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The Baptismal Covenant: The Contract on the Episcopalians

In the agony that the slow separation of the Anglican Communion has become, one issue that has come up has been the business of the “baptismal covenant” that appears in TEC’s 1979 prayer book.  This problem was discussed in an excellent article by Peter Toon, but it seems that there are broader issues here to consider.

The first  Services for Trial Use that GC 1970 approved made no mention of this kind of covenant, but it appeared in the final prayer book.  The covenant (BCP 1979, pp. 304-5) is as follows:

Celebrant Do you believe in God the Father?

People I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

Celebrant Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?

People I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Celebrant Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?

People I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

Celebrant Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

People I will, with God’s help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human

People I will, with God’s help.

Toon has rightly observed that such a covenant is absent from previous Anglican prayer books such as the 1662 and 1928 books which appear on this site. Toon has also observed that the earlier books assume that the covenant between God and man has already been made.  This is best illustrated by what the “priest” says during one of the earlier baptismal rites (1662, for those of “riper years”):

WELL-BELOVED, who are come hither desiring to receive holy Baptism, ye have heard how the congregation hath prayed, that our Lord Jesus Christ would vouchsafe to receive you and bless you, to release you of your sins, to give you the kingdom of heaven, and everlasting life. Ye have heard also, that our Lord Jesus Christ hath promised in his holy Word to grant all those things that we have prayed for; which promise he, for his part, will most surely keep and perform. Wherefore, after this promise made by Christ, ye must also faithfully, for your part, promise in the presence of these your Witnesses, and this whole congregation, that ye will renounce the devil and all his works, and constantly believe God’s holy Word, and obediently keep his commandments. (BCP 1662)

The covenant–or alliance, between God and man–is really a “done deal.”  (For our own presentation of that, click here.)  Not only that, God has made several promises to us, which he is faithful to keep.  From there we make some promises in response to God’s initiative and our acceptance of it.

Jesus Christ’s work on the cross is finished.  There is nothing we can add to it.  Those who participated in earlier versions of the Holy Communion (and readers of The Final Decision) well remember the following:

ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world…

Given all of this, let’s make some observations about the BCP 1979’s “Baptismal Covenant.”

First, it is a one-way street.  God (or the church for that matter, it’s not clear who is the other party of this covenant) makes all of the demands and makes no promises in return.  And this is an improvement?  What this reflects is a very dimmed concept of what God can do.

Second, liberals make the most out of the last commitment in the covenant.  Unfortunately, the “dignity of every human being” in post-modern parlance generally bars sharing the Gospel with them, or pointing out deficiencies in their life.  This annuls the whole idea of “proclaim(ing) by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.”  So the covenant is in reality self-contradictory.  (Note: we strongly suspect that the last covenant was inspired by Peter Scholtes’ 1966 song “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love,” which sings of “And we ‘ll guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride.”  For our part we prefer Roger Smith’s “As the Rain,” which speaks of “Breaking our pride/And making us whole.”)

Third, it represents a drift towards works salvation, if any kind of salvation is being hoped for.  (Given the PB’s recent comments along those lines, we doubt eternity is on their minds.)

Finally, it frankly “sticks in our craw” that any liberal church be so nonchalant about making demands of its members.  Wasn’t the whole idea of liberalism to free us?  But liberalism is a lie in that regard.

Towards the end of the novel Two Paths, a Frenchman has just rescued a government official in a liberal country. Debating with her about Christianity, he makes the following statement:

There are endless laws.  Everybody is guilty of something.  And, being Anglo-Saxons, they have the idea that all of these laws should be enforced…Everybody is a criminal, everybody is a suspect, because it is impossible to live there and not violate the law.  It would be great if one person could come along and take the punishment for everybody.  That, in a celestial sense, is what Jesus Christ did for us.  He came into a world where everyone was guilty and gave them the chance to be innocent…(liberals) came into an innocent world and gave everybody a chance to be guilty.

The covenant  changes the free work of God into a church life of “perpetual responsibility.”  It is in reality a “contract on the Episcopalians” and needs to be seen in that light.


13 Replies to “The Baptismal Covenant: The Contract on the Episcopalians”

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