By Dr. Laura E. Moore
If the principal baptismal days are emphasized anew, appropriated anew, might the baptismal covenant itself effectively be used as the basis of instruction and formation for most of the liturgical year, for groups of every age? Leonel Mitchell notes that “since the fourth century the content of the creed has provided the topic headings for the instruction of candidates for baptism. . . .”14 The baptismal covenant, whose centerpiece is, of course, the Apostles’ Creed, could be divided into sections appropriate to each baptismal day and its preceding season of preparation. Baptism or the renewal of baptismal vows (with or without other rites of initiation/reaffirmation) on each of the four baptismal days would serve as the culmination of that “unit” of education/formation. The baptismal covenant could also be used to prepare parents and sponsors, and could provide the stuff for mystagogy as well.15
“since the fourth century the content of the creed has provided the topic headings for the instruction of candidates for baptism…”
I realize that there is a risk in this proposal of artificially dividing the creed. However, I envision that none of these “units” will be used in isolation from the others, and, of course, the story as a whole must never be lost sight of. With those caveats in mind, I have included a preliminary proposal as an appendix to this paper.16
Use of the baptismal covenant as the primary “text” for both baptismal preparation and ongoing Christian formation might provide an opportunity for churches to move away from an predominately lectionary-based formation to a more liturgically-based formation. Living the Good News is a widely-used lectionary-based church school curriculum.17 The Catechumenal Process: Adult Initiation & Formation for Christian Life and Ministry, a publication of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Evangelism Ministries, assumes a lectionary-based curriculum as well.18 The Episcopal Children’s Curriculum and the Episcopal Curriculum for Youth are more wide-ranging, and have units devoted to baptism and the church year, among others.19 None of these, however, provide the immersion in the baptismal covenant, with all that implies, that this proposal suggests.20
Another advantage to using the baptismal covenant as the foundation for catechesis, mystagogy, and formation suggests itself: this “curriculum” is extremely flexible. Every parish’s circumstances are unique, and each individual’s journey of conversion and growth in the Christian life is unique, too. As Daniel Stevick observes, “However complete Baptism may be sacramentally, it must always be considered the beginning of a process of participation, growth, and response.”21 While, as suggested above, baptism or the renewal of baptismal vows (with or without other rites of initiation/reaffirmation) on each of the four baptismal days would be the culmination of that “unit” of education/formation, this culmination is in no sense a graduation. It is, rather, a process that all participate in at their own pace and from which no one “graduates” this side of the grave. The structure of the baptismal covenant makes it clear that belief leads to participation in the Paschal Mystery which in turn leads into a life of worship, mission and service; and this structure provides rich material for both catechetical instruction and ongoing formation.
“However complete Baptism may be sacramentally, it must always be considered the beginning of a process of participation, growth, and response.”
I began this paper with several questions/issues that continue to engage the church: how can we plumb more deeply the Paschal Mystery and help it to become a lived reality for the faithful, instead of the “near-abstraction” Keifer suggests it is for many; how can we help the faithful appreciate more fully the liturgical year as the foundation and the framework in which the church lives into, and lives out, the Paschal Mystery; and finally, how can we seize the opportunity our proposal presents to reexamine our thinking about and practice of initiation, which Adams insists is crucial if the church is truly to be the church.
I suggested that our proposal, modest as it may look on paper, provides the church with a unique opportunity to address these issues. It brings the primary baptismal days and the weeks preceding them into new focus, allowing the churches to appropriate afresh their possibilities for Christian formation in all its forms.
While we have come a long way in becoming again a Paschal people, and in re-emphasizing the rites of initiation, we still have a way to go, to live ever more deeply that life into which we are called. Might our proposal, and the implications/opportunities I see stemming from it, help the churches in this ongoing work?
14Leonel L. Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing: A Theological Commentary on The Book of Common Prayer (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse, 1985), 100.
15Other churches, of course, use an equivalent of the BCP Baptismal Covenant, e.g., Evangelical Lutheran Worship (Affirmation of Baptism, 235-237); Book of Common Worship (Profession of Faith, 435-438); Book of Worship (Baptismal Covenant, 111-112).
16This obviously needs much more thought and discussion, if it is even deemed desirable or workable at all.
17“Living the Good News,” Morehouse Education Resources, http://www.morehouseeducation.org/living-the-good-news/ (accessed January 4, 2010).
18Office of Evangelism Ministries, The Episcopal Church Center, The Catechumenal Process: Adult Initiation & Formation for Christian Life and Ministry (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1990), 10 and passim.
19“Episcopal Children’s Curriculum and Episcopal Curriculum for Youth,” The Institute for Christian Formation and Leadership, Virginia Theological Seminary, http://www.vts.edu/podium/default.aspx?t=122314(accessed January 4, 2010).
20The baptismal covenant might also be used in conjunction with the lessons provided for the vigils for the Eve of All Saints’ Day/Sunday (BOS, 106-107), the Eve of the Baptism of Our Lord (BOS, 51-52), the Eve of Pentecost (BCP, 227, 896, 906, and 917), and, of course, the Easter Vigil (BCP, 288-291). The BOS also provides “A Vigil on the Eve of Baptism” (BOS, 131-135). The baptismal covenant could furnish the context in which the lections are explored.
21Daniel B. Stevick, Baptismal Moments; Baptismal Meanings (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1987), 138.