“Baptismal Covenant” in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer
Evan Daniel, in his classic 1892 historical commentary on the Book of Common Prayer, argues that a Prayer Book is not only a liturgical manual, but the “. . . fullest statement of the teaching of the Church . . . [bringing] before us the . . . great articles of the Christian faith.” In this post I explore the liturgical Rite that best exemplifies one of the major theological emphases of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP): Holy Baptism as “. . . full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church” comparing the 1979 BCP with its 1928 predecessor, and identifying continuities and discontinuities between these two Prayer Books. In doing so I demonstrate how the theologies of the 1928 and 1979 Prayer Books concerning Baptism stand in stark contrast to each other, and how the tensions created by liturgical and theological innovations in the 1979 BCP continue to inform the debate around what happens at Baptism, and whether or not Baptism is a preparatory Rite for Confirmation and reception at the Eucharist, or the sole Rite for full membership in the Church.
It is a rubric in a section entitled “Concerning the Service” that most clearly articulates the theology of the 1979 BCP concerning Baptism: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.” This statement, together with the 1979 BCP revision of the rites of Baptism and Confirmation, has begun to reorder the theological life of the Episcopal church around what some liturgists are calling a “baptismal ecclesiology.” This is a process in flux, however. Not all Episcopalians have accepted or understood this ecclesiology. The Prayer Book’s almost thirty-year-old vision of baptism as a sign of full membership in the church is at odds with Parish Canons, for example, that continue to require persons to be confirmed before taking their places on Vestries, or becoming Lay Readers . It also challenges the theological rubric in the 1928 BCP that suggests that Confirmation opens the way to properly receive Holy Communion: “It is expedient that every Adult, thus baptized, should be confirmed by the Bishop, so soon after his Baptism as conveniently may be; that so he may be admitted to the Holy Communion.” A subsequent rubric in the 1928 Order of Confirmation makes this quite explicit: “And there shall none be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed.” If the 1979 water bath is, in word and deed, “full initiation into Christ’s body the Church”, then it follows that the 1979 BCP is inviting parents and guardians to reconsider why they might, for example, expect or insist that their children wait until Confirmation before communicating at the Eucharist. This serves as one example of the innovativeness of the emphasis of the 1979 BCP in emphasizing the centrality of Baptism as a rite of membership and the manner in which it continues to create tension as the theologies of the 1928 and 1979 Prayer Books bump up against each other and as Episcopalians modify their world views on both Baptism and Confirmation.
The 1928 BCP offers three Baptismal forms within one rite : The Ministration of Holy Baptism, a rite primarily constructed around infant baptism with alternative forms for older persons; Private Baptism, a five-rubric rite with a traditional Trinitarian baptismal formula to be used in consideration of “extreme sickness” with children and adults; and Conditional Baptism for instances when either the veracity of a previous baptism, its form, or the actual event ever having occurred, is dubious: “If there be reasonable doubt whether [they were] baptized with water in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” which the 1928 BCP identifies as “the essential parts of Baptism.” The 1928 baptismal rubrics direct the Minister to “. . . often admonish the People that they defer not the Baptism of their Children, and that it is most convenient that Baptism should be administered upon Sundays and other Holy Days,” in the Churches as “they [should] seek not to have their Children baptized in their houses.” These rubrics speak more to the prevailing trend amongst 20th century Episcopalians in either deferring the baptism of their children or to holding baptism in their homes. The 1979 BCP goes to great rubrical lengths to impress that Holy Baptism is “. . . appropriately administered within the Eucharist as the chief service on a Sunday. . .” and identifies five ancient baptismal Feasts as especially appropriate for Holy Baptism: the Easter Vigil, the day of Pentecost, All Saint’s Day or the Sunday following, and the Feast of the Baptism of our Lord. Further, the 1979 rubrics direct that if there are no baptismal candidates on any of these four days, the “Renewal of Baptismal Vows” may take the place of the Nicene Creed during the Eucharist. In doing so, the 1979 BCP affirms the Eucharist as the central Rite for the principal act of worship and the proper place of Baptism within that principal act.
In continuity with the 1928 BCP, the 1979 BCP retains forms for Conditional baptism as well as baptism in case of extreme need, changing the 1928 “Private Baptism” to “Emergency Baptism.” Both the 1979 and 1928 BCPs provide for any baptized person to administer Holy Baptism using the prescribed form if a “Minister cannot be procured.” The 1928 Baptismal rite begins with the question “Hath this child (Person) been already baptized, or no?” implying that baptism is a non-repeatable sacrament, and, by extension, a sufficient expression of entry into official church membership. The 1928 rubrics further emphasize this by directing the Minister not to continue with the Rite if the Godparents or Sponsors answer “yes ” to the first liturgical words spoken at the Rite. The 1979 BCP codifies this notion when it declares in the rubrics that “The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.”
The theological themes of oneness and unity permeate the 1979 BCP baptismal ritual. The celebrant opens the rite with the Ephesians 4:4 proclamation: “There is one Body and one Spirit” to which the People reply “There is one hope in God’s call to us.” The celebrant continues this theme of unity with “One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism” to which the People respond “One God and Father of all.” In a display of solidarity with those about to be baptized, the 1979 BCP has the entire assembly join those about to be baptized in a corporate renewal of a “baptismal covenant.” This phrase, not found in the 1928 BCP, introduces the theological innovation of the 1979 Baptismal rite, the idea of a contractual covenant initiated by God and effected in and at Holy Baptism: “Renew in these your servants the Covenant you made with them at Baptism.” Following the form of the Apostles Creed, the Celebrant asks a series of catechetical questions which appear in the 1979 BCP under the heading “The Baptismal Covenant,” a further emphasis on the contractual nature of the baptismal rite. The form for the process of examination is in continuity with the 1928 BCP “Offices of Instruction” wherein the Minister asks the adult candidate for Baptism, along with the congregation, to respond to a series of questions grouped together in three “Offices” – the first examining the “Articles of Christian Faith as contained in the Apostles’ Creed.” The “Second Office” of the 1928 BCP further expands the catechetical examination to exam the candidate for confirmation, together with the congregation, on the church and its sacraments and ministry.
The 1979 BCP takes the 1928 Offices of Instruction and paraphrases and conflates them into an examination of the baptismal candidate, and by extension, all the baptized in attendance. In doing so, the 1979 BCP builds on and expands the concept of covenantal baptism to include the novel idea of “. . . seek[ing] and serve[ing] Christ in all persons” and “. . . strive [ing] for justice and peace among all people, and respect[ing] the dignity of every human being” as covenantal behaviours attested to in the liturgy preceding the water bath. This sacramental innovation draws heavily on both scripture and the Social Justice movement in the United States of America in the 1960’s, and in so doing, as Donald Schell argues, invites participants to “. . . embrace a powerfully defined synthesis of a Christian’s life.” The subsequent prayers for the candidates reinforce the idea of a covenantal commitment to following Christ: “. . . teach them to love others in the power of the spirit; send them onto the world in witness to your love.” These and other innovations in the 1979 BCP are far removed from the theology of the 1928 BCP which presents baptism as a sacrament of regeneration (the central baptismal theology of the 1928 BCP) to be followed by catechizing, Confirmation and First Communion. The 1928 BCP approximates the Christian duty proclaimed in the 1979 BCP, but less forcefully: “My duty towards my neighbor is To love him as myself, and to do to all men as I would they should do unto me.” The 1928 BCP is more inward-facing in its injunctions for the candidates to “help . . . father and mother”, “To hurt nobody by word or deed”, “To keep [one’s] body in temperance, soberness, and chastity”, and “to keep [one’s] fingers from picking and stealing. . .” At the outset of the 1928 Baptismal Rite, the Minister says: “None can enter into the kingdom of god, except he be regenerate and born anew of Water and of the Holy Ghost.” Following the water bath, the Minister declares the candidate “. . . regenerate and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church.” The method for this regeneration, according to the theology of the 1928 BCP, is found in both the mystical action of the Water, and in the coming of the Holy Spirit. In the 1928 pre water-bath prayer, the Minister says: “Give thy Holy Spirit to this child (or this thy servant), that he may be born again . . .” Following the baptism, the Minister prays: “We yield thee hearty thanks, most merciful Father, that it hath pleased thee to regenerate this Child (this thy Servant) with thy Holy Spirit, to receive him for thine own Child, and to incorporate him into thy holy Church.” The 1979 BCP places an equal emphasis on the sanctification of the Holy Spirit at Baptism, first in the Thanksgiving over the Water (“Through it we are reborn of the Holy Spirit) , when the water itself is “. . . sanctified by [the] power of the Holy Spirit” and at the chrismation (. . . you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever ) as either a sign of the rebirth that occurred in Baptism, or as a unique rite in itself.
The 1928 BCP shows a distinct separation between the rites of Baptism – “The Ministration of Holy Baptism” and Confirmation – “The Order of Confirmation Or Laying on of Hands upon Those that are Baptized, and come to Years of Discretion.” Godparents and sponsors for infants and younger children in the 1928 BCP make the promise to “. . . take heed that [the] child is brought to the Bishop to be confirmed by him as soon as [the child] is sufficiently instructed” suggesting a passage of time between the Rites, and the necessity for catechetical instruction prior to Confirmation. Similarly, 1928 BCP rubrics argue for the expediency of adult candidates to be confirmed by the Bishop “. .. so soon after . . . baptism as conveniently may be; that so he may be admitted to the Holy Communion ” suggesting that the Eucharistic meal is only properly available to the Confirmed.
The 1979 BCP, however, restores the ancient unity of baptism and confirmation by placing a confirmation ritual within the baptismal rite under a sub-heading “At Confirmation, Reception, or Reaffirmation” and directly following the rubric “If confirmation, Reception, or the Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows is not to follow, the Peace is now exchanged ” suggesting that the rite of Confirmation is to be celebrated contiguously to baptism and in the context of a Eucharist, essential ingredients of the earliest church’s sacramental unity of initiatory rites. The 1979 BCP service of baptism, then, concludes with the Celebrant and People’s joint declaration “We receive you into the household of God. . .” at which point, as the rubrics suggest, if an optional contiguous Confirmation is to follow, the Bishop says to the congregation “Let us now pray for these persons who have renewed their commitment to Christ.” (Here, the current structure of the 1979 BCP is awkward in that it uses language that presupposes a separate rite that might have occurred at another time and place.) In the subsequent prayer, the Bishop calls for a renewal within the candidates of the covenant “. . . [God] made with them at their Baptism,” which is followed by a rubric instructing the Bishop to lay her or his hand upon each candidate and saying “Strengthen, O Lord, your servant N. with your Holy Spirit; empower him for your service; and sustain him all the days of his life.” This prayer indicates that the baptismal rite in the 1979 BCP is intended to signify both an admission into the household of God, and a commissioning as a Christian disciple. Additionally, there is the problematic of an additional and separate Confirmation rite in the 1979 BCP contained in a section entitled “Pastoral Offices” which also outlines forms for Reception and for the Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows. This stand-alone Confirmation Rite is listed with other rites including Marriage, Reconciliation and Burial. The retention of a separate 1979 BCP confirmation rite has been called a liturgical and theological redundancy by some scholars.
The compilers of the 1979 Prayer Book made the intentional restoration of the post-waterbath ritual of the laying on of hands in addition to the traditional chrismation of the candidate and made allowances for the Presbyter to perform the Sealing rite with oil previously confected by a Bishop. The prayer at the hand laying “. . . you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever” has been interpreted by liturgists in various ways: Leonel Mitchell argues that there is a deliberate ambiguity in the text, allowing the “seal” to be identified either with the consignation or as the ontological work of the Holy Spirit during the actual water bath itself. Further, the inclusion of the phrase “sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism” has led at least one scholar to ask if this formula at hand-laying in baptism could imply this is not a “distinct sacramental action” thus preserving the medieval distinction of baptism and confirmation while attempting to reunite them in a single rite. The 1979 baptismal rite, and specifically its order of water bath, followed by prayer, followed by hand-laying and optional chrismation, certainly is suggestive of a sacramental act that appears to be “confirmation.” The rubrical direction immediately following the hand-laying “Or this action may be done immediately after the administration of the water and before the preceding prayer” prevents liturgical scholars from reaching a definitive conclusion. Further, the inelegant rubric concerning chrismation: “If a priest uses Chrism in signing the newly baptized, it must have been previously consecrated by the bishop” suggests practical tensions around the restoration of hand-laying at chrismation, what exactly is happening during the rite, and the awkward commingling of the liturgical roles of Bishop and Priest in this conflated rite. In placing a Confirmation Rite within the section ordered as “Holy Baptism”, the 1979 BCP appears to affirm the ancient unification of the rites of Baptism and Confirmation and may, as I suggested earlier, be seen as an argument against infant baptism.
The 1979 BCP, however, in a section of the Prayer Book entitled “An Outline of the Faith” specifies three actions of candidates at Baptism: to renounce Satan, repent of sin and accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour. While suggesting that the candidate be capable of taking these actions, it also defends the practice of infant baptism as a means for children to “. . . share citizenship in the Covenant, membership in Christ, and redemption by God ” through the promises made by parents and sponsors who make guarantees that the infants “. . . will be brought up within the Church, to know Christ and be able to follow him.” It appears that the crafters of the 1979 BCP, in attempting to enrich and restore the ancient baptismal and confirmational rites, were not prepared to have the last word on the several issues this restoration has subsequently raised. Our understanding of each other is being reformed by the theology behind our liturgy, our lex orandi, lex credendi which reflects our living tradition. The sacrament of Baptism was restored to primacy in the 1979 BCP, and no where else is our corporate sense of covenant renewal found than in the Baptismal Rite with its significant messages of continuing in the apostle’s teaching, persevering in resisting evil, proclaiming the Good News, seeking and serving Christ in all persons and striving for justice and peace among all people. This Baptismal Covenant, as Luis Weil argues, “. . . becomes a constant basis for reflection and a reference point for catechetical instruction.”
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