Sunday, January 09, 2011

A baptismal covenant?

Photo: Joseph Williams, PCUSA General Assembly.

I'm not sure what I think of the so-called "baptismal covenant" in the Book of Common Prayer. The collect for the baptism of Jesus on the first Sunday after the Epiphany even picks up the theme:

Father in heaven, who at the baptism of Jesus in the River Jordan didst proclaim him thy beloved Son and anoint him with the Holy Spirit: Grant that all who are baptized into his Name may keep the covenant they have made, and boldly confess him as Lord and Savior; who with thee and the same Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

When the sacraments that change your state in life are given (Baptism, Confirmation, Marriage, and Ordination). They are prefaced by promises or vows. These help strengthen and focus us to make good use of the grace God gives on these occasions. Thus, we have wedding vows, ordination vows and the solemn promises often made for you at baptism, and reaffirmed by you at confirmation.

In the most recent edition of the American Prayer Book, we find what is called the "Baptismal Covenant." Sometimes a big deal is made from both perspectives of the fact that it is unique in the liturgies of Anglicanism. Sometimes liberals use it to justify practices that may be unique to our cultural and ecclesial context. Most often this comes around to justifying changes to teaching and practice about marriage and holy orders. It is assumed by revisionists that support for fornication and cross-dressing at the altar is somehow more respectful of human dignity. On the right, the baptismal covenant has been blamed as the Trojan horse which let all kinds of enemies into the citadel. For example, see the late Peter Toon's essay "Does each person in Baptism make a covenant with God? Yes, says The Episcopal Church. No, says the Bible."

I'll say right out, I'm no Peter Toon; I think he overstates his case, but it does give me some unrest. Actually, the uniqueness of the baptismal covenant in the 1979 American Prayer Book is more in the name than its content.

The covenant is prefaced by the traditional threefold renunciation of the world, the flesh, and the devil followed by the promises to follow Christ. At the center of that baptismal covenant is the baptismal symbol—-the Apostle’s Creed. What is new is that the 1979 Prayer Book expands on that commitment of faith. We go on to commit to regular attendance at Christian worship, resistance of evil, and repentance for sin, a Christian life that proclaims the Gospel, and the love of neighbor by seeking and serving Christ in the neighbor, striving for peace and justice and respecting human dignity. None of those are new ideas, just new to the rite of baptism.

What we need to be clear about, though, is that the baptismal covenant is a NOT new, unique, individual covenant between God and the believer. It's not like God made a covenant with Adam, then a covenant with Noah, then a covenant with David, and then he made a covenant with little old me.

Rather, when we are baptized into Christ, we become heirs of THE New Covenant of grace between the Father and the Son. It's unfortunate that the collect for today uses the language it does about "the covenant [we] have made." So when we talk about the baptismal covenant, we need to emphasize that it is the New Covenant we are talking about. We enter that relationship through faith and obedience, and the relationship is actualized through the sacrament of rebirth.

1 comment:

Courageous Grace said...

Speaking of baptism, your godson enjoys running around the house yelling "Hallelula!"

He also points to the Christus Rex when we go up to the communion rail and loudly exclaims "Look, Mama! Jesus on wall!"

Sometimes I wonder if he's got a better understanding of Christ at almost 3 than we adults do...