By Gary L'Hommedieu
I can't count the number of times since the late '70's I have heard "our Baptismal Covenant" invoked as a magisterial authority in The Episcopal Church, even more than Richard Hooker's fictitious "three-legged stool" -- you know, the one that actually has four legs, only one of which (i.e., "experience", the one Hooker never mentioned) carries real weight.
I can count on three fingers at most the number of times in those years I've heard this "Covenant" invoked in reference to any of the first seven promises recited in the '79 service (pp. 304-305). These cardinal tenets of the historic Faith now serve a strictly decorative function as solemn introduction to the final promise: "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?"
The first seven promises have a parallel in the 1928 BCP in the service of baptism for adults (pp. 277-278), where the candidate responds to a series of questions similar to those contained in the '79 Baptismal Covenant, except for the final one.
Well, what could be wrong with adding a promise to strive for justice and peace? Sure, you could put a radical spin on it, I suppose; but can't it just be taken as the sort of lofty idealism you'd expect in a religious service?
Well, perhaps it could, except that it adds nothing whatever to the promise that immediately precedes: "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?" Nothing, that is, EXCEPT its context in the American political scene of the 1970's. Take it out of its natural context and it becomes meaningless.
Today '70's-style political activism is the only thing Episcopal leaders have in mind when they recall us to OUR "Baptismal Covenant", by which they mean THEIR political commitments that took shape in that era.
This added eighth promise in the '79 "Covenant" suggests that the seven traditional promises aren't enough either to save souls or transform societies: believing the gospel of deliverance from sin, maintaining the apostolic faith and tradition, practicing the classic spiritual life, obeying the Great Commission and the Summary of the Law. These ARE the historic commitments of the Christian Faith. You could legitimately add a radical spin to these, as some Christians always have and always will.
What was thought to be missing back in 1979? The historic Faith was not sufficient to appease the consciences of Americans coming out of the 1960's. To save their souls American Christians, and especially Episcopal trendsetters, turned to stronger medicine: parroting the political speech of revolutionaries.
Rather than become Gandhians, the '60's generation went to college and became "socialists". I don't mean real "workers", of course; more like a Designer Proletariat -- kids from the suburbs wearing stern expressions and expensive blue jeans. "Justice and peace" for them would be a white-collar, and for some a turned-around-collar, enterprise -- a kind of liturgical UN. "Justice and peace" now meant angry resolutions and shattered glass ceilings. It was pure symbolism, but it sure got your blood pumping!
Before 1979 the Apostles' Creed was referred to as "the baptismal symbol". After 1979 that same terminology had an eerie new meaning. The doctrinal portions of the Creed -- outlining the Church's faith in the Trinity and the Incarnation -- are received today as "symbolic", meaning "only symbolic" -- i.e., propositionally false, or at best irrelevant. The ancient Creed is "true" today as mythological dressing for the latest utopian scheme.
Luther lamented the Babylonish captivity of the Church in medieval Germany. In America in the 1970's we beheld a pandemic of Stockholm Syndrome. The "poor", whose cause we celebrated, held us prisoner. Not in actual fact; we rarely saw them except on a screen. Nonetheless we had become ideological prisoners. It was around this time that politically correct speech became sacrament.
The old baptismal creed had become "symbolic" of new political activism -- or rather, of the latest talk about politics. "Justice and peace" would be measured by how many lobbyists could be hired by the National Church office in New York. These would set about the "work of the Church", such as exporting the American sexual revolution to Africa. Once that was under way, they could hustle pocket change for Millennium Goals.
The culture war that ensued in the Episcopal Church was not "social gospel" versus "personal religion", as many have thought. That is one of false dichotomies that arose in the post-'70's era. Today liberals and conservatives alike talk up the "Baptismal Covenant", and for the same reason: to validate themselves and ease a guilty conscience. What God had provided for the stricken conscience was outlined in the original baptismal Creed, but it wasn't good enough.
People who serve the poor do it with a good conscience, and they do it for the sake of Christ's poor, not for the sake of their own validation. They don't have grandiose expectations. Sometimes they agree with liberal policies, sometimes with conservative policies. In either case they're waiting for someone to show enough interest to roll up their sleeves and do something.
The 1979 "Baptismal Covenant" was from the beginning an assault upon the historic Faith. It was smuggled into the Church by stealth. The Faith of the creed was appended to an agenda that was not forthrightly acknowledged. Now Episcopal leaders wag their fingers at the faithful, accusing them of rejecting the Faith, when what they reject is a biased and ineffective social vision.
Such was the case in a recent interview when Canon John L. Peterson, former Secretary General of the Anglican Consultative Council, explicitly equated Millennium Goals with "the core gospel of Jesus Christ", and then blamed "the Internet" for depriving the poor of succor and sustenance.
The invocation of this "Covenant" as a call to accountability is a kind of moral extortion -- the spiritual equivalent to the Dennis Canon. Here's a promise you never made, and now we're going to hold you to it. A people of sound mind and conscience could never be bullied so easily.
I can count very easily the number of times I've been in gatherings of Episcopalians where a majority were actually baptized under the "Covenant" of 1979 -- precisely zero. Most were baptized according to the rite of 1928 or some historic Catholic or Protestant rite. If there is any binding contract under which Episcopalians of mature years have been baptized, 1979 is not it.
---Gary L'Hommedieu is Canon in charge of Pastoral Care at St. Luke's Cathedral in Orlando, Florida. He is a columnist for