Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Baptism & Ministry -- a major doctrine within Northern/Western Anglicanism

Reflections from The Rev'd Dr Peter Toon

Much, very much, is being made of Baptism (and the "Baptismal Covenant") within the modern Episcopal Church & Anglican Church of Canada but not to marshal major forces to fight against the world, the flesh and the devil but rather to show the fullness of human rights and potential within modern radical Christianity.

I want to show how this post 1979 use of Baptism as a means of propagating human rights is usually related to Deism.

If we note what Baptism symbolizes and signifies in the New Testament then we are into thinking and speaking of a consecrated life offered daily to the Father through the Incarnate Son and by the Holy Spirit for God's glory and human salvation. After all, Baptism is intimately connected in the command of the resurrected Jesus to making disciples, to the revelatory, Triune Name of God (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit) and of being taught the whole content of Christian Faith and practice (see Matthew 28: 18-20); in the Apostolic teaching it is presented as cleansing by the blood of Jesus, new birth into the kingdom of God; dying to sin, being buried and rising with Christ Jesus to everlasting life; being adopted into the family of God, made a member of Christ's Body of which He is Head, and more.

Regrettably this kind of teaching, which connects Baptism with the confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and a sanctified and consecrated life flowing from this confession, with the sure hope of eternal life, is significant by its general absence from modern Anglican circles when and where Baptism is much emphasized. Instead, Baptism is more connected with secular notions of human rights, dignity, equality, and opportunity, and given a Christian reference by the use of biblical pictures and divine names. And this connection is made in all seriousness and with all enthusiasm by many in the leadership of the two Anglican provinces -- and they appear to believe the novel doctrine wholeheartedly. In fact, it may well be the basis of the new Episcopal/Anglican Religion.

Since Baptism is administered to all kinds and types of infants, children, young people and adults (but, of course, mostly to infants), and since the so-called "orientation" and "potentialities" of these persons is not (usually) known when they are baptized, the point is made that God accepts all whoever they are and whatever their inner personal identity, and they are accepted "just as they are". They are placed within "the community of faith" and become "the children of God" on terms set out in "the baptismal covenant."

Now there are rules governing this "community of faith" and they are stated within the "Baptismal Covenant" of the Baptism Service of the 1979 Prayer Book. That is, the persons baptized make a personal covenant with God (either themselves or via sponsors) by accepting Baptism and entering the "community of faith". Though there is promise to be committed to certain traditional things such as church attendance, resisting of evil and proclaiming the Gospel, the innovation (and it is much emphasized today) is in the questions which require an affirmative reply: "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?" And , "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?"

So the "community of faith" (i.e., congregations of the ECUSA using the 1979 prayer book or of the Anglican Church of Canada using the 1985 BAS) is told that it is a baptized people committed to pursuing peace and justice (for what this means see the Reports to General Convention of the radical agenda of the "Peace and Justice Commission" of the ECUSA), and human dignity with equality of opportunity and treatment.

Therefore, based on the radical doctrine of equality, every baptized person, whatever the sex, "gender," "orientation," marital state, race, ethnicity, ability and maturity, is potentially a candidate for every office and position of leadership within the "community of faith." To bar anyone from anything simply and solely on grounds of sex, "gender," "orientation," and so forth is to deny the "Baptismal covenant" and to destroy the whole basis in "peace and justice" of "the community of faith." Of course, not all can be a presiding bishop or even a deacon (the laity are needed to pay the bills and make up the congregations!) and so there have to be democratic processes for the election of candidates (as with Gene Robinson), but this is to be within the general commitment to equality and dignity of rights of the baptized. So to close any office to a baptized person is to deny the very basis and content of sacrament of Baptism is the view taken in this new Religion.

I recall vividly being present at a meeting of the Standing Liturgical Commission at the Convention of 2000, where I was giving evidence on behalf of the use of the classic BCP of 1928. It was agreed that with the local bishop's permission and under certain conditions certain services of the 1928 BCP could be used. However, of one thing all members were clear, and the female priests there present most clear. This was that there was no substitute possible for the use of the Baptismal Service in the 1979 book. For herein was contained what they obviously believed was an essential part of the progressive religion of the modernized Episcopal Church.

I also recall vividly watching the installation -- amazingly by himself! -- in the National Cathedral at Washington of Frank Griswold as the Presiding Bishop. Here it was made very clear both within the program and in his remarks that, in Baptism, God sows the seed of all possible ministry and ministries in the Church, lay and ordained. Thus at any time a baptized person may be called to any ministry, whatever the person's sex, "gender" or "orientation." So, once baptized, any person is a potential candidate for all ministries and the fact of having been baptized is always to be the primary consideration. Thus Griswold insisted on celebrating the continuing and emerging Baptismal Ministry in his life, of which the office of Presiding Bishop was the latest expression and phase.


Baptism is certainly of critical importance. It is a Dominical ordinance and sacrament and occurs but once to begin the life of the Christian disciple and so is unique. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual change, a change that has eternal implications for, by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, the baptized believer becomes a child of God, heir of eternal life, member of the kingdom of God, disciple of Christ, and much more.

Yet Baptism as such,

  • Has no necessary relation to modern doctrines of human rights, equality and dignity (for it has existed in the world since the time of the apostles and has been administered in many different cultures, societies and political systems);
  • Is necessarily related to the Person of the exalted Lord Jesus Christ in heaven, to the Kingdom of which he is the King and to the Holy Church of which he is Head (for wherever Baptism is in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit it is true Baptism and is not to be repeated);
  • Has no absolute and necessary relation to ordained Ministry, to the offices of Deacon, Presbyter (Priest) and Bishop (for these are gifts of the exalted Head of the Church given to some members by the will and authority of the Head himself -- they are not connected in any what whatever to democratic or egalitarian principles but proceed from the will of the Lord of all).
  • Is administered without distinction to all persons who repent and believe the Gospel (personally or via their sponsors) and as the baptized, both male and female, young and old, rich and poor, have the same access as God?s children to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit.

While the whole people of God is as a divine society a royal priesthood, continually offering prayer, worship sacrificial lives and service to the Father through the Incarnate Son by the Holy Spirit, what has been called the Ministerial Priesthood (the Bishop assisted by Presbyters, and Deacons) is distinct from it. The truth is not that membership of the royal, universal priesthood qualifies one as a candidate for the Ministerial Priesthood; but that the Lord Christ chooses from members of the royal priesthood those to whom he wills to give the office of Bishop, Priest or Deacon. After all, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of God is not a democratic society but a hierarchical Society, ruled by a King to whom all authority in heaven and earth is given.

Apart from changing the doctrine of Baptism and through it the doctrine of ordained Ministry, this innovation has implications on a wide set of fronts, It changes the doctrine of the Eucharistic which becomes the celebration of the rights and privileges of the local "community of faith" where the "passing of the peace" is in effect the "sacramental sign" of this "peace and justice" community. It changes the ethics or moral theology of the Church for it fosters the development of basing moral theology on the modern doctrine of rights -- natural, civil and human. It changes the "Gospel" of the Church which ceases to be the message from God the Father concerning His Incarnate Son who died for our sins and rose again for our justification, and becomes a message about "peace and justice" for all peoples, here and now. And much more.

Therefore the notion that the only real problem with the ECUSA is its embracing of homosexual partnerships and ordaining people in them is wide of the mark! The problem is the adoption of a new Religion where the outward form of the Old Sacraments becomes the container of new doctrine and morality.

One new (rather old) doctrine that is often presupposed (without necessarily being consciously held) in this view that all possible ministry in potential is contained in Baptism is Deism. For the deist every human being (in fact every being) has a nicely rounded off nature, which contains from the start, at any rate implicitly, all that it can ever become. All that it ever will be arises simply from the unfolding of its primary constitution given it (here in both creation and baptism). God, as it were, creates a human clock which he winds up (in baptism) and then allows the clock to tick away, striking the hours, until it stops. Deism certainly has God as Creator and Initiator but does not have God as the gracious, eternal Spirit acting upon the spirit of the human creatures he has made. And there is no active Head of the Church sending graces, virtues and gifts to his Body. All that Deism allows is an external manipulation by divine providence but any internal transformation it does not suggest or allow. The new Episcopal religion believes in God; but he is not the God with whom one may be in spiritual communion, and he does not speak to the human spirit and give the call to this or that specific and special ministry -- for he has already given everything in potential in baptism and it is up to human beings to work all this out.

The Revd Dr Peter Toon October 24, 2006

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