YOU MAY (OR more likely, don’t) remember the case of invalid baptisms in the Diocese of Phoenix back in February. I got to thinking about it now that I am more than two years out from my retirement from the university.
I said to myself, “Self, I’m retired and working part time, so maybe it’s time to look over my writing and see what’s hiding out in my “Didn’t Get Done” pile — it’s way smaller than I remembered.
The priest involved, the Rev. Andres Arango, had been baptizing Christians for decades by saying “We baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
Per the rite involved, baptism requires the use of the term “baptize” as an active verb along with the application of water, whether via pouring or full- scale immersion. All the reports I have read agree: there must have been, and there was, water and word. Was that enough? Or was the use of the plural sufficient to invalidate baptisms?
NPR, one of the many sources that reported this issue more or less correctly, noted that the priest involved should have said “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and the Son and Holy Spirit,” a liturgical sin so apparently egregious that Arango resigned and the Diocese, as part of its response, created a three-page subsection of its website: the report of the incident itself; the Bishop’s message; and Arango’s response.
To begin to understand this, it is necessary to note that baptism does not and cannot stand alone.
It occurs, usually, within the context of the local body, the parish where the baptized becomes or will become a member.
As an Episcopal deacon, I don’t Catholic-bash. Much of my training is in Roman Catholic institutions, but this instance seems to be, from my point of view in a progressive denomination, a very gray area. Words definitely do matter, and in ritual, words and actions alike often matter more than they might in day-to-day contexts. Things and people alike get changed in ritual, as in the bread and wine of communion.
The move from first-person singular (“I”) to first-person plural (“We”) was, in one sense, not huge. In the context of the church, the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, and all other sacraments, occur in community, except in emergency, and often involve lay people. The prayers in the baptismal rite mention the baptismal party and all of the parish. The potential fix proposed by the Diocese of Phoenix was huge: rebaptisms of all those affected — a number that, according to diocesan spokesperson Katie Burke, could “number in the thousands” — not to mention any other sacraments such as marriage, confession and absolution, and so on, that would need repeating as well.
Grace does and should matter here —regardless of the final decision of the Diocese of Phoenix, who obviously share this concern as well. The fact is, those of us baptized into our parishes are also baptized into a wider community, not just of those at the altar or of the family, but into a community in which the baptized live together, hopefully happily. If not, there’s always repentance and a welcome back.
Arango was attempting to build this sense of community through his use of the plural, by noting that this action goes well beyond the walls of the church, the community that we celebrate together at All Saints’ Day in November — the whole church, all of us struggling to find our ways in this world.
Yes, there are huge stakes here: if a baptism is invalid, so, potentially, is the marriage that is built on it.
But surely if the community as a whole welcomed the newly baptized, then surely there should be more than room enough for all who collectively accept the power of grace of God in our lives.
Issues of Faith is a rotating column by religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Dr. Keith Dorwick is a Deacon at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Port Angeles/St. Swithin’s Episcopal Church, Forks.