On not messing with the baptism formula (or mode of administration).

I recently brought to the attention of some former students a recent article in The Tablet reporting that the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has advised that where the formula of administering baptism (‘N., I baptise you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit) was changed by the minister, this might nullify the validity of baptism in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church.

For some Christians, this might seem like a case of serious case of fussing over irrelevant details. In the case of the protestant churches, most, if not all have maintained these same words which have been used in the Western Church since patristic times. However, this isn’t the only set of baptismal words with a venerable history: Eastern orthodox liturgy, which has an equally ancient pedigree to that of the Western tradition has used the formula, ‘N. you are baptised in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’. The gist is the same, but the agency is rendered in the passive voice.

The Tablet article goes into the theological justification for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s concern and insistence on this matter, and I won’t cover that here. However, when I shared the matter with my former students, I used the heading, “And this is why I’ve nagged generations of Trinity students never to mess with the baptism formula.”

The reaction was varied, but there were a number of comments where it was apparent that the perspective was shaped by seeing baptism as a matter largely for the person being baptised – reflecting their new-found faith and the relationship they have established with the local church through which they had come to faith. My reflections which follow come in two parts: the New Testament and the contemporary Anglican Church.

Baptism in the New Testament is emphatically not just a matter for the candidate. When a person is baptised, it is an expression of their new-found relationship to Jesus Christ. Baptism forms the symbolic and sacramental bond between Jesus, who was baptised himself at the start of his saving ministry, and our future life having turned to him in faith. His baptism and our baptism unite us together. In Romans 6:4 and Colossians 3:11,12 St Paul is at pains to emphasise how baptism forms this bond which demonstrates, in our lifetime and on our bodies, a union with Jesus. He uses the words “in him”, “with him” which emphasises this baptismal bond.

The bond which baptism proclaims is not merely a personal, “me and Jesus” bond as if nothing else matters. To be “in Christ” means to be in his Body, the Church. So baptism isn’t just a personal event in our salvation journey, but also something which unites us with others Jesus-followers in the Church. His journey has become our journey, but we join with all others in that journey.

One key New Testament feature of the Church, Christ’s Body, is its oneness. One obvious reference is the prayer of Jesus in John 17, where Jesus’ prayer for the Oneness of those who have been given him by the Father is founded on the oneness of God. This is no mere desideratum: the Church can only truly be the Church when it is one, and that oneness should be visible ‘that the world may believe’ (John 17:21) Without visible oneness, the relationship between any group of Christians, and Jesus and his Father, is called into doubt. For this reason, for any Christian to do something which imperils that visible oneness is a grave sin against Christ and against his Body.

When St Paul speaks, in Ephesians 4, of there being ‘one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…’, he has expressing in his own way the importance of the unity of the Church in relation to the unity of God. The themes of divine unity, expressed through the Church’s unity, the gospel’s unity and, for St Paul, the unity of baptism. (We could further note St Paul’s concern about baptism in the case of the very factious church in Corinth, in 1 Cor 1:10-17, where he seems to be alarmed that the factions seem to be forming around who had baptised whom.) In summary, baptism is an expression of our individual unity in Christ, and therefore our corporate unity in the one God. There aren’t ‘baptisms’ but, rather, ‘one baptism’.

The Christian who baptises another person is acting as the minister of the one Church, spoken about in these passages. They are administering the One Baptism of Ephesians 4:4-6, which is – in turn – proclaiming the oneness of the one God, revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In that act, the person being baptised is being united visibly with Christ, with the One Church of which scripture speaks and incorporated symbolically and sacramentally into the life of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism, therefore the newly baptised Christian has just joined the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, of which the Nicene Creed speaks.

The pastoral implication of this, along with the importance of reverencing and conforming to Jesus’ prayer for the oneness of his Church, is that we should explain and honour the fact that we are baptising people into more than just their personal experience and more than just our little local church. We are acting as ministers of Christ’s Church (his Body) rather than just our own local fellowship. And this is where we need to exercise some ecumenical care. We are not at simple liberty to ‘do it our way’ – according to whim or mood of the moment. We have no idea what the future will hold for the new believer’s future. They may very well change church. They may change denomination. But from the point of view of what’s just happened to them, they won’t change faith. As good pastors, it is important that the way we administer baptism will be as widely acceptable to as many Christians and churches as it is possible to be.

As I’ve mentioned above, there are two very ancient baptismal traditions around today. Most protestant churches have emerged, historically, from the Western Christian tradition. This is why almost all Protestant churches have traditionally used the same formula of admission as their Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. The root of baptism precedes the reformation divisions – it’s one of the few things that still unites us. And unity, even in the midst of many divisions, is good, scriptural and in accordance with Jesus’ prayer in John 17. So a protestant Christian administering baptism would have to have a very good reason to change the tradition which otherwise unites catholics and protestants down the centuries.

If a Christian’s earlier baptism is not acceptable to another church they wish to join, this creates a theological and a pastoral problem. Theologically, it is saying that the baptism they received was not Christ’s baptism – the baptism spoken of in Romans 6:4, Colossians 3:11,12 and Ephesians 4:4-6. Essentially, it wasn’t baptism. But because of that, the Church they belonged to wasn’t part of the one Body of Christ either. Instead, their ‘real’ Christian experience and membership of Christ’s Body begins following the baptism that church is asking them to receive. This can happen in a number of circumstances — some of which are avoidable, some not: it can happen in the case of the person joining the Roman Catholic Church, where it is deemed by the baptising minister that any earlier ‘baptism’ was not valid. It can also happen when joining a Baptist church which will only recognise the baptism of those who are capable of ‘believing’ (ie. older children and adults). It can even happen when a church assumes that faith is a matter of certain psychological or emotional crises, which conform to a set of norms – usually set by the denomination or local church.

As a result of this, the one baptism – by which a person is marked as united to Christ and his Body the Church – is repeated all over again. I once knew a person who had been ‘baptised’ seven times! What a travesty of the unifying, once-and-for-all event that we learn about from the New Testament! Essentially, she bore in her embodied experience the very disunity that St Paul was so alarmed about among the Corinthians.

It is unrealistic to expect all the different strands of Christianity to agree on the theology and administration of baptism overnight. Although we would do well to look at the important discussions that have taken place ecumenically on the matter between different Church groups. (For example, the WCC document Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry.)

And what about Anglicans (who were my initial conversation partners)? The Declaration of Assent, which all ministers in the Church of England make, has this to say:

The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.

The minister being licensed then makes the following promise:

I, A B, do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon.

This means that Anglican clergy are not at liberty to ‘do what is right in their own eyes’, and in the present case, we can see the pastoral and theological sense of this. We should do all we can to preserve as many of those tentative threads of visible unity that are left to us, not only in obedience to the will of Christ (John 17) but for the pastoral well being of those whom we baptise. This is why I have nagged generations of my students with the following words, ‘Never mess with the baptism formula!’

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