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A NEW BAPTISMAL THEOLOGY

This article has been written for the Covenant web site by me and I reproduce it here. Please become a subscriber to: http://covenant-communion.com/

In the past day a group of lawyer bishops have produced a report which attacks the idea of an Anglican Covenant out of hand and which proposes that the baptismal rite in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and the teachings stemming therefrom in the Catechism are a radical reformation of our theology from which now originate changes in our concept of discipleship. The authors note that other ecumenical documents from about that time period (the Seventies) undergird such a claim, but that many Provinces of the Anglican Communion have yet to adapt to this new theological method in their rites and teachings. This, in part, it is suggested, explains the differences of approach between the North American provinces of the Communion and all others. There seems to be no awareness of or consideration of any further study on baptism since that time.

Most of the contents of the bishops’ findings should not take up our time. One is reminded of a Dan Brown novel in which a hidden document reveals that everyone has been wrong or ill-informed until now, or at least the Seventies when suddenly and in America new light bursts forth. Indeed there’s not much difference in method here than in that found in the justifications for any of the other “nativist” religious movements which emerged in America in the 19th Century. Golden tablets may seem rather more romantic than the findings of lawyer bishops, who note that entirely new interpretations of Scripture now suddenly burst forth and new concepts of just what a Christian is emerge from a re-appraisal of baptism.

One of the arguments between Catholics and Protestants at the Reformation and until now centers on just how grace “works” in the sacraments. Is sacramental grace “invincible” in that it is offered in the sacrament whether the recipient seeks the grace or is prepared to receive the grace or not, or does the receptive state of the recipient determine whether grace abounds or not? Nothing is as simple as it sounds, and the Catholic would assert that the recipient of a sacrament should be in a “state of grace” to receive the gift, or there are consequences. Nor am I absolutely sure that a “receptionist” would want to make Jesus and His Presence entirely a matter of the receptive nature of the receiver: too much like works righteousness.

I raise this question because our lawyer-bishops seem to propose that the theology of a baptismal “covenant” -but they say they are against covenants – is now divorced from any scriptural or credal teachings, among them that baptism is “for or by the remission of sins.” While “mutual ministry” doctrine is not clearly articulated in this paper, what is assumed is that all Christian ministries have their origin in baptism and that ergo all the baptized are to be included in all ministries to which the church discerns they have a calling. Certainly the unbroken teaching of the Church has been that in baptism all our incorporated into Christ and therefore into His ministry as prophet, priest and king. The source of the charisms of ministry is in the water of baptism rightly administered with the Trinitarian formula. That last caveat should be noted and remains the clear teaching of the Prayer Book and the Catechism.

An Evangelical and I would suggest an earlier Tractarian would object to bishops’ thesis in two particulars. The first is that it lacks a “moral” component. The second is that the bishops say too little rather than too much about their “discovery.”
My use of the word “moral” takes us into dangerous grounds, for to most of us the word “moral” immediately suggests sex. That is a commentary on our times rather than theology. For “moral” I might propose the word suitable or apt, not perfect synonyms, but good enough for my purpose. While all the baptized may forensically be suitable or apt candidates for any form of ministry lay or ordained, it is surely obvious, even to the most sentimentally obtuse that all are not really suitable or apt candidates. I do not discount the power of grace to make up for deficiencies in talent or ability, but there would be no point in our present elaborate methods of discernment if all shall win and all take the prize.

A discernment committee is quite right to suggest that Susy’s chronic bad temper makes her a less than suitable candidate to serve as a deacon. A moral judgement is here made. But why should chronically choleric people be excluded? The fact that Frank has dreadful problems with comprehension would perhaps rule out a seminary education, although one remembers the Cure de Ars and wonders. To say to the world that persons living together in a sexual relationship outside the bounds of matrimony is a given based on their baptism asks us to suspend all moral or “suitability” judgments. It would be one thing if our part of the church had concluded that such relationships are valid and that, all things being equal, their intimate lives were not to be considered in any suitability investigation. I am not suggesting that our “church” is competent to make such a decision, I am merely stating a fact. The Episcopal Church doesn’t permit its clergy or ordinands to have sexual relationships outside matrimony. That’s the truth. To suggest that it does, and it does because all the baptized, whatever their talents or suitability are apt candidates for all ministries is sheer nonsense.There are all sorts of lifestyle matters rightly to be considered in discerning vocation.

Some suggest that what the church seeks from same-sex partners is a real attempt to live in chastity as is asked of married couples. That may be true. But from whence does one deduce such a standard, such a moral principle? I am not even suggesting that the Church and the churches may not find a way to incorporate “blessed” same-sex couples living chastely into its moral economy. I am saying that at the moment this has not happened. Yet our lawyer-bishops insist that the Communion should allow us to break our own Canons. Strange talk for lawyers.

That takes me on to a wider consideration of baptism. It seems to be suggested by some that baptism is the lowest common denominator in Christian math. I would suggest the contrary. If my baptism initiates me into the Kingdom along with my Roman Catholic relatives, my Baptist acquaintances and my Methodist friends, surely this interconnectiveness extends to my Anglican sisters and brothers in a more immediate sense.

I cannot at the moment express my oneness with the fellow-baptized in other jurisdictions and denominations in any satisfactory manner. I regret this and want to work to find ways in which we can do more and more together. I can do something about my relationships with fellow Anglicans. I can because the structure is in place. And if the structure in place at the moment impedes a fullest possible relationships, surely I must work to clarify those structures?

Our lawyer-bishops fear a Covenant. They even suggest that the present draft proposal for a Covenant is the final word and that therefore, on that basis, any covenant violates a newly discovered unwritten constitution which governs inter-Anglican relationships. Both are straw men. We shall not see what a proposed Covenant looks like until the newest proposals, whatever they may be, are debated by the bishops at Lambeth and then in the legislative bodies of each constituent Province. As to there being an unwritten constitution for the Communion, if such a constitution vouchsafes itself in precedent, precedents such as the development of the Instruments of Unity, moments when the Archbishop of Canterbury, with consent, has entered into the internal affairs of Provinces, such as Rwanda and the Sudan, all point towards a more robust understanding of Communion rather than a “federal” model. If
baptism means anything it means living into the fullest possible relationships for “we are no longer Jew or Greek”, TECITES or Nigerians, “it is not possible for us to be male or female, bond or free, we are all one in Christ.” St. Paul isn’t suggesting the equivalent of the local ministerial alliance as a pattern for the Church or the churches.
I shall spare no space in commenting on our lawyer-bishops’ interpretation of the works of Richard Hooker, or of their reliance on some recent opinions on the Constitution of the Anglican Consultative Council, a narrow document for a narrow purpose which has little to do with anything beyond the mechanism of the ACC. I can only lament that their glorious baptismal vision bogs down in moralism and in the most attenuated vision of our Ecumenical vocation for the Communion and beyond. They seem to say, despite the nods to African culture that we are not our brothers’ keeper. TEC is all in all, has been given a new revelation and should be left alone to pursue its dreams. I hope their wishes are not fulfilled for the sake of the Communion and for the sake of the whole Church here on earth.

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