At the Executive Council meeting a few weeks ago, the body voted to present the “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism” to the 28th General Synod of the UCC, with a suggested action to affirm the agreement. The discussion among the council members about this resolution was very interesting. While many people were excited that, after seven years, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted to approve the 85 page agreement, others were wary of recommending affirmation to the Synod body in July. The concern expressed had to do with the first common statement, which answers the question, “What is Baptism?” The proposed statement reads as follows: Baptism is a sacrament of the church in which a person is effused with or immersed in water, accompanied by the Trinitarian formula that the person is baptized “in(to) the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 28:19-20). Baptism is the first of the sacraments that a person receives. It is a means of grace though which God works in a person and that marks the reception of a person into the life and mission of Christ’s Church.
The problem with this statement lies in “…accompanied by the Trinitarian formula…” This kind of specificity bothered people; many churches in the UCC choose to address a “Mother God” in their baptisms, or a “Creator and Redeemer,” and they feel the Trinitarian formula, as this statement sees it, will limit their expression of God. In the true congregational style of many of our churches, this mandated requirement will not fly. Of course, anything decided at the Synod is for prayerful consideration, and is only acted on at the preference of the local church. Furthermore, if this resolution passes and a church chooses to disregard the “father, son, holy spirit” model, the UCC would still recognize the Baptism. The other associated denominations, however, would not be required to recognize the sacrament.
This leads me to another topic I’ve been meditating on recently. I’ve noticed often lately the ways people address God. “Gracious God,” “Loving God,” “All-Powerful God,” “Lord Almighty,” “Creator,” and “Father God,” are just a few examples. I’ve always started my personal prayers, “Dear God,” as if I was beginning a letter or email. People are passionate about this perceived issue with the Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism because the way they call or address God frames their theology, and maybe more importantly, their phrasing invokes for their parishioners a very specific image of God. Not everyone responds well to a “God the Father” mental image.
The chair of the Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, stated after the USCCB vote: “…we Catholic bishops can affirm baptism as the basis of the real, even if incomplete, unity we share in Christ.” There is no doubt that this agreement is an ecumenical milestone. It does, however, limit the expression of God, which makes denominations different. The recognition of unity is precious and valuable, however it strikes a sour note with me that acknowledgement of our universal faith in Christ even has to be written out. I struggle with these seemingly base and trivial disagreements between different Christian traditions. These little arguments seem petty to me, especially since we're facing so many larger issues in Christian society. Why are we spending seven years discussing the recognition of baptism, when logistically it doesn't change much on an individual level, while there are real, tangible issues that need addressing?