism in the Episcopal Church the Baptismal Covenant is repeated by the entire congregation in all baptisms. In addition, it is used in the Great Vigil of Easter, whether there is a baptism or not. Thus, the Covenant, and the call to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” is repeated several times a year by all members of the congregation. In Common Worship this version of the Commission is specified for “the newly baptized who are able to answer for themselves....” (Another version is used for parents who are speaking for infants.) Thus, it is an individual, even private, commitment. I don’t find on line a rite in Common Worship for the Great Vigil of Easter, and so I can’t exclude the thought entirely; but it would not appear that there is any time when this is spoken by the entire congregation, whether in Baptism, or at another time.

There is another difference. In the American rite, the Baptismal Covenant is recited before the baptism, and in fact before the blessing of the water. It is, in fact, directly connected to the Apostles’ Creed, which is included in – indeed, is the foundation of - the Baptismal Covenant. In the rite in Common Worship this Commission is recited after the baptism, separated from the Creed (which is referred to as the Profession of Faith).

The implication I see is that in American usage the questions of the Covenant are seen as integral to the Christian faith. They are included with the Creed, and required of all. They are required before the baptism, spiritual “informed consent” as it were. We are saying, in a sense, “You need to know what you're getting into. Belief in Jesus Christ and participation in his Body will necessarily be reflected in these ways.” On the other hand, in the usage in Common Worship this is a mission undertaken by the adult believer, an expression of but not necessarily integral to a lively Christian faith. It is, again, separated from the Creed, and not required of all. (This is not inconsistent with the use of these questions in Confirmation in Aotearoa /New Zealand and in Ireland.)

Now, are these differences that make a difference? Perhaps not; but if the crisis in the Anglican Communion has been described as a difference in understanding of the Christian faith – and it has! – these differences seem worth thinking about. What difference does it make that in America we do not claim “Christ's authority over human society?” What difference does it make that we do claim these social actions as integral to Christian faith, almost equal to the baptismal Creed, rather than as ministries rooted in the faith but not part of its content?

I have heard that, for all our claimed trust in God’s grace, Christians are prone to being at least semi- Pelagian. We want to claim some participation in our salvation, if only for the sense of control that it allows us. I fear we Americans may be among the worst in that case. I agree with the Letter of James, that truly accepting the content of the faith will result in actions in the world. At the same time we may so embrace the concept of being co-Creators that we lose our understanding of our place – our necessarily inferior place – in that participation. We have been accused of heterodoxy at best, of framing “a new religion” at worst. I think we can make clear that we understand that, for all God’s grace in allowing us to be agents in the world, participants and co-Creators in God’s plan, we are still saved by grace through faith in Christ’s death and resurrection for us. I think we can; but perhaps we need to do a better job, both abroad, and at home.


Anonymous said...

I just wanted to let you know that, although I haven't been commenting much, I've been following these posts faithfully because I find them enormously helpful for me.
Otherwise, I've been volunteering as hospital chaplain on Friday nights so the regular chaplains can get a good night's sleep.
Bless you brother.

Closed said...

This analysis ignores the overall flow of the rite in which the Covenant flows from the Creed and our vows to Christ as Lord. I think you've overstated your position regarding the American form not acknowledging Christ as Lord.

Marshall Scott said...

Perhaps. I believe (and I think you would) that rooting the Covenant in the Creed claims the Lordship of Christ in our lives in a way that the explicit statement as used in Common Worship does not.

Perhaps I do overstate. On the other hand, my point is not whether or not Episcopalians acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord; we do, again and again, throughout our liturgy. But I'm thinking of how the cultural differences are playing out in the current crisis in the Communion; and I think how we do and others do not use the Baptismal Covenany illustrates(and perhaps reinforces) some of those cultural differences.