Sunday, January 30, 2011

What's wrong with this picture?

You will have to click on the photo and enlarge it to read the text.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Is it not time to end the schism?

"Is Christ divided?" (1 Corinthians 1:13).

Today concludes the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which runs from the feast of the Confession of St Peter (or "Chair of Peter") to the Conversion of St Paul. The octave of prayer began in the early 1900s with Franciscans in the Episcopal Church, the Society of the Atonement, who were searching for reconciliation with the See of Peter. They were reconciled in 1909.

This week, I was reflecting on the sermon series I gave over the course of last summer based on the catechism of the Prayer Book. If I were to one day become a Western-rite Orthodox priest or an Anglican-use Roman Catholic priest and want to pull this series out of my old files and deliver it again, I don't believe I would need to change a word of it (at least as far as statements of doctrine go).

I only mention it to point out how close we have come to Christian unity and yet how far away it still seems to be. We have overcome so many obstacles, and yet come up with new ones at the same time. God help his foolish people!

Is Christ divided? No. The truth is rather more bleak--we are divided from Christ. The timing of the octave of prayer reminds that unity is to be found when we return to the confession of Jesus as Lord and pursue unity with the continual conversion that knocked St Paul off his horse. It is time for us in the West to labor diligently to end our 450 year schism and for our eastern brethren to end their 1,000 year schism. We cannot do it on our own, but God will not bring it about if we harden our hearts to his will. Let us continue to pray for God's grace to accomplish his will.

"Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn" (Isaiah 51:1).

A Prayer for the Unity of the Church
O God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our only Savior, the Prince of Peace: Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions; take away all hatred and prejudice, and whatever else may hinder us from godly union and concord; that, as there is but one Body and one Spirit, one hope of our calling, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, so we may be all of one heart and of one soul, united in one holy bond of truth and peace, of faith and charity, and may with one mind and one mouth glorify thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

The exorcisms of baptism

Unfortunately, one of the liturgical treasures we have lost is the baptismal exorcisms. Actually, it has made a somewhat diminished return in the rites of the adult catechumenate as found in the Book of Occasional Services.

In the first Book of Common Prayer of 1549, as in the liturgy used before the Prayer Books, there was an exorcism of the candidate for baptism. The three exorcisms (plus the "eph-phatha") were reduced to one by Cranmer.

Now, when you hear exorcisms, don’t think of all the exorcism movies you’ve seen. That’s not exactly what we’re talking about here (though it could come to that). It’s more what you might call a decontamination ritual. Elements such as salt and water are also exorcised before they are set apart for sanctification.

Remember, in the ancient world almost all converts are coming from paganism with its sometimes demonic rituals and incantations; it was but another way purging and leaving all those influences behind when coming to Christ and entering his church.

Of course, one could ask if the modern man have any less need for God to expel all the corruption, wickedness, and demonic influences that come from a life immersed in the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

In the first Prayer Book, after an opening prayer the minister is directed to makes a cross with the oil of catechumens on the forehead and chest of the baptismal candidate, saying, “Receive the sign of the holy cross, both in thy forehead and in thy breast, in token that thou shalt not be afraid to confess thy faith in Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil, and to continue as his faithful soldier and servant unto life’s end.”

Then the priest says, “I command thee, unclean spirit, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, that thou come out and depart from this person whom our Lord Jesus Christ hath vouchsafed to call to his holy Baptism, to be a member of his Body and of his holy congregation. Therefore, thou cursed spirit, remember thy sentence, remember thy judgment, remember the day is at hand, wherein thou shalt burn in fire everlasting prepared for thee and thy angels. And presume not hereafter to exercise any tyranny toward this person, whom Christ hath bought with his precious blood, and by his holy Baptism calleth to be of his flock.”

This all became a simple line in most of the Prayer Books that followed: “…grant that all sinful affections may die in him…” Perhaps the anointing and exorcism of the first Prayer Book could be reintroduced just before the examination of the candidates for baptism. Or we could just go back to the baptismal rite of the first Prayer Book or the rite used before that, both of which are quite sound and don't really need to be improved upon.

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.