On November 1st 2015 I performed my first baptism. Every baptism, of course, is equally significant and equally worth celebrating. There were, however, two things that made the day extra special for me. The first was that it was All Saints’ Day. The second was that I got to baptize my youngest daughter, Joelle Margaret Jia-yin Ney. There were six baptisms on that morning, and I made sure that Joelle went first, so that I could one day share this special fact with her.

Baptizing your own child is something I swore I would never do. I had seen fathers baptize their children when I was in a free church context. There was something very emotionally satisfying for those involved. And it seems to me that foregrounding the father-child relationship unwittingly made baptism an icon of the transmission of faith from one generation to the text. I can remember worrying, however, that elevating this subjectivity also obscured the ecclesial and objective/sacramental elements of baptism.

What was so nice about baptizing little Joelle in my current Anglican context was that this concern did not need to trouble me. I was baptizing her first as a priest of the One, Holy, Catholic Church and only second as her father. Within the liturgy it was not my job to enact my parental relationship with her, but neither was this relationship ignored. It was enacted by my wife and in her warm, loving hands, which handed Joelle to me, entrusting her to God.

In the Book of Common Prayer 1979, sponsors renounce Satan, evil powers, and sinful desires; they turn to Jesus and put their whole trust in his grace and love during the presentation of candidates. Then, during the baptismal covenant, they profess that they believe in God the Father, in Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Spirit, and they covenant to continue in the apostles’ teaching, persevere in resisting evil, proclaim by word and example the good news, seek and serve Christ in all persons, and strive for justice and peace among all people.

These declarations that sponsors make during the presentation of candidates and the promises that they make during the baptismal covenant can also be found in the new liturgical standard of Canadian Anglicanism, the 1985 Book of Alternative Services. In 2013, however, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada passed resolution C001, and with it an additional question was added to the baptismal covenant:

Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth?

I did not ask this sixth and final question to the baptismal candidates and their sponsors on All Saints’ Day. It wasn’t out of principle; it was simply because the question wasn’t in the old bulletin insert that we used. In retrospect, however, I had to ask myself whether I would have been comfortable doing so.

It is easy to see why the motion passed at Synod. Everyone can agree that environmental stewardship is important, and that it is important for the newly baptized to know that their baptismal vows do not contradict but rather empower pre-existing commitments to the environment.

As I reflected upon the new vow, however, a few questions immediately came to mind: Now that Canadian Anglicans have added an item to their baptismal covenant, to what extent does this make our baptismal covenant different than that of other Christians? And, if our baptismal covenant is now different, does that make our baptism different too? When Canadian Anglicans take the new baptismal vows are we contradicting Paul’s claim that there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5)?

The short answer is “probably not.” Christians throughout history and around the world have made different baptismal promises and yet have been joined in one baptism. And it goes without saying that they will continue to do so whether we like it or not. This being said, it is appropriate to ask whether adding vows that Christians have never made before, in the history of the Church, appropriately acknowledges the “oneness” of Christian baptism.

Perhaps what’s troubling about the new addition is not the addition itself but its implementation. I’ve been present at several baptisms since 2013 and I’ve not once heard the new vow affirmed. It has been left to the discretion of the presiding priest, and many have either forgotten about the existence of the new vow or have refused to include it in the liturgy. In short, Canadians have been given the option to choose their own vows. In other words, our baptismal vows are a chance for us to promise to do what is meaningful to us. When newlyweds started taking this tack a few years ago, many worried that it signaled the end of the Christian institution of marriage. Maybe we should start worrying about baptism too.

This leads us to what I think is the crux of the matter: what is the relationship between the act of water baptism and the questions of the baptismal covenant? As I’ve considered this question over the last few months I’ve been drawn again and again to Mark 10:38. There, the Sons of Thunder ask Jesus if they can sit at his right and his left in his glory (in Matt. 20 it is their mother — shall we call her “Thunder?”).

“You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (Mark 10:38)

Jesus, as we know, wasn’t speaking about getting wet in the Jordan River. He was talking about his passion — his trial, his torture, his death. This baptism, it seems to me, is the type, that must be read backwards onto previous baptism(s). When he went down into the Jordan Jesus was enacting his passion, going down into the waters of death for the sake of new life. And we might even say that Jesus’ entire earthly life was just such an anti-type. In his life on earth he was undergoing, in his body, the same baptism that he would enter into in his death. So in the end we have two, maybe three baptisms—Jesus’ water baptism, his incarnate life, and his passion — which are all really one and the same baptism. This means that it is harder for us to divorce what comes after baptism from the act of water baptism itself than we might hope. And this doesn’t bode well for those of us that are changing baptismal vows.

The vows that come after water baptism are the means of entering into baptism, so that we too might follow Jesus and be “baptized with the baptism he is baptized with.” How then, should we go about determining what vows should follow water baptism? We should, I think, start by taking a look at what Jesus did while on earth.

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

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

Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?

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

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect and dignity of very human being?

These first five vows that Canadian Anglicans make check out pretty well. We are, on each account, urged to follow the example of the apostles as this example is itself grounded in the ministry of Christ. For example, we love our neighbors as ourselves because Jesus himself is the paragon of neighborly love.

Will you strive to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respect, sustain and renew the life of the Earth?

This one is a bit more tricky. There are at least three things that need to be taken into consideration.

First, can we say that we can see the incarnate Jesus safeguarding the integrity of God’s creation and respecting, sustaining, and renewing the life of the Earth in Scripture? Perhaps, if we regard calming the wind and the waves as environmental stewardship!

Second, in his earthly life Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses perfectly. It seems to me, therefore, that if we want to look for environmental stewardship in the life of Christ we should look first to Moses. And there’s a strong possibility that we can find it there, hidden within the injunction to keep Sabbath, for instance. In the commandment to let the ground and animals rest we see a thread that goes back to the first stewardship commission that God gave Adam and Eve. It is doubtful, however, that the prominence of this thread in the life of Christ is such that we could make the case that Scripture compels us to become environmental stewards as Christ himself stewarded creation in the gospels.

Third, then, if we want to see Jesus the environmental steward we will probably have to look outside the gospels, to the cosmic Christ. We might look, for instance, to the Christ of Colossians 1, who holds all things together, or the Christ of Romans 8, who will cut short the groaning of creation by uniting all things to himself. These are, however, pretty big shoes to fill! I’m not so sure I want to covenant to do either of these things. I’d rather leave them up to Christ.

At the end of the day, what is most troubling about the new baptismal vow is its impossibility. It is, to use the words of Paul, “a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear” (Acts 10:15). “Save the planet” is the call of secular humanism. It is, however, a call that only God is big enough to answer. In Scripture God alone has the authority and the strength to “renew the face of the ground” (Ps. 104:30).

I do not claim to have written the final word on the question at hand. And I certainly do not deny that it is appropriate for baptized Christians to engage in environmental activism. At the end of the day I worry, though, that making such activism fundamental to Christian baptism obscures what is more fundamental to it: the acknowledgement that Christ alone can save us and our planet.

Because many of the non-Christians we interact with and love no longer feel a deep sense of guilt about personal sin the easiest thing for us to do is to give up on evangelism. Could it be, though, that the despair young idealists feel about the current plight of the environment is the entry point we need to speak with them about Christ, the Savior of the world? In our current context, our inability to save the world is an opportunity to point people to baptism. We open up this opportunity, not when we promise to save the world, but when we acknowledge that we cannot.

David Ney  is a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Calgary and a doctoral candidate in theology at Wycliffe College, Toronto. The featured image “Chevron is guilty” (2011) comes via the Rainforest Action Network. 

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. David Ney is a native of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, and a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. He currently serves as assistant professor of Church history at Trinity School for Ministry, in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.

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We must strongly affirm that care of Creation is something we as Christians are called to. Rev 11:18 ends with an oblique phrase, “the time for…destroying the destroyers of the earth.” On the face of it, a terrible forecast. One more way to underline your point that to “safeguard the integrity of God’s creation” is beyond us is to point to the fact that after Jesus’ water baptism (shall we call that “Type I baptism?), he is driven into the wilderness to be tempted. But the text suggests that his ability to withstand these temptations is because of he is… Read more »