A meditation starter…
Covenant is a word that occurs often in the Bible both in terms of treaties between peoples and nations and of the relation that God the Creator, Judge and Redeemer chooses to make and have with his sinful creatures. It is a word that has not been used often in Liturgy, except where it occurs as a Biblical quotation or citation. However, as we shall see below, the word is given prominence by The Episcopal Church in its official Liturgy.
Covenant in the 1979 Prayer Book
In the current Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church, there is, as we would expect, a service of Holy Baptism. If you examine the layout of this service, you notice that there are several types of sub-headings within the text. Those in the largest type are obviously intended to indicate the important nature and content of the material that follows and there are three of these: “Presentation and Examination of the Candidates,” “The Baptismal Covenant,” and “The Baptism.”
Immediately underneath “The Baptismal Covenant” without any headings in smaller type there are two sections—the Creed in the form of Questions and Replies, and five questions concerning commitment and consecration to Christian life and service. Then there is a sub-heading in small bold print, “Prayers for the Candidates,” which is followed by two further sub-headings in small bold print, “Thanksgiving over the Water,” and “Consecration of the Chrism.”
It would appear that “The Baptismal Covenant” ends where the sub-heading, “Prayers for the Candidates” begins, and that the reason why the first is in much larger print than the other is that it is deemed to be of primary or greater importance.
On the basis of this evidence one is able to say first that “The Baptismal Covenant” is taken to be very important and secondly how it is understood by The Episcopal Church. The Covenant on pages 304-5 appears to be the commitments and promises that those about to be baptized make to God. It is the human dedication and consecration to the God who is proclaimed in the Apostles’ Creed. What is promised (to this God and/or to his Church) is regular attendance at Christian worship, resistance of evil, repentance for sin, a Christian life that commends the Gospel, seeking and serving Christ in the neighbor, striving for peace and justice along all people and respecting the dignity of every human being.
Earlier as part of the Examination of the Candidates they are asked to make certain renunciations—of Satan, evil powers and sinful desires—and to accept Jesus Christ as Savior, to trust in him and to follow him. But these vows are not part of “the Baptismal Covenant” but preparatory to it. So we can sharpen the definition of the meaning of this Covenant and say that it is the human commitments and promises of those who have already made certain specific vows and are about to be baptized.
Now a covenant is relational, with at least two parties. Obviously God is the other party here but there is no specific and clear statement of what God’s commitments and obligations are, though one perhaps can deduce them by what is said here and there in this service. In “An Outline of Faith” in the same Prayer Book a covenant with God is defined thus: “A covenant is a relationship initiated by God, to which a body of people responds in faith.” And the New Covenant is said to be “the new relationship with God given by Jesus Christ, the Messiah, to the apostles; and, through them, to all who believe in him.”
So what we learn from the Service itself and from “An Outline” is that God as the senior partner in the agreement/covenant/contract sets things in motion—initiates—and the human being as the junior partner accepts certain beliefs and conditions. (In terms of the beliefs and conditions, it would appear that the Episcopal liturgists have actually drawn up the terms of the contract of what they deem God requires by use of scripture, tradition and experience. In doing this, they innovated in their placing in the contract the requirement of striving for “peace and justice” in the world, and “respecting the dignity” of each and every person.)
The Covenant in the BCP (1662)
By far and away the most widely used edition of The Book of Common Prayer in Anglican history is the edition of 1662. This obviously contains Baptismal Services—for Infants and for Adults. However, unlike the American 1979 Baptismal Service these do not contain the expression, “baptismal covenant,” or the word “covenant” itself.
Yet the question arises and remains as to whether or not the Services of the 1662 edition actually presuppose the existence or the making of a covenant, within the service itself. Here we find that there is a difference of opinion.
The position of those who we may term “Augustinian” (which would include Cranmer) is that there is no making of a covenant or agreement or contract in the Service at all. In fact there could not be such a thing for God’s covenant of grace is a covenant between the Father and the Son, where the Son as the Messiah and Representative of man fulfills for God’s elect people all the conditions of the covenant of grace by his perfect life of obedience and his atoning death. Thus all those (the elect) who repent of their sins and are united to him in faith and by the Holy Spirit are placed by the Father within this covenant of grace. So the covenant is made and its conditions are already fulfilled before the Gospel is preached and Christian Baptism is offered. In Baptism, sinners humbly repent, believe and consecrate themselves to the God who has reached out to them in Christ Jesus in mercy and grace. They approach on his terms and by his call and empowering; and in this (his) Sacrament, he makes them his children as they become members of the Body of Christ. Baptism is a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of union with Christ, or regeneration, of forgiveness of sins and of consecration to God. The baptized do not negotiate or set any terms of the covenant of grace; they simply come to the Father through the Son and by the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament and do so only and solely on the terms that God has made and in the way that he has provided. They make promises and vows to serve the Lord but they are in the covenant because they are “in Christ Jesus.”
In contrast the position of others, who are of varied theological positions, is that there is in Baptism a personal covenant that God provides and makes with every willing believer. This covenant is, as it were, the personalized and localized expression of the everlasting covenant of grace between the Father and the Son for the redemption of the world.
In terms of the content of the Service of Baptism in the 1662 BCP, what God offers and gives in this covenant is said to be declared and clearly set forth in the Gospel reading and in the clear Exhortation that follows it; and what the person to be baptized gives in response to this offer of grace is made through The Renunciation (of the devil and his works, the pomp and glory of the world etc.), the Profession of Faith (Apostles’ Creed), & The Vow of Obedience (to keep God’s law and walk in his ways). This said there is nothing in the Text to require belief in “a personal baptismal covenant with God.” Further, in the latest Prayer Book of the Church of England, Common Worship (2000) there is nothing to suggest a covenant is being made; rather, the explicit theme there is the beginning of a journey with God of which Baptism is the start.
What appears to have happened in the construction of “The Baptismal Covenant” in the American 1979 service is this. The creators of the service decided that there should and must be a covenant in terms of a specific commitment made by the baptized to God and that this commitment must be more specific and more liberally progressive than that of the traditional Service of Baptism. To achieve this end, they created the major sub-heading, “The Baptismal Covenant,” and they expanded the one, general question of 1662 (as also of the American versions of 1662—1789, 1892 & 1928) which reads: “Wilt thou obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of thy life?”, into five questions. And thus they able to insert into this section the themes of striving for peace and justice and respecting the dignity of all persons into the covenant, which themes have had tremendous impact and importance within the life of The Episcopal Church since the 1970s. In fact “The Baptismal Covenant” has been the major charter of this Church for its innovations in many areas of human life in the USA and abroad. And both the present Presiding Bishop and her predecessor claimed to base their leadership and Primatial ministries upon this covenant. And not to be outdone, those five or so “orthodox” ECUSA Bishops who reject the Primatial ministry of the present Lady Presiding Bishop, actually appealed to the Archbishop of Canterbury for alternative Primatial oversight, professing their orthodoxy by citing “The Baptismal Covenant” of the 1979 Book. Amazingly this Covenant pleases the left and the right in the spectrum that is present The Episcopal Church and this itself demonstrates just how far the whole Church has moved leftwards so that the present “right” is where the “left” was several decades ago—such, regrettably is the powerful secularism of our times!
If there is an implicit covenant within the 1662 Service (and thus also in the 1789 & 1892 and 1928 equivalents) then it is very much a two sided covenant where what God gives, provides and offers is paramount and clear (in the Gospel reading and its explanation) and what the repentant sinner is to be and do—as assisted by God—is also clear. In the 1979 Service the divine side of the covenant is far from clear. And there is the further point that the human requirements of the covenant in the 1979 text do not actually include the actual renunciation of the devil, the evil world and the sinful flesh.
It would appear that the creation of the Baptismal Covenant in the 1979 Book is a clear example of how far The Episcopal Church had become by the 1970s a Body deeply influenced by the European Enlightenment, where the human being not God is the center of attention in the universe, and where a major characteristic of man as an “individual” is seen to be his freedom to choose, and his right to make agreements, even with God, the LORD (as “An Outline of Faith” assumes and states).
Where there is a healthy doctrine of the righteousness of God and the sin of man, and of God as light and man in darkness, then the individual person as repentant believing sinner looks not to make a favorable contract with God, but rather looks for every sign of mercy and grace, forgiveness and cleansing, and thankfully receives the same, desiring only from God that liberty wherein he is free to do the Master’s will as he walks in his ways in the Household of God.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon MA., D.Phil (Oxford)