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Reinterpreting Baptism: an ongoing dialogue

What if we could see baptism as inclusively as we see communion, and really made it our own, got comfortable with it, reinterpreted it with the authority and power with which we celebrate communion week after week? (Wilson, Baptized paragraph 21).

INTRODUCTION

In 2006 UFMCC Moderator Nancy Wilson preached a sermon in which she called our denomination to a dialogue around our understandings of baptism:

Wouldn’t it be wonderful and amazing if in MCC we were able to have discussions about spirituality and what we believe about baptism and other things in safe spaces in our local churches, at our Regional Gatherings, at Conferences? What if we deliberately created safe spaces where we did not judge each other, or try to "convert" each other to our point of view, but where we just listened and learned and allowed ourselves to be amazed at the depth and breadth of our feelings and thoughts about our faith – so that it might unite us more than it divides us? (Baptized paragraph 14)

Members of MCC are drawn from practically every corner of the Church, bringing with us a wide array of beliefs and teachings concerning the nature and function of baptism. For this reason any discussion around reinterpreting baptism would profit from an overview of the rich foundational heritage that continues to inform our development on a number of levels.

BIBLICAL WITNESS

Each gospel tells the story of John the Baptist who preached by the Jordan and practiced a baptism of repentance. By one account some of Jesus’ disciples were baptized by John the Baptist and were on the lookout for Jesus’ coming. In the synoptic tradition, Jesus too came before John and presented himself for baptism. But the baptism of repentance was transformed into a new baptism of the Holy Spirit when Jesus came up from Jordan’s waters. The accounts vary as to who saw the Spirit as it descended from the heavens and came to rest on Jesus, but the synoptics tell us that a voice from heaven announced that Jesus was God’s own beloved son. It is from these accounts that MCC has derived its foundational understanding of baptism as a sign identifying the recipient as God’s own child (Bylaws 2007 lines 76-78). It is with this baptism that Jesus commissions his followers to make disciples of all peoples.[1] The Luke/Acts narrative continues to develop the understanding of baptism by making a distinction between John’s baptism of repentance and the baptism of the Holy Spirit which appears as a sign of God’s presence in the phenomenal growth of the early Church (Acts 1:5,8; 8:6; 19:2). Within the Pauline corpus, baptism takes on the additional symbolism of being buried and raised into new life with Jesus Christ (Romans 6:4), a washing and regeneration (Titus 3:4-7) and a putting on of Christ, eliminating boundaries of class, nationality and gender (Galatians 3:26-27).

HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENTS

Beyond the biblical witness, baptism is mentioned in the Didache, a document widely believed to be of Syrian origin from the late first or early second century. The text includes instructions concerning ritual fasting before baptism, the use of the Trinitarian formula, and several modes of baptism in order of preference from running water to still water to the pouring of water over the head of the one receiving baptism (Didache 14). Later, around 160 CE, Justin Martyr wrote in his explanation of Christian practices to Emperor Antoninus Pius that those wishing to be consecrated to God and regenerated through Christ first underwent instruction, fasted, and asked God to forgive their sins. Afterwards they were led to water where they were baptized using the Trinitarian formula (Justin Martyr 3). Within the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions (representing two of the oldest and most widespread forms of Christianity) baptism is considered a sacrament – an act by which God’s grace is communicated to the recipient, bringing about a spiritual change. This understanding already appears as far back as Justin Martyr’s apology and continues without challenge until the rise of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Martin Luther and John Calvin also affirmed the sacramental nature of baptism – an understanding that is still embraced by the Lutheran and Reformed traditions today. However, it was also during the Protestant Reformation that Ulrich Zwingli broke with the sacramental understanding of baptism to advance a new line of thought. For Zwingli baptism was not a sacrament, but a sign. In this formulation, baptism conveys no special grace from God, nor is it what "saves" a person. Rather, as an analog to circumcision within the Jewish context, it is a sign of membership within the community. It is from this understanding that we receive the common description of baptism as "an outward sign of an inward change." Several groups of modern Christians still espouse Zwingli’s understanding of baptism as we shall see below.

PEDOBAPTISM AND CREDOBAPTISM

Within the discussion surrounding baptism, Christian churches can also be divided into two major categories: those who baptize infants (pedobaptism, from the Greek word pais, meaning, among other things, "child") and those who baptize only those who can profess Christian faith (sometimes known as credobaptism, from the Latin credo meaning "I believe"). Both theologies claim biblical authority for their practice.

For those who practice pedobaptism, scriptural passages that describe the baptism of entire households (e.g., Acts 16:15, 31-33; 1 Corinthians 1:16) are interpreted as including even infants and small children. The writings of Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130 – ca. 200) provide evidence of the baptism not only of catechumens, but also of infants and small children (II.XXII.4). While Tertullian (d. ca. 225) advised against the baptism of children, his De Baptismo ("On Baptism") describes the practice of sponsors taking baptismal vows on behalf of children, thereby risking the possibility of bringing death upon themselves should the children not grow up to fulfill that which had been sworn on their behalf (10). Origen of Alexandria (ca. 185 – ca. 254) also mentions infant baptism as a matter of course in three separate homilies and commentaries (Leviticus 158; Luke 58-59; Romans 367). Further, the Apostolic Tradition, which has historically been attributed to anti-pope Hippolytus of Rome (d. ca. 236) provides instructions to baptize the "little ones" first, letting them speak for themselves if they were able, but having parents or relatives speak for them if they were not (18). Though a growing number of scholars have questioned the authorship of this document, it appears that pedobaptism was a widespread practice among Christians by the third century.[2] Contemporary practitioners of pedobaptism include the Eastern Orthodox churches, Anglicans, the Reformed Tradition and Roman Catholicism, the last of which is strongly represented within MCC.

The Radical Reformers of Switzerland, arising contemporaneously with the broader Protestant Reformation, preached against the practice of pedobaptism, instead espousing a believer’s baptism. Like their contemporary, Ulrich Zwingli, the Radical Reformers viewed baptism not as a sacrament, but rather as a sign. Unlike Zwingli they believed that only a person who had achieved the ability to reason should undertake baptism. Proponents of this understanding of baptism were often baptized a second time of their own volition, believing that their infant baptisms were invalid because they were received without their conscious understanding or confession of faith.[3] Within a short time believer’s baptism spread from these original reformers to English dissenters who had fled to Amsterdam, Holland to avoid persecution by the Anglican Church. Led by John Smyth and Thomas Helwys, these dissenters sought to reconstitute what they perceived as New Testament church patterns. Their adoption of believer’s baptism and subsequent return to England led to the spread of what would within a short time be known as the Baptist movement. Modern groups practicing credobaptism include various Anabaptists groups (including the Mennonites and Amish), Baptists and Pentecostals, the latter two groups of which are strongly represented within MCC.

BAPTISM WITHIN THE ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT

In 1982, the World Council of Churches released a document entitled Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry (from here forward referenced as BEM), an ecumenical document embodying the fruit of 50 years of dialogue between practically all the major church traditions, both Eastern and Western. The purpose of BEM is not to lay out a complete systematic theology, but rather to concentrate on areas of teaching where differences prevent mutual recognition and unity within the Church (World Council of Churches ix). As ecumenical dialogue has been a longstanding priority of MCC, the recommendations found within BEM are of considerable import to the internal MCC discussion around reimagining baptism. What follows is a summary of major points in the conversation:

  • Baptism is the sign of new life through Jesus Christ, which unites the recipient with both Christ and the Church. It is participation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (World Council of Churches 2).
  • Baptism "implies confession of sin and conversion of heart," effecting pardon, cleansing, and sanctification by Christ, together with "a new ethical orientation under the guidance of the Holy Spirit," which is bestowed on the recipient’s life and nurtures the life of faith (World Council of Churches 2).
  • Baptism incorporates the recipient into the Body of Christ (the Church) and "initiates the reality of the new life given in the midst of the present world" (World Council of Churches 3).
  • Baptism is accompanied by a profession of faith, made by the recipient or by sponsors in the case of pedobaptism. Infants confirm this confession at a later time. For both believers and infants alike, understanding of baptism continues to develop over time. The difference between these types is a matter of age. "The differences between infant and believers’ baptism become less sharp when it is recognized that both forms of baptism embody God’s own initiative in Christ and express a response of faith made within the believing community" (World Council of Churches 4-5).
  • Baptism is an unrepeatable act and any practice which might appear as "re-baptism" is strongly discouraged (World Council of Churches 4).
  • Baptism is administered with water, using the Trinitarian formula. Immersion is encouraged for the symbolic dimensions of death, burial and resurrection (World Council of Churches 6).
  • Baptism is normally administered by an ordained minister and as a part of public worship (World Council of Churches 6).

As MCC continues its own internal dialogue around baptism, it is helpful to keep the larger ecumenical conversation in mind. As we appropriate baptism, working out our own theological understandings and practices, we do so in relationship with the larger Christian community. While we may choose to formulate our own unique practices and beliefs, doing so with an awareness of the framework presented in BEM allows us to make intentional decisions, cognizant of the potential consequences of our actions.

BAPTISM WITHIN MCC

Over the 40 years of our shared history, MCC has had remarkably little to say about baptism. In part this may be due to the nature of our first congregations, which primarily comprised LGBT Christians who had already received baptism in other denominations before coming to our churches. As Moderator Nancy Wilson has pointed out, MCC is "all over the map about baptism" and "our theology and teaching about it is underdeveloped" (Baptized paragraphs 13, 14). Our 2007 Bylaws contain a mere three lines dedicated to the topic:

"BAPTISM by water and the Spirit, as recorded in the Scriptures, shall be a sign of the dedication of each life to God and God’s service. Through the words and acts of this sacrament, the recipient is identified as God’s own Child" (Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches lines 76-78).[4]

Though not explicitly stated within the Bylaws, Kittredge Cherry has noted that "[MCC] has always recognized all three forms of baptism (emersion [sic], pouring and sprinkling) which may be administered to people of any age" (3). MCC is somewhat unique within the larger Christian Church as a group that espouses both pedobaptism and credobaptism.

Though our Bylaws define baptism as a sacrament, a quick survey of any local congregation will show that we do not all accept this tenet or even know what is stipulated in our foundational documents. Many MCC members come from non-sacramental Christian traditions (e.g., Baptists, Pentecostals) that embrace a Zwinglian view of baptism as a sign, while still others enter MCC with either a Christian cultural identity that does not include a theological awareness regarding baptism or with no previous Christian experience at all. For this last group, discussions around the communication of particular graces most often bear no particular significance. As of 2007 we estimate that roughly 80% of MCC members come from evangelical Protestant (including Pentecostal) and Catholic backgrounds (Wilson, 2007 Moderator’s Report 4). Between these two groups exists a gulf of understanding regarding baptism, with the former group often rejecting pedobaptism completely.

Until recently, those choosing baptism within MCC have primarily been LGBT youth and adults, thus postponing the imminent necessity for theological education and reflection around pedobaptism. Finally, anecdotal evidence suggests that some MCC members are rebaptized by their own request upon coming to MCC. This reality is addressed below.

WHAT MCC THEOLOGIANS HAVE SAID

Though MCC theology concerning baptism is sparse, a review of available sources turns up three interesting voices within the conversation. What follows is a brief overview of the contributions made by Robert Goss, Marcella Althaus-Reid, and Nancy Wilson, followed by observations regarding areas for expansion or unique contributions that MCC can make in furthering the conversation. As our conversation progresses we should remember that these authors’ contributions, while helpful to our work in constructive theology, were never intended to address all aspects of the questions at hand. In fact, only Wilson’s comments were offered with a broader constructive theological discussion concerning baptism in mind. As such, the descriptions that follow and the observations offered are in no way meant to imply deficiency in the original contributors’ comments.

In his seminal work Jesus Acted Up, Robert Goss describes Jesus’ own baptism as both an event of disclosure and a rite of initiation (128). Prior to his baptism, Jesus had spent 40 days in the desert, a liminal space at the margins of his society, where he received a vision of the reign of God in which social boundaries are broken down and society’s outcasts are invited to participate fully in this new way of being. Following what Goss characterizes as a shamanistic vision quest, Jesus’ status as beloved child of God was revealed at his baptism. In the symbolism of being immersed in water, Goss sees "eroticism, purification, liminality, death, and rebirth" (129). Following Jesus’ example, we too are initiated through our baptism into this new vision of God’s reign. Joining the struggle for God’s justice, we take on a new identity and help to usher in Jesus’ vision of the basileia[5] of God by creating new social boundaries in the margins. Goss further suggests that this baptismal symbolism is inclusive of our queer sexual identities (130). Not only are we making a stand as followers of Christ, but also as queer[6] followers of Christ. Through our baptism we come out of the illusion that our sexual being is incompatible with the message of the gospel. We are incorporated into this reign of God with our sexuality fully intact.

This powerful claim of integration between sexuality and spirituality continues in the MCC trajectory begun by Troy Perry when he claimed that God’s love encompasses all of our being, including our sexuality (38). In drawing together all marginalized people, this vision pushes past MCC’s original concerns with sexuality, while blazing a trail for the 2005 Strategic Plan in which inclusion is cited as an MCC Core Value (Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches paragraph 1). The embrace of sexuality within our spirituality and the call to overturn systems of exclusion, drawing all marginalized people into Jesus’ vision of the reign of God are two important contributions to our reimagining of baptism.

It is interesting to note that though he was raised Roman Catholic and ordained as a Jesuit priest, Goss’s appropriation of baptism does not explicitly convey a sacramental understanding of the act. Further, by narrowly defining baptism as initiation into the basileia practice of Christ, this understanding falls squarely into the camp of believer’s baptism, practiced within this context as a coming out ritual of queer Christians. However, since this formulation of initiation for queer folks was first proposed in 1993, MCC has witnessed an explosion in the number of children within our denomination. Our families of choice have grown to include our children from previous opposite-sex relationships, adopted children, and children born into a variety of family configurations that defy traditional definitions. This development brings to the fore two realities of baptism that are not included in Goss’s definition. First, pedobaptism becomes a more prominent issue as parents present their children for inclusion in the Church. Second, both infants presented for baptism, as well as our older children and youth, are no more likely to self-identify as LGBT than the general population. We have long asserted that we are not a church organized around either homosexuality or the legitimatization of a certain type of behavior (Wilson, MCC & NCC 3). Thus while Goss’s inclusion of queer sexualities within the reign of God is a positive contribution to our constructive theology, it is not necessarily the primary focus of our opposite-gender-loving children or others who come to Christ through the ministries of MCC. To make it so would be to repeat the exclusion many of our members have faced in other quarters of the Church. While it is incumbent upon us to model basileia practice that is inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities, overemphasis does not serve the next generation well.

Moving to the work of Marcella Althaus-Reid, we find a critique of a certain understanding of pedobaptism as a washing away of original sin (Roman Catholicism) or total depravity (Reformed tradition). Drawing on the work of Bloch and Guggenheim, Althaus-Reid notes that in some societies, the idea of original sin and rebirth has been co-opted into power structures of empire,[7] insinuating that the work of the mother bringing a child into the world is imperfect and in need of supplementation that only the Church can provide. "Baptism implies that newborn children are incomplete in some respect. It asserts that the creative power to complete this humanity lies not with the mother… but with the church" (136). As a result, motherhood is devalued and women are seen as contaminating their children with the stain of original sin which can be ignored only at the risk eternal damnation. Such understandings breed misogyny, as well as a strong dualism between flesh and spirit and a deep suspicion of the body.

While this way of thinking is less prevalent in many MCC contexts, Althaus-Reid’s critique of power dynamics that exalt the power of the institutional church and its sacraments at the expense of motherhood and bodily incarnation highlights a reality whose undercurrents can be detected in most church settings. As a result some parts of the Church today react by denying any doctrine of original sin, and by extension, any kind of sin at all. While the folk conception of original sin as a genetic trait passed from parent to offspring has failed as a tenable metaphor for the condition of humanity and the world, it is also patently ridiculous from a theological perspective to assert that there are no problems in the world and that humanity is capable of rising above past mistakes through our own devices, independent of the power of the living God. MCC enjoys a unique position in the Church today as a denomination that has intensely grappled with incarnational theology. One gift that we may offer to the rest of the Church is an understanding of physicality (including the eroticism attendant to our bodies) as a gift from God to be embraced and used within our work in the world. How might we enter into the conversations around original sin and rebirth in a way that balances the need for transformation in our lives with an acceptance of God’s good gift of sexual bodies, closing the gap between flesh and spirit?

Perhaps from the richness of our theological diversity and shared experience around the issue of baptism MCC can offer a corrective to this view. For example, the pedobaptism which Althaus-Reid describes takes on an urgency that is not shared by those who espouse believer’s baptism. Though many among the evangelical Protestants of the MCC also acknowledge a fallen world that shapes us from our earliest experiences, they also believe in a measure of grace given to those who have not yet reached the age of accountability. This grace, extended by God, allows us to rest in the assurance that we do not serve a capricious, vengeful God who metes out an irrational punishment of eternal damnation to little ones who are incapable of choosing whether to participate in God’s work in the earth. Though we have lived with some tension over these questions, the relationships within our intentional community have allowed us to see the value in differing views held by sisters and brothers within our Fellowship. In this way we challenge the folk understanding of original sin and provide a corrective for deep-seated suspicions of the body.

Finally, Althaus-Reid’s comments raise our awareness of the potential perversion of baptism when it is used as an instrument of control by nation states or the institutional church. Our shared experience and living memory of being turned away from Christ’s table in other denominations serve us well in the discussion of baptism. Just as our theology around Communion has opened the invitation to the table to all who wish to approach, our collective memory of exclusion can also inform our understanding of baptism, ensuring that this sacrament would never be withheld as an act of domination or exclusion from Christ’s new vision of humanity and the world.

Having explored these earlier contributions to the conversation surrounding baptism, we now turn our attention to the framework presented by Nancy Wilson in 2006. Within her sermon, entitled "Baptized and Beloved," Wilson suggested three points from her personal beliefs as discussion starters:

  • Baptism is invitation to follow Jesus, joining our hearts to the heart of God and claiming our "Beloved-ness" (paragraphs 20 and 22);
  • Baptism is identification both with a new community of liberation as well as with the suffering and pain of our Christian sisters and brothers around the world (paragraphs 23 and 27); and
  • Baptism is alignment or coming out with a public commitment to the will of God. It is a willingness to let go of those things in our lives that do not fit with our new commitment to the heart of God and God’s way (paragraphs 28 and 29).

Within Wilson’s articulation we find principles that closely match other historical proposals regarding baptism. Without resorting to traditional formulations including "the Body of Christ," she has pointed beyond the act of baptism itself to the wider reality of incorporation into a unity with other baptized believers, sharing our joys and our suffering as we work together to bring about God’s way of restoration and harmony. For sacramentalists baptism is the gateway through which believers enter into the Church, becoming mystically united with Christ. While those with a more Zwinglian understanding view baptism as a public commitment of a life to the corporate life of the Church. Whether this commitment is undertaken by the guardian(s) (as with pedobaptism) or the individual believer, non-sacramental Christians have traditionally understood baptism as a confession of alignment and an initiation into God’s work in the world through the Church.

TOPICS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION AND DIALOGUE

As we move from review of our current situation into the constructive phase of our theological discussion, several open questions of both faith and practice have been posed within MCC. Though this essay will not attempt to come to a single answer, it will offer commentary on what is at stake in each of these questions within the dialogue.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEM. As previously noted, throughout our history MCC has placed a high value on ecumenical dialogue. Though we are no longer seeking membership within the National Council of Churches USA,[8] we have remained in cooperation with the World Council of Churches and continue to offer ministry within this context (Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, Ecumenical & Interfaith History). As we continue our reimagining of baptism, we must also wrestle with the question of the importance of our ecumenical work and the ramifications of BEM within our own context. The major traditions of the Christian faith have jointly invested over 75 years in the ongoing ecumenical dialogue around a unified understanding of baptism. While it is incumbent upon us to work out our own understanding of baptism within MCC, we must also consider how our conversations affect our involvement with the larger Christian community. One avenue of reflection must address our commitment to ecumenical dialogue and our reasons for pursuing relationships with the WCC and other ecumenical bodies. If our original intention was to seek validation of our existence through the recognition of ecumenical bodies, then perhaps ecumenical dialogue is no longer of particular importance to us. From humble beginnings MCC has grown into a worldwide movement. We are regularly mentioned in the media and consulted in questions related to the intersection of religion and LGBT affairs. If our intention was ever to receive validation from the larger Christian community, then perhaps it is time to reevaluate that desire to see whether it is still valid.

However, if our desire for ecumenical fellowship extends beyond matters of validation to a genuine desire to participate in the larger work of the Body of Christ, then perhaps BEM remains an important factor within our own internal dialogue around baptism. Any denominationally sanctioned practice falling outside the agreed upon framework of this document has the potential to complicate our efforts in the larger ecumenical community. While ecumenical unity should not necessarily become a sine qua non guiding MCC’s formulation of our theology and practice around baptism, nonetheless we should be clear about the far-reaching implications of adopting any practice at variance with this historic document.

REBAPTISM. Many within MCC have requested and received rebaptism within our church. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some wish to embrace vows taken on their behalf while they were yet infants, unable to speak for themselves. Others have sought, as people more fully integrated by their own coming out experiences, to take on an identity as an openly lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered Christian. Still others have requested rebaptism as a public profession of their commitment to MCC. While rebaptism is not unique to our denomination, this particular practice requires careful reflection. Within sacramental traditions, the act of baptism is a one-time event, imparting a particular grace that may not be repeated. For this reason BEM includes an unequivocal pronouncement regarding avoidance of any act that may be interpreted as "re-baptism" (World Council of Churches 7). The directive is intended to avoid the devaluation of any one Christian tradition’s practice of baptism by another. With this in mind, even less inclusive groups such as Roman Catholics or the various Eastern Orthodox churches recognize baptism by other Christians which have been performed with water, using the Trinitarian formula. Thus if MCC continues a practice of rebaptism, we do so to the detriment of ecumenical fellowship. Moreover, as our own Bylaws state that MCC embraces baptism as a sacrament, any act of rebaptism carries with it additional intradenominational implications, inconsistent with our understanding of the unique nature of the baptismal act.

One option for consideration by those wishing to reclaim their baptism is the renewal or reaffirmation of baptismal vows. This particular practice is common in many Christian traditions, including Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and Methodism. Such a practice would allow the previously baptized to "own" that which has already transpired, recognizing that it is Divine agency rather than human initiative which communicates the grace of baptism, regardless of the intentions of parents or sponsors. Such a renewal or reaffirmation allows space for internalizing the previous baptismal act without raising the issue of rebaptism specifically proscribed by BEM.

This is not to say that there might not be reasons within the experience of individual members for requesting baptism anew within MCC. For example, previously closeted people have described such a profound disconnect between the people that they "were" and who they have become upon openly accepting their sexual orientation or gender identity that they have come to understand themselves as an entirely new person, completely separate from the false identity of their former existence. Perhaps such a profound distinction between the former, externally-constituted self and the new person may be viewed not as rebaptism, but rather as baptism of a wholly other person? From a sacramental perspective such a question cannot be evaluated solely on the basis of a feeling or emotion, as neither has any bearing on the spiritual efficacy of the baptismal act. However, a certain compelling logic may be no less present in the profession of faith of an openly integrated human being who has become utterly separated from an identity imposed by family or culture.

THE TRINITARIAN BAPTISMAL FORMULA AND INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE. From early in our collective tradition, Christians have baptized using the Trinitarian formulation "in the name of the Father, (and the) Son and (the) Holy Spirit" (Didache 14; World Council of Churches 6). However, with the rise of feminist consciousness this traditional wording has become a stumbling block for many who hear within this formulation a devaluation of women and a claim of an exclusively masculine nature of God. But attempts to soften the patriarchal ring of the Trinitarian vow have resulted in the rejection of some baptisms as illegitimate.[9] Individual MCC pastors and congregations have introduced a variety of liturgical substitutes for the traditional formulation, inadvertently raising obstacles to the ecumenical recognition (and for sacramental validity) of our baptismal practice. As Horace Allen has pointed out, at the heart of the matter is a liturgical "meta-question" regarding the verbal exactitude required for ecumenical recognition (Scirghi i). Beneath the surface of this discussion lies a difference in understandings of the very nature of the Trinity between Eastern Orthodox and Western Christianity.

Formulations such as "Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer" are commonly used not only in MCC congregations, but in other denominational settings around the world. However, this seemingly straightforward substitution neglects historic understandings of the Trinity. Known as an economic model (based on the idea of job descriptions within a household), this and other descriptive reinterpretations of the Trinity have the unfortunate consequence of isolating particular functions to a unique person of the Trinity, suggesting that only one person creates, while another redeems, and the third sustains. However, traditional understandings of the Trinity profess the co-creative, co-redemptive and co-sustaining activity of the three persons, each of whom is of one being with the others. Further, such utilitarian descriptions of the Trinity deprive the Godhead of the relational understanding of perichoresis found in the traditional formulation. Rather than simply co-workers, the ancient formulation of Father, Son and Holy Spirit implies relationships that cannot exist in isolation – a prerequisite of parenthood is the presence of children, while the designation "son" does not exist in the absence of a parent. Though the relational aspect between Father and Son can be encapsulated within modern discourse through combinations that may substitute Mother and Daughter, the equally important understanding of authorized agent, deputy or substitute is more troublesome. In the worldview of early Christians who formulated the Father-Son model, a father’s authority is bestowed upon his adult son, allowing the son to make legally binding agreements in the father’s stead. Further, as all Christians were known as "brothers" of Christ, the authority of this Father God was also understood to be a part of the inheritance of all Christians working to usher in the reign of God. Thus a more fundamental problem of language appears as modern concepts of family within many cultures no longer recognize proxy representation of a father as the sole right of a son, nor is legal authority to create binding contracts any longer the sole purview of men. While education regarding the polyvalent nature of the original metaphor can help us to appreciate the authors’ intent, a tension remains between the presuppositions of these originating cultures and our modern understanding of family dynamics and legal rights. Clearly the dialogue within MCC surrounding this particular issue has only just begun. Like many other faith traditions within the Christian milieu, we must continue to seek a balance between our understanding of metaphorical language, the changing nature of our social realities, and our desire for continuity within the rich stream of our shared Christian heritage.

CONCLUSION

From the early Church until now, Christian understandings of baptism have enjoyed a certain fluidity, allowing for constructive theology in response to the pertinent issues of particular communities in particular circumstances. Having briefly touched upon many of the key moments within our shared history, perhaps we may continue our dialogue about baptism with an appreciation of the overarching narrative in which MCC finds itself today. As a denomination with 40 years of phenomenal growth and a message of inclusion to all who would choose to align themselves with Jesus, MCC undoubtedly has many other contributions to make to the Body of Christ. May we undertake our constructive theological task with a sense of respect for those called before us and the contributions they have made, while stepping with humility and assurance into our call as a new prophetic voice in the ongoing ecumenical work of the Church. The writer of Ephesians tells us that there is one body, one Spirit, and one hope of our calling, one faith and one baptism, and one God who is above all, through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-6 paraphrase). Wherever our conversation leads us, may we keep these words close to our hearts.

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—. Homilies on Leviticus: 1-16. Trans. Gary Wayne Barkley. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1990.

—. Homilies on Luke; and, Fragments on Luke. Trans. Joseph T. Lienhard. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996.

Perry, Troy D. Don’t Be Afraid Anymore: the story of the Reverend Troy Perry and the Metropolitan Community Churches. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

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Tertullian. "De Baptismo." Whitaker, E.C. and Maxwell E. Johnson. Documents of the Baptismal Liturgy. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2003. 8-11.

Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. "By-Laws of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches." In Unity August 1970: 1-10.

—. "Ecumenical & Interfaith History." 2007. Metropolitan Community Churches. 21 June 2009 <http://www.mccchurch.org/programsinitiatives/ecumenical/timeline.html>.

—. "MCC Core Values." 12 December 2005. Metropolitan Community Churches. 17 June 2009 <http://www.mccchurch.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Search&template=/CM/HTMLDisplay.cfm&ContentID=1154>.

—. "MCC: A Call for Proposals in New Theologies Project Book." 19 July 2008. Metropolitan Community Churches. 20 October 2008 <http://www.mccchurch.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Search&template=/CM/HTMLDisplay.cfm&ContentID=4711>.

—. "The Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches Bylaws." 7 December 2007. Metropolitan Community Churches. 17 June 2009 <http://www.mccchurch.org/BylawsandGovernance/December07/Bylaws07eng.pdf>.

Wilson, Nancy. "Baptized and Beloved." 8 January 2006. Metropolitan Community Churches. 3 September 2008 <http://mccchurch.org/AM/Template.cfm?Section=Search&template=/CM/HTMLDisplay.cfm&ContentID=2042>.

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[1] The Matthean account specifies that baptism should be performed in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:18), perhaps suggesting the origins of the later Trinitarian liturgical formulation (Albright and Mann 362-363). While the gospel of Mark is generally considered older, the analogous baptismal directive (Mark 16:16) is located within the second ending, commonly believed by biblical scholars to have been appended to the original text as late as the middle of the second century. In light of its late addition and absence of the Trinitarian formula, it is plausible to suggest that the Trinitarian liturgical formula derived from the Matthean passage did not appear until later.

[2] Until recently the Apostolic Tradition was viewed as Hippolytus’s own record of the practice of the Roman church; however, contemporary scholarship now suggests that this text may very well be a synthesis of materials from several faith communities, ranging over a much broader period of time (Bradshaw, Johnson and Phillips 2, 13-14).

[3] From this practice arose the term Anabaptist, a pejorative meaning "rebaptizer," coined by those who believed in the unrepeatable, sacramental nature of the initial infant baptism. Today Anabaptists have co-opted this originally negative term as a part of their own identity.

[4] This formulation has changed very little since the first draft of the Bylaws, published by UFMCC in 1970, in which baptism was also defined as one of two Holy Sacraments of the Church: "Baptism by water and the Spirit, as exemplified by Christ at the hands of John the Baptist. This baptism shall be a sign of the dedication of each life to God and His [sic] service. Through the words and acts of this baptism, the words "God’s own child" shall be stamped upon the recipiant [sic]" (3). Reference to John the Baptist was subsequently removed, perhaps in acknowledgement of the minority report in the Johanine tradition which does not follow the synoptic tradition.

[5] Goss avoids the problematic translation "Kingdom" of God by instead leaving the original Greek basileia untranslated. This original word, derived from the Greek word basileus, translated as "king," was used within the period of Jesus’ life by the Romans to describe their territorial holdings. It’s appropriation by the early Christians to describe the "Empire" of God was in itself a subversion of the word’s common usage.

[6] Here the term "queer" is used not only in relation to sexual activity, but more broadly, including other boundary transgressors and liminal people.

[7] This has been true since shortly after the Constantinian adoption of Christianity when baptism became a sign of national identity and allegiance to the state.

[8] In 1993 MCC withdrew its application for membership within the NCC. However, Stan Kimer, Chair of the MCC Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Strategic Team, reports that with the recent affirmation of Michael Kinnamon as NCC General Secretary, neogtiaions around membership in the NCC are once again under consideration.

[9] For example, in 1993 a Roman Catholic bishop declared a particular baptism carried out in the name of "God our creator, through Jesus the Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit" to be invalid (Scirghi 1).

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