- Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Review by Daniel H. Martins
Some New Testament scholars have contended that the First Epistle of Peter was written by way of post-baptismal catechesis for a community of new Christians. Few could argue that the material in 1 Peter does not readily lend itself to such a use. It could be said to represent the template for the Church’s ongoing practice of mystagogy — going deep into the truths mediated by Christian liturgical and sacramental experience, particularly during the Great Fifty Days of Eastertide, the weeks following the celebration of baptism.
So this short volume (128 easily-read pages, divided into 11 chapters) by Andrew Doyle, Bishop of Texas, stands in a venerable tradition. The author’s expressly targeted audience is made up of those who, if not newly baptized, are at least recently confirmed or received. Accordingly, the material is organized around the vows and promises that one makes when baptized or confirmed in the Episcopal Church.
After some brief introductory material that sets out how various Episcopalians, the language of the Episcopal Church’s worship, and the Episcopal Church’s institutional weight have contributed to the fabric of American civic and religious culture, each succeeding chapter begins with a simple citation of one of the elements of the baptismal liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer (1979). A short vignette then follows, drawn from Bishop Doyle’s own spiritual, pastoral, or family experience, something that raises a question about or illuminates some aspect of the material to be considered. (He is at his most engaging when being transparent in this way.) Finally he addresses the heart of the matter, always under the bright light of one or more substantial passages of Scripture, and always with an eye toward concrete connection with the journey of faith as it is actually lived.
The author is a cradle Episcopalian — indeed, the son of a priest — and he writes from a position of deep love for the family of faith that has nurtured and formed him from before he was born. His zeal for the worship and ministry of the Episcopal Church is not something he acquired at some point in his journey through life, but is inbred, hard-wired. It has a ring of authenticity that is infectious.
Arguably, that very strength becomes the book’s greatest weakness. Its principal title is telling here: Unabashedly Episcopalian. The fine line between confident affection for one’s own church and a sense of distinctiveness that leans toward triumphalism is often difficult to discern in Doyle’s cheerleading. Generations of Anglicans have been schooled on the notion, articulated by Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher: “We have no doctrine of our own. We only possess the Catholic doctrine of the Catholic Church enshrined in the Catholic Creeds, and these creeds we hold without addition or diminution.” Yet, the bishop offers new Episcopalians a rather more constricted vision of the fellowship to which they have been joined: “We in the Episcopal Church have a particular and beautiful way of understanding the redeeming work of Jesus Christ” (p. 7, emphasis added), or “We choose specifically to walk the pilgrim way with God and to live out a particular revelation found uniquely in the Episcopal Church” (p. 11, emphasis added).
A similar assertion of the singularity of the Episcopal Church is found in virtually every chapter of the book. Indeed, its very structure is erected around the Baptismal Covenant, and “no other church globally … has a Baptismal Covenant quite like ours” (p. 13). Of course, in writing for the sort of readership envisioned by the bishop, it is not realistic to expect a high degree of theological precision, and some measure of hermeneutical generosity is appropriate. But even with that caveat, the implications of what is claimed here for the Episcopal Church in general and the Baptismal Covenant in particular are troubling.
The notion that the 1979 BCP’s baptismal liturgy is significantly unique is widely held but not self-evident. While it is true that a generation has grown up to mature adulthood knowing only that prayer book, the era in which it was conceived and hatched is still enough of a living memory to question that interpretation. It was a time of optimistic ecumenical convergence that drank deeply from the well of Archbishop Fisher’s simultaneously capacious and modest vision, which downplays, rather than accentuates, the uniqueness of either the Episcopal Church or any other Anglican body. It is difficult to imagine that the drafters of the baptismal rite had any intention other than tapping into the inheritance of all Christian bodies that value the continuity of sacramental practice across space and time. In that light, it seems particularly ironic to suggest that the Baptismal Covenant is part of what makes the Episcopal Church “special.”
There are only a few oblique references to the fact that the Episcopal Church is a constituent member of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Is this not a rather essential data point for someone new to the Episcopal Church? Our Anglican identity, in those rare instances when it is mentioned, is always presumed, and never questioned. But neither is it ever explicated. This only serves to emphasize the recurrent, and questionable, theme of the Episcopal Church’s uniqueness.
Aside from these ecclesiological issues, the underlying theology of the volume is a mixed bag. I found myself eagerly anticipating chapter six, which breaks open the author’s understanding of the baptismal promise to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” Indeed, I encountered a rather helpful exposition of the Lord’s Prayer, and, consistent with the book as a whole, a robust sense of the importance and power of Christian community, particularly as it is a community at prayer. Disappointingly absent, however, was any mention of what it means that Christians continue in the apostles’ teaching, or even a glancing reference to the fact that “the breaking of the bread” is language for the Eucharist. These are omissions that would have perplexed the early practitioners of mystagogical catechesis.
Along similar lines, I reached the end of the book still hungry for something eschatological, something transcendent: something more clearly rooted in the paschal mystery, and more compelling than ethical exhortation to be more actively involved in the work of “encouraging others, to help others along their journey, to make their steps a little lighter and their pace a little quicker, so that all may run the race closer to the kingdom of God” (p. 65). There is certainly nothing to quarrel with in that, but, without a level of theological development that the limited scope of the book prevents, it covers over a legitimate distinction between the context of the community formed by baptism — those who are, in the Pauline sense, “in Christ” — and the context of that community’s interaction with the rest of the world. I often found myself confused about which context Bishop Doyle was writing about.
Where Bishop Doyle is at his most winsome is in chapter seven, dealing with sin and repentance. His explanations of metanoia and self-examination are lucid, on target, and model a healthy and life-giving vulnerability and openness. Here his pastoral gifts are evident, and the insights are catholic in the best sense, in that they apply to all manner of Christians, not just Episcopalians. In that, they are unabashedly Christian, and modestly Episcopalian.
The Rt. Rev. Daniel H. Martins is Bishop of Springfield.