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The sacraments and pastoral judgment

In May 2015, a flurry of stories came out about Bishop Greg Brewer and the baptism of the adopted son of two men in a committed same-sex relationship in Orlando, Florida. Some of the details of the story remain unclear. Though the dean of the cathedral disagrees with their interpretation of events, the couple complained on Facebook that their request for their son to be baptized had been refused. This resulted in an online petition with more than 20,000 names. Bishop Brewer met with the couple and announced that the baptism would go forward and that he would participate. The bishop was at the same time careful to reassert the traditional sexual morality of the church and the traditional understanding of holy matrimony. Predictably, Bishop Brewer has been subsequently celebrated and vilified for his decision. Some thought the bishop had acted with charity and appropriate pastoral discretion, and others thought that he had endorsed sin and relaxed the sacramental discipline of the church to an intolerable degree. Still others were angered that there was any delay at all.

The major argument against the bishop’s decision was a charge that the same-sex couple was not able to fulfill the promises required of parents and sponsors. The baptism of children in this view depends on the adequacy of the faith of the parents and sponsors, and the bishop’s critics found the faith of the parents wanting.

As this story was breaking in the news, I was preparing to teach a seminary course in sacramental theology. I have taught this course for a number of years. The heart of the course is a close reading of the Fifth Book of The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity by Richard Hooker. This is the book in Hooker’s great defense of the Elizabethan settlement that takes up the topic of the sacraments, including the discipline that should surround them.

Hooker was in a similar dispute with his Puritan interlocutors. It had been the long established custom of English midwives to baptize infants who were in extremis. Some Puritans argued that these baptisms were not valid and that nothing more had taken place than a woman washing a baby. In this Puritan view, a proper baptism takes place in a church with a proper liturgy and is presided over by a legitimate pastor who can inquire diligently into the faith of the parents and godparents. For the baptism to proceed, the faith of the father, at least, must be adequate. In this Puritan vision, infant baptism is reserved for the children of sincerely professed believers.

Hooker invoked the Fathers on the antiquity of the practice of baptism in extremis by the laity. He then argued against putting “lets and hindrances” in the way of baptism. Hooker was completely aware of the problem of insincere professors but he thought that once you began opening “windows into men’s souls,” as Queen Elizabeth is reputed to have said, there would be no end of it.

As I was reading Hooker with this controversy in the news I came across the following quote which seemed completely pertinent to the topic under discussion.

It is not the virtue of our fathers nor the faith of any other that can give us the true holiness which we have by virtue of our new birth. Yet even through the common faith and spirit of God’s church (a thing which no quality of parents can prejudice), I say through the faith of the Church of God undertaking the motherly care of our souls, so far forth we may be, and are in our infancy sanctified, as to be thereby made sufficiently capable of baptism. (Hooker, Laws Book 5.lxiv)

Hooker’s point is that whoever carries the child to the font is a stand in for Mother Church, and it is upon the adequacy of the Church’s faith that the infant is baptized. The faith of Mother Church makes up for the inadequacies of parents whose faith is lacking.

The question of sacramental discipline is a constant challenge for the parish priest. Do you refuse communion to the heterosexual couple that have been living together for six years and have started to come to the church with a view to getting married? Do you marry the couple with a 15-year age difference and three divorces between them? Do you baptize the child of the couple that are not married and have no intention of getting married and further have no intention of attending church themselves? They make vague references to brining the child to the church to learn “the difference between right and wrong.” Do you refuse communion to the two vestry members who vilify each other constantly at the coffee hour?

Earlier in my career as a parish priest, I was very tough about sacramental discipline. For the most part now I am with Hooker and am reluctant to put “lets and hindrances” in the way of the sacraments of the Church. I believe they can be converting ordinances. I believe in the mysterious action of God in the lives of people that is well beyond what I can ask or imagine. I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to convict people of sin. (A parish priest I know tells the story of a cohabitating couple in his parish who were coming to the Lenten study of Mark suddenly saying to him after one evening’s Bible study that they must be married even though marriage was not the topic under discussion.) I also have been surprised more than once about who keeps and who breaks the promises they have made. I try to help people understand clearly the meaning of the sacraments and the promises that go with them and ask the question, “Does this sound like a promise you want to make?” If they say “Yes,” I do not attempt to open a window into their soul. In the culture in which we live, those who have managed to get themselves across the threshold of a parish church have swum against the current of a mighty cultural tide. I am reluctant to drive them back into the sea.

But I understand those who want a more rigorous sacramental discipline. I understand the fear that holy things are being devalued and made meaningless and that sacred things are being sold cheap. There is a tension here between holding holy things sacred and the exercise of pastoral grace and understanding. The tension is easily solved if you let go of one or the other end of the rope.

In the traditional canonical langue of Anglicanism, the incumbent has the “spiritual jurisdiction” of the parish. The priest in general and the rector in particular and supremely the bishop is a judge. The role of a judge is to apply the law in particular circumstances. That the pastor is actually a judge is quite a shock to the consumerist mentality that is prominent in the churches right across the so-called liberal-conservative divide. But judgment is intrinsic to the pastoral office.

Rules which are applied without any regard to the particulars of the case will inevitably be unjust and not meet and right. Part of what it means to be an episcopal church is to be a church where jurisdiction, where discipline, is by way of a personal ministry of judgment either by the bishop or the bishop’s surrogate, the parish priest. The judge is bound to be loyal to the faith of the Church, but there is no escape from the necessity of personal judgment, of applying the general rule to the particular circumstances.

When a bishop or priest makes a judgment that appears wrongheaded to us, it will be tempting to ask that the question henceforth be decided by an invariable policy. Policies are necessary, but they will not save us from the possibility of making a wrong decision or acting without holiness or justice or charity.

To exercise spiritual jurisdiction means taking up the risk of personal judgment. It is part of what it means to be a pastor. God help us. People will both praise and vilify us for it. May our pastoral judgments always be instruments of saving grace.

The featured image is a fourteenth-century crozier from the Abbey of Reichenau. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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