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The baptismal covenant, the norm of adult baptism, and mission

Liturgical scholar Louis Weil recently recalled predicting that the Episcopal Church would need at least 50 years to implement the revisions of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.[1] One key area that still requires implementation is the revised baptismal liturgy, and particularly its baptismal covenant.

The baptismal covenant is, of course, a cornerstone of Episcopalians’ self-identity, and frequent appeal is made to its fifth and final interrogation: “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” (p. 305). Of course, appeals to the covenant tend to be imbalanced: there is a lot more enthusiasm for striving for justice and human dignity than there is for cultivating repentance or holding fast to apostolic teaching (p. 304). Nevertheless, in what it affirms and requires, the covenant is a welcome addition.

That said, the baptismal covenant has a lot more to offer Episcopalians than what we’ve appropriated thus far. In particular, it has the potential to maneuver us into a far more missional understanding of the Church and our Christian vocation. The covenant does this through its contents, calling upon us to affirm the faith in the Apostles’ Creed, to proclaim the faith in “word and example,” and to embody the faith in our work for justice in the world, even as it recognizes the priority of God’s acting in us to carry this out. The Creed’s account of Christ’s saving work comes first; each question is met with the response that with God’s help the baptized will do so; and prayers are offered for our ability to carry out this calling. Perhaps even more significantly, though, the liturgy recovers the theological normativity of baptizing adult converts to the faith.

While infant baptism is the most common practice, the theologically normative form of Christian initiation is that of an adult convert to the faith.[2] This may seem like an overly fine point, but it carries great significance. When we seek to understand the theological meaning of Christian initiation, it is to the normative case that we must appeal, even if it is the less frequently practiced one. Infant baptisms are valid extensions of the normative pattern,[3] but we do not hang significant theological weight upon them. The meaning of baptism is given in the normative form of initiation.

For those of us who have grown accustomed to infant baptism, this normative pattern may not seem obvious, but if we are attentive, we can see this normative understanding expressed in a variety of traditions and liturgies. For example, the Roman Catholic Church’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is just that. There are alternate rites for infants, and for bringing Christians from other communions into full communion with the Church, but they are not normative in the same way as the adult rite.[4] Similar to the RCIA, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer presents a unified sequence of initiation, in which adult converts to the faith are the norm.[5] Both rites are christological (union with Christ in baptism), and pneumatological (confirmation or chrismation, sealing with the Holy Spirit),[6] both move from baptism to first Communion.[7] In the Episcopal Church, the same rite is used for both adults and children. I believe we ought to welcome the development, because it lends a theological coherence to our understanding of initiation.

Recently, though, Catholicity and Covenant objected to this development, suggesting that it would be better to regard infant baptisms as normative, and objecting to laying the responsibilities of the baptismal covenant upon little ones such as these. I believe that the prayer book’s move is precisely the right one, and that it has the potential to do important work in the Episcopal Church.

No one is born a Christian. Instead, Christians are made, by the grace of God, through the sacraments of initiation. As older prayer-book baptismal liturgies put it, this is something that “by nature [we] cannot have.”[8] This locates our consideration of Christian initiation within the great sweep of the biblical drama of a transition: from death into life, from sin into righteousness, from alienation and enmity to reconciliation and adoption as children, from the old age, which lies under the wrath of God and is passing away, to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son. We must be brought from the one state into the other, and this transfer is the aim of Christian initiation.

In order for this to occur, mission must first occur. This recovered understanding of initiation (baptism of converts leading to Communion), helps us to remember that it is only as the outcome of the Church’s mission that the Mass can be celebrated, for no one is a Christian by nature or birth, but only through conversion. The Church’s mission aims more widely than individual conversion, but such conversions are the result of mission. Through this mission, women and men are brought to share in Christ: baptized into his death, sealed with his Holy Spirit, and deputed to take part in the sacrament of the altar. This shift in initiation helps us to see that the church’s total life is dependent upon its mission. Infants and young children will indeed need to be nurtured in order to take their part in this mission. But if we really believe that by their baptism they share in Christ, we must also recognize that their baptism is indeed a baptism into missional responsibility, for there is no sharing in Christ that is not also a sharing in his mission.


[1] Scott MacDougal, Ruth A. Meyers, and Louis Weil, “Revising the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer (1979): Liturgical Theologians in Dialogue, ATR 99.3 (2017): p. 509.

[2] This perspective is also affirmed by the Word Council of Churches document, Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry (World Council of Churches, 1982), I.11.

[3] For instance, the Book of Common Prayer urges that baptisms be celebrated by the bishop, but allows for celebrations by priests, and (with special authorization from the bishop), by deacons. A lay person may baptize in emergencies (pp. 312–13).

[4] Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, Study ed. (United States Catholic Conference, 1988), no. 3; Aidan Kavanagh, The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christian Initiation (Pueblo, 1978), pp. 108–22; Maxwell E. Johnson, The Rites of Christian Initiation: Their Evolution and Interpretation (Liturgical Press, 1999), p. 386, pp. 391–401.

[5] Marion J. Hatchett, Commentary on the American Prayer Book (Seabury, 1980), 267; Ruth A. Meyers, Continuing the Reformation: Re-Visioning Baptism in the Episcopal Church (Church Publishing, 1997), p. xv; John W.B. Hill and Rowena J. Roppelt, “Christian Initiation in the Anglican Communion,” ATR 95.3 (2013): pp. 419–34.

[6] Because the precise understanding of the post-baptismal consignation and anointing, or of what role confirmation should or does have in the prayer book are not really the point, I will decline to address either question.

[7] Hatchett, Commentary, p. 267; Mitchell, Praying Shapes Believing, p. 89.

[8] This is found in both the Church of England’s 1662 prayer book and the Episcopal Church’s 1928 prayer book.


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