Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Muddying the Waters of Baptism: The Theology Committee's Report on Baptism, Confirmation, and Christian Formation

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Muddying the Waters of Baptism: The Theology Committee's Report on Baptism, Confirmation, and Christian Formation

Article excerpt

This article examines the 2005 report of the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops, "Forming Christians: Reflections on Baptism, Confirmation, and Christian Formation." It finds that contributors to the report misunderstand the liturgical theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, propose the introduction of an initiatory theology alien to the Prayer Book, and neglect the history of baptism and confirmation in the West. Additionally, a survey of bishops' practices within the report shows that many either reject or do not understand the clear statements of the Prayer Book and canons concerning initiation. The article proposes that confirmation and reception be eliminated, to be replaced by the sole, repeatable, and optional rite of reaffirmation of baptismal vows.

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer represents a number of advancements for the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, among them establishing the Eucharist as the central act of worship, reviving the ancient church's observances of the Tridunm, and reasserting the role of the laity in worship. But none of its achievements is as important as its revision of the rite of baptism. Indeed, the 1979 baptismal rite is part of a general reordering of the life of the church around what has been termed a "baptismal ecclesiology." Yet a recent report by the House of Bishops Theology Committee reveals that the church needs to reengage with the vital issues of Christian initiation. Sadly, the report itself will be of only limited use in this process, because several of its writers misunderstand the history and liturgical theology behind the 1979 Prayer Book and have neglected to study the liturgical texts themselves.

The liturgical changes that the 1979 Prayer Book brought are considerable. In the days of the 1928 Prayer Book, baptism frequently took place in private, outside of the Sunday liturgy. Now, the ordinary (as opposed to emergency) rite of baptism is all but prohibited outside of the principal worship service of the community, on a Sunday or major feast, and the clear implication of the additional directions is that baptisms should take place only at the Easter Vigil, Pentecost, All Saints' Day (or the Sunday following), the Baptism of our Lord, or when a bishop visits.1 The 1928 Prayer Book's liturgical text presented baptism as what my liturgies professor in seminary termed "celestial fire insurance," intended simply to keep the baby (and it was almost always a baby) out of the fires of hell. The 1979 Prayer Book situates baptism as both entry into the body of Christ and commissioning as a disciple. The 1979 Prayer Book even managed to reassemble the bits of the ancient church's initiatory rite of baptism, returning the imposition of hands upon and chrismation of the candidate to the rite. These were elements that once constituted the freestanding rite of confirmation, even if Episcopalians do not call these postbaptismal ceremonies "confirmation" in their liturgical text.2

Above all else, the 1979 Prayer Book, for the first time, explicitly stated that "Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ's Body the Church."3 The prefatory section where this is found, "Concerning the Service," further states, "The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble."4 Despite the attempts of some to undercut this language through sophistical arguments,5 the plain sense of the Prayer Book is that baptism is the single and complete initiatory act by which one becomes a full member of the Body.

This teaching has not been fully received in all corners of the Episcopal Church. Even liturgy professors are aware of that fact; one need only hear a few stories of persons baptized on random Sundays or even at an Easter Sunday morning Eucharist instead of the Vigil, or of parents refusing to allow their baptized children to receive communion until they "understand" the sacrament or until the completion of some ersatz first communion ritual. …

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