Saturday, March 12, 2011

Baptism Practicum: Afterthoughts: Responsibility and Normativity

Last week we met to do the baptism practicum. In solidarity with the students in my practicum group, I too led a practice baptism using the rite from the 1979 BCP.

What I appreciate in the BCP besides the spare, yet elegant language and theologically focused brevity, is that this is what you will do. Period. No options to the nth degree. As I noted to the students, as an Episcopalian, I don’t get to choose, but must do what the Church does as legislated for in this Church. Common Prayer and canon law are means to provide for normativity in a non-established setting.

This not being free to choose among myriad options is a form of freedom in its own right similar to the freedom of marriage. The tyranny of choice is removed and in its place is given the freedom of commitment over the long-haul. In a society driven by an economy of choice, an economy of commitment is liberating while also difficult because it counters the daily justification for our wandering and changing desires.

As a pastor in the ELCA, however, my students will be required to choose and not simply let the one being baptized or the parents choose from options, some of which are better than others. This too is a pastoral responsibility, a commitment to something, the Church, and to Someone, Christ, who is more than just ourselves.

When asked why it is I recommend all have the Baptismal formula memorized in both its Eastern and Western forms, I noted that in extremis, a layperson too may be called upon to baptize, especially if you work in a setting where death is a regular occurrence. Even as a layman, however, I am not free to futz with the formulae and I am responsible to use the Western form as a common prayer Anglican:

N., I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Or if free to use the Eastern form, it is:

N. is baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I remain surprised then that some thought themselves free to futz with the formulae in either form. Ecumenically, historically, and theologically this presents great problems and places the baptized in pastoral danger. What do I mean? She or he may transfer at some point to another congregation or to another tradition and mentioning that she or he was baptized in the Name of the Source, Word, and Spirit, or God forbid, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer may put her or his baptism in question, may take away the liberty of God’s assurance marked by word, water, cross, and oil. That is not to say that we cannot write and speak of the Trinity in several ways that are orthodox, but for the sake of catholicity, these liturgical formulae are not futzable, just as we would not substitute something other for the Words of Institution. To do so here again raises pastoral questions as to whether this is what we say it is, namely, Holy Communion, the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

This is all to say that to be beholden to Someone and someones more than oneself is part of what if means to be Christian, part of what it means to be ordained.

Six Signs: Two Years Later

I still think this has punch: Six Signs. The unbinding of our Prayer Book in processes not as carefully structured as those which went into its 1979 revision slowly undoes common prayer, our yardstick or normativity, as Anglican Christians in practice.