The (Other) Covenant

...The Baptismal Covenant, that is.
One would have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the prominence of the Baptismal Covenant of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer in our current ecclesiastical life and discourse. Not only is it regularly recited as part of every baptism, but it is also used in most Episcopal parishes as part of a public reaffirmation of baptismal vows several times each year. More than that, it is often cited as undergirding a particular baptismal theology that is brought to bear on issues apart from baptism itself.

I have long been aware of an inner misgiving about the extent to which the Baptismal Covenant has been employed outside of the context of baptism and reaffirmation. It was only on reading Dr. Ruth A. Meyer’s essay in the Chicago Consultation’s collection of essays on the proposed Anglican Covenant, The Genius of Anglicanism, that my misgivings took on a more precise form. This was not due to anything she said in particular, but the text stirred my mental pot. Her essay was designed to contrast the Baptismal Covenant with the proposed Anglican Covenant, and to explore the meaning of the word covenant itself. Hence the pot-stirring.

Long story short, it seems to me upon reflection that our Baptismal Covenant — in particular in the last two questions which form its coda — has exuberantly wandered into areas that are not necessarily baptismal, nor indeed necessarily Christian, and that this has distorted our baptismal theology by incorporating elements which, while certainly not inimical to it, do not properly belong to it. The liturgical revisers have gone a Milvian Bridge too far.

Let me elaborate: In case you don’t trust your memory, here are the two “questions” in question.
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
They were added to the rite, along with the other questions (but one — more on that anon), as a coda to the Apostles’ Creed, as identifying “some of the principal commitments that are inherent in the baptismal life.” (Prayer Book Studies 26, Supplement, p 98.) That these virtues should be practiced by all who are baptized is beyond question, but to coopt them as particularly baptismal is to some extent to water down the principal and truly characteristic features of baptism. The irony is that the same study document includes a chapter on “the Breakdown of Christendom” while the revisers were still within the thrall of that world-view. For obviously the commandment to love ones neighbor is Jewish, and the concept of the respect for the dignity of every human being is a feature of many if not most philosophical and religious traditions, perhaps most importantly rabbinic Judaism. One would certainly hope that all baptized persons will practice these virtues — what one would also hope is that any human being would practice these virtues whether baptized or not.

What I am suggesting in all of this is that at least some of our current confusion about the nature of baptism may be a result of the this revision. The revisers were keenly aware of baptism as a “border rite” marking “the boundary between Church and not-Church”; and that “being a good member of society does not necessarily support being a good Christian” (ibid., 38). Yet that did not prevent their falling precisely into the Christendom trap by including two general (and admittedly important) aspects of human virtue as the tail end of an explicitly Christian — perhaps the most intrinsically Christian — act.

It appears that in the process of creating the revised baptismal rite, those responsible lost sight of the basic context: the double meaning of baptism as remission of sin and incorporation into the church. The revisers had so lost sight of the “sin” aspect that in the proposed version (Prayer Book Studies 26, p. 13) they omitted the question, “Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?” (It made it in to the 1976 Draft Proposed Book.) They did include the questions that concern the Christian life, qua Christian, that is, as part of the church: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship and worship, and the responsibility to proclaim the gospel. But the following questions, while, as I say, commendable in themselves, are hardly peculiar to baptism.

What exactly is “Christ” in all persons? If this is shorthand for “the divine image” well and good — but is that either what “Christ” means or what people will take it to mean? Doesn’t this usage, particularly linked with an originally and profoundly Jewish commandment (“love your neighbor as yourself” — Leviticus 19:18) form a kind of Christian supersessionism if not triumphalism? What is “Christ” in my non-Christian neighbor? (I may well be comfortable thinking that way, as I acknowledge Christ to be “the divine image” in perfection; but would my Jewish, Buddhist, or Muslim neighbor, to say nothing of my atheist friends, consider that an honor? In an increasingly pluralistic society, this now seems a kind of flabby or semi-conscious imperialism.

Even more, the call to respect the dignity of every human being is incumbent on every human being in virtue of their being human — it is a responsibility of our common humanity, not something additional taken on at baptism. To respect the dignity of every human being is not uniquely — or sad to say even characteristically — Christian. It is in fact profoundly disrespectful of the dignity of non-Christian human beings so to co-opt this universal human mandate as part of our peculiar Baptismal Covenant.

This overgeneralization or “spread” has had, it seems to me, the unfortunate consequence of muddying the baptismal waters and confusing or confounding being “a decent moral human being” and “being a member of the body of Christ” through initiation into that body by baptism. What purports to be a “baptismal theology” becomes another instance of Christendom at work, of a generic form of humanism.

This is by no means intended as a slap at humanism! I consider myself a humanist, and perhaps that explains my touchiness at seeing what appears to be a Christian co-option of a virtue that predates it. The failure to keep the distinction between humanism and Christianity has continued the 19th century blurring whereby “Christian” becomes not a marker denoting membership in the Body of Christ, but the very kind of vague compliment describing “a good person” that I find so repellent when used in phrases like, “that’s very Christian of you” or the converse, “you are being un-Christian.” It reminds me too much of The Worst Sermon I Ever Heard, which began (and I can remember it verbatim because it was such a shock after having heard Isaiah 1:17 as part of the first reading), “The corporal works of mercy are uniquely Christian.” (The sermon ended, “We mustn’t be like Zacchaeus, climbing trees to get away from Jesus...” Yes, it was that bad.)

But I digress. I sense we are experiencing unintended consequences, and a baptismal theology that has lost its roots in incorporation into Christ. Is it any wonder people are seeing no problem with “Communion without baptism” — if what baptism is about is being “a decent moral person” whose dignity ought to be respected as such — who are we to say that sacramental baptism should be a prerequisite to sacramental communion? If baptism is primarily about how one acts, rather than who one has become by means of it, we are treading deeply Pelagian waters, it seems to me. (Also noting that, as the tradition has it, while baptism is a prerequisite for participation in communion, so is being a moral person, living “in love and charity” with ones neighbors.)

So my question is not, Have these two questions improved our ability to live as moral human beings? I hope they have; indeed, I think perhaps they have. My question is, What has over thirty years of hearing these questions and proclaiming our assent done to our conception of baptism?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG

No comments:

Post a Comment