Monday, May 14, 2007

RENEWAL of VOWS--in Marriage, Ordination, and Baptism? What is the modern activity all about?

A discussion starter.

Christian talk about "renewal" in the Church over the centuries up to the "charismatic renewal" of recent days has normally been of the work of the Holy Spirit bringing new life, vision, commitment and hope to the people of God and renewing them for worship, discipleship and mission. That is, "renewal" has been seen as—at least in first instance—the initiative and action of The Holy Trinity, to whom believers individually and corporately respond.

However, since the 1970s some Christian talk about "renewal" has been phrased as to suggest that it is something that baptized Christians should do and can do for themselves. This has been particularly evident in increasing references to "the renewal of Baptismal vows" or, with Episcopalians in particular, to "the renewal of 'The Baptismal Covenant'." To a lesser degree there has also been talk of "the renewal of marriage vows" and "the renewal of ordination vows."

I want to suggest that to talk in the modern way is only really possible because of the arrival and presence in the churches in recent times of two things. First, notions of human autonomy and rights; and, secondly, a doctrine of God as One who is always well disposed towards human beings and thus can be counted upon to affirm and bless them without question, when they approach him/her. So a relationship with God can be understood in basic contractual terms where the love of God for humanity is seen as constant and, in response, human beings make commitments (based upon how they read the Bible and the activity of God in the cosmos and human experience) and the result is "the Baptismal Covenant" or the like.

Let us consider this, beginning with marriage and moving on to ordination and baptism.

Holy Matrimony

Marriage is seen in modern civil law as a contract between two persons, a man and a woman. In the Church it is seen as this but also much more. At the center of the marriage service is the making of vows and promises by each person to the other—the man to the woman and the woman to the man. These are made in the presence of God and the Minister (with witnesses or congregation). Further, they are made in the context of prayer, hearing the Word of God and receiving a Blessing. Once made they bind each person to the other in a one-flesh union for life, "until death us do part." That is, they are binding promises.

The vows and promises are thus of such a nature as not to be repeated for to repeat them would be to deny their binding nature when first given and made. However, they can be recalled, remembered, brought to mind and meditated upon in order to seek to fulfill them in practice the better, And, good could possibly come from the couple doing this recalling together on the anniversary of the wedding.

But, if we view the husband and wife as simply united contractually (as does the law in the USA) and we see them only as autonomous beings with rights and free will, then we can see that "renewing" (in the sense of making a new start) is possible at any time.

Holy Ordination

Services of Ordination have various preliminaries of a responsive nature, before there is the actual laying on of hands with prayer and accompanying words; however, the Ordination as such is a one way event. It is the action of God upon and within his servant, setting him apart for a particular office of Ministry in the Church. True enough God acts through already ordained Ministers to perform this action, but it remains his action and not merely and only a human, ceremonial, ritual activity. So we can say that Ordination as such cannot be renewed by man. Yet man—either understood as the one ordained or the Christian person viewing the same—may recall the act of ordination and see in it the Lord Jesus Christ providing a Minister for his Church. And, again, on the anniversary of the ordination, it could be beneficial for the ordained person to recall, remember and call to mind for meditation the content of the service, commitments made and vocation and blessings given.

Before a person is ordained he answers various questions and in so doing makes various promises as to how he will live, behave and perform his ministry as a deacon, priest or bishop. By these his calling to the office is examined and confirmed and his readiness to be and do what is required is made. The questions and answers are specifically designed as the preliminaries for public ordination that by its nature occurs once for the person ordained; thus the questions and answers are not appropriately asked and answered in other contexts. Thus the deacon, priest or bishop cannot "renew" his vows and promises for he cannot start over anew, begin again, as an ordained minister. However, as noted already, he can and should recall and remember what is his high calling and vocation in the Church of God.

Thus the adding of "the Renewing of Ordination Vows" to the traditional Maundy Thursday services in Cathedrals, begun in recent times by Roman Catholics and imitated by others, is not to be commended. But meditation upon the nature and duties of the offices given in ordination is much to be commended.

Holy Baptism

Baptism is an act of the Holy Trinity, where the Father forgives and adopts, the Son receives, and the Holy Spirit regenerates the repentant, believing sinner. It is a Sacrament that occurs once and must not be repeated. Before the actual baptizing in the Triune Name takes place, there are various preliminaries, one of which is to establish that the candidate is turning away from sin (and from the evil world and Satan) and is embracing the promises of the Gospel of salvation to believe the Faith. Thus Renunciation of Satan and sin and Profession of Faith are not to be seen as the human conditions of a baptismal covenant, but rather as recognizing that the candidate comes to the Font in pure receptivity, in faith trusting in God's grace and mercy, and without any claims whatsoever upon God, knowing that all he deserves is wrath. Thus the vows and promises made are public assurances to the local church, assembled in God's presence, of the fitness of the candidate for Baptism, and they express his absolute need of divine forgiveness and regeneration. He has no right, in and of himself, to be baptized and made a child of God; but he can, by God's help, respond to the gracious invitation in the Gospel and become that which is his—an adopted son of God—only by pure mercy.

In this context, once more, the recalling, remembering and meditating upon the meaning and purpose of Baptism by the baptized is a good and holy thing. But "renewing" the vows and promises does not make sense at all, for one is never placed ever again in the unique position of being a candidate for Baptism, which logically is the only place where "starting over afresh" makes any sense.

The modern (post 1970s) Roman Catholic Service of the Easter Vigil provides for the "Renewal of Baptismal Promises" in which the celebrant speaks to the congregation of the baptized in these words: "Now that we have completed our Lenten observance, let us renew the promises we made in baptism, when we rejected Satan and his works, and promised to serve God faithfully in his holy catholic Church." Then follows, from the Baptismal Service, the "renunciation" and the "profession of faith" which are undertaken as if Baptism would actually follow them, but it does not. Here what is happening is that the congregation, and each baptized person within it, are stating that they remain repentant and believing (faithful). But they are not beginning afresh the Christian life; rather ( I hope) they are dramatically recalling—at the end of Lent—that the baptized are always to be penitent and believing people, who are disciples of Christ and children of God.

The modern Episcopal Service of the Easter Vigil is similar to the Roman one for it is based upon it. Thus it also has what it calls "The Renewal of Baptismal Vows" but includes in them more content than does the R.C. Service. The additional content relates to the late 1960s themes of "striving for peace and justice" and "respecting the dignity of every human being" which are in what is called "The Baptismal Covenant" within the Episcopal 1979 Prayer Book. This "Covenant" is placed in the Baptismal Service before the actual Baptism and thus gives the distinct impression that a covenant is being made with God by the baptized, even if the latter is the junior partner in the contract.

Anyone who is familiar with The Episcopal Church since the 1970s will know how prominent is "The Baptismal Covenant" as a charter of the agenda and mission of the Church, and how often it is used, outside of the Easter Vigil, as a means of gaining commitment to the radical program of the Church in the USA and overseas.

Now here, thinking of Episcopalians particularly, it is perhaps correct to speak in terms of the "renewal" of the covenant because the logic of the Baptism Service and the public attitude of the leadership of the Church for decades points to the belief that a real contract exists between the baptized and God, and because God is constant in his/her love, then the other party may as desired renew the covenant whenever and wherever convenient or appropriate.

So while the R C use may be tolerable but not wise; the Episcopal use is –from a traditional viewpoint—wholly unacceptable. [I may add here that the suspicion remains that the creators of both the Vigil in the R C Church, and later in the Episcopal Church, wanted there to be a Vigil every year, because for them it was a central part of their supposed recovery of Early Church worship patterns. Thus they included the renewal of baptismal vows to make it possible to have the service even when—as is often the case these days—that there are no persons to be baptized!]

A problem to solve from the BCP 1662

In the various editions of The BCP from 1549 through to 1662 there is to be found a Service of Baptism for Infants, a Catechism and a Confirmation Service. In the baptizing of an infant, Godparents stand in the place of the infant and make on its behalf the renunciation of sin and Satan and the profession of faith. But it is the child himself who is actually baptized! Then the baptized child is brought up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord as a Christian and when he reaches an age of discretion (say 12) he is taught the Catechism ( i.e., the meaning for him of The Commandments, The Creed and the Lord's Prayer) before he is confirmed by the Bishop.

In all the editions of The BCP up and including that of 1662, it was made clear that before being Confirmed by the Bishop (and thus by God through the Bishop of being spiritually strengthened by the presence of the Holy Spirit) that the baptized child, now a young person, had to ratify the solemn promise and vow made by its Godparents at its Baptism, and to acknowledge himself "bound to believe and to do all those things, which his Godfathers and Godmothers then undertook for him." In other words, this once and only this once, he had to go back in time, as it were, to place himself with his Godparents at his Baptism and with them to make the renunciation of evil and profess the faith of Christ. Only he could not go back in time and so he did it in the present and it was as if his Baptism was brought forward through 12 years to the present moment.

So the verb ratify is used in all the editions—ratify meaning "give formal consent to what has been accepted by others on my behalf." Also, and here is the problem, in the 1662 edition and this edition alone the verb "to renew" is used and in this way. The Bishop asks of the candidates for Confirmation: "Do you here, in the presence of God, and of this congregation, renew the solemn promise and vow that was made in your name at your Baptism….?" Exactly why this verb was imported into the text I do not know, for "ratify" is used later in the sentence. However, if there is one occasion, and one only, where one may be said to be able to renew a vow and promise it is here—where one as a 12 year old is consciously and deliberately taking to oneself permanently and really that which was done for one vicariously when one was an infant and not conscious of it. In fact, it is not truly a renewal for it is the very same vow and promise, moving as it were here permanently from the Godparents to the baptized young person.


Despite the one occurrence of the verb "to renew," albeit in a unique sacramental context, in The BCP 1662, the notion, so common in the churches today, that one can renew baptismal vows, marriage vows or ordination vows is based on views of the nature of God the Holy Trinity and of the covenant of grace that are deeply flawed, That is, they allow too much for the autonomous power of man to act as though he can negotiate a covenant with God concerning his salvation.

It is surely a better way to revert to that which is encouraged and pressed so much in the Old Testament (e.g. with regard to the Exodus) and is featured by the Lord Jesus in his institution of the Lord's Supper, the act of remembering and recalling in order to receive from God the covenanted grace deriving from his saving deeds and words.

I close with the words from what is said to the baptized immediately after the Baptism in The BCP 1662 service:

Remembering always that Baptism representeth unto us our profession; which is to follow the example of our Saviour Christ, and to be made like unto him; that as he died and rose again for us, so should we, who are baptized, die from sin and rise again unto righteousness, continually mortifying all our evil and corrupt affections, and daily proceeding in all virtue and godliness of living.

To represent (re-present) is to signify, symbolize or embody; and the act of Baptism, which is an act of God performed by his Minister, signifies much, including union with Christ who died and rose again, forgiveness, justification, adoption and regeneration. To recall, to remember our Baptism is to follow St Paul's command, "Reckon ye yourselves dead indeed unto sin but alive unto God in Christ Jesus" (Romans 6:11).

May 12, 2007

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