The 1979 Book of Common Prayer contains a powerful catechetical charge, not always noticed by clergy and congregations. The rubrics of the baptismal liturgy, in the section entitled “Concerning the Service,” outline this expectation for those sponsoring children: “Parents and godparents are to be instructed in the meaning of Baptism, in their duties to help the new Christians grow in the knowledge and love of God, and in their responsibilities as members of his Church” (p. 298). The rubric lays out a pattern of catechesis (instruction) for parents and godparents, as they prepare for the liturgy, in the course of which they will make promises on their own behalf, and on behalf of the infants they sponsor.
It’s easy to miss the wide-ranging scope of this rubric. It goes far beyond the expectation of rehearsal before the liturgy; instead, it lays out a course of instruction. Rehearsals are all well and good, but they are not what’s required by the rubric. What’s called for here is formation in the meaning of baptism itself, in the nature and character of the sacrament. The section also mentions the responsibilities that parents and godparents undertake as sponsors, an understanding of the meaning of the promises they make in the course of the liturgy. Finally, and most significantly, sponsors are instructed in their own responsibilities as Christians, as members of the church.
Of course, though it’s not stated here, the same expectation of instruction would logically extend to adults being baptized and confirmed, or adult confirmands. They too need formation in the distinctive Christian way of faith and life. It’s good that the revival of catechumenal processes over the past fifty years in many sections of the church has led to a more robust presentation of the faith. Much more, however, remains to be done.
Before looking deeper, a prior question needs to be dealt with. For some, any expectation at all of preparation for the sacrament might seem to violate the radical nature of baptismal grace, freely given without conditions. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36), the Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip the Deacon; and some would see this rhetorical question as ruling out any requirements for baptism. Of course, what moved the eunuch to ask was precisely that catechesis had already taken place, in rather classic catechetical question and answer format, as witnessed in the exchange between the two prior to the baptism.
It’s the third part of the Prayer Book’s catechetical expectation that is the most significant and perhaps the most neglected. Instruction in the responsibilities of members of the church goes far beyond the particular responsibilities undertaken by parents and godparents, as significant as those are. Here is a charter for presenting the very nature of the Christian “faith and life” (p. 302) to which sponsors are committing their children and themselves; a writ for explicating the practical implications of the baptismal mystery that is articulated in the liturgy. This is a powerful tool for inviting people further into the practice of the Christian faith, within the community of faith, and for making clear our expectations of what the Christian life consists.
Christian identity has a particular form. We do not make it up for ourselves. We do not fashion our identity in Christ out of whole cloth, but we accept it as a call. The baptismal covenant is one attempt to explicate it. The Christian life has a typical shape that can be recognized in the celebration of the sacrament of baptism. The Episcopal Church has put a lot of its eggs into the basket of baptismal theology, and taking the demand for baptismal catechesis seriously is part of living into this theology.
As clergy and congregations carry out this catechetical charge, some of the other features of the baptismal liturgy begin to fall into place. Whatever the scope and scale of baptismal instruction for families and godparents, the prayer book suggests that baptism itself is “especially appropriate” (p. 312) at the Easter Vigil, and on Pentecost, All Saints’, and the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, as well as when a bishop is present. As early as the 1549 prayer book, the primacy of Easter and Pentecost as baptismal festivals in the ancient church had been noted, and the desirability of limiting baptism to the public liturgy on Sundays and holy days acknowledged. Different situations will demand different responses, of course, but at the very least the schedule of suggested days in the 1979 prayer book allows clergy and congregations to structure their life in a way that will allow catechesis of new members to be robust and meaningful.
The feasts themselves also provide a way to talk conveniently about the mystery of baptism, creating a skeleton on which to hang our baptismal theology. Baptism is the sacrament of new life and resurrection. In baptism the gift of the Holy Spirit is given. Baptism makes us a part of the communion of saints, communicants in holy things. The sacrament of baptism begins our life as Christ’s followers and servants, sharing his identity and his ministry. When baptism is celebrated on the occasion of the bishop’s visitation, there is opportunity to connect the role of the bishop as chief pastor with entry into the Christian community.
Of course, instruction in the local congregation on the nature of the Christian faith and life cannot be limited to sponsors of children for baptism, or even to adult baptismal candidates or confirmands. It must be life-long and on-going for each of us. Yet there is logic in setting this catechetical charge before clergy and congregations at the entry point of Christian life, at the celebration of baptism. I think that we have given the idea of lowering expectations about Christian identity and catechesis at the point of entry a thorough exploration over the past fifty years or so. The 1979 Prayer Book calls us to a different standard, to live more fully into the church’s vocation as a baptizing community. The 1979 Prayer Book provides a salutary countervailing influence, one that the church still needs to live into.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. John Bauerschmidt is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.