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Good Grammar and Holy Baptism

You may have seen the news: a Roman Catholic priest in Phoenix resigned after the Church determined that baptisms he had performed were invalid. The priest had baptized, saying, “We baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” rather than “I baptize you.”

“The issue with using 'We' is that it is not the community that baptizes a person, rather, it is Christ, and him alone, who presides at all of the sacrament, and so it is Christ Jesus who baptizes,” said a letter written by the local bishop regarding the matter. The Catholic diocese is contacting as many of the affected people as they can to inform them how they might receive a valid baptism.

The Catholic Church’s response seemed legalistic to me, a Presbyterian. And in fact, the diocese acknowledged that criticism. In an “explainer” on the matter, the diocese wrote, “It may seem legalistic, but the words that are spoken (the sacramental form), along with the actions that are performed and the materials used (the sacramental matter) are a crucial aspect of every sacrament. If you change the words, actions, or materials required in any of the sacraments, they are not valid.” The statement goes on, however: “While we can be certain that God always works through the sacraments when they are properly conferred by the minister, God is not bound by the sacraments in that He can and does extend His grace in whatever measure and manner He wills. We can be assured that all who approached God, our Father, in good faith to receive the sacraments did not walk away empty-handed.”

I only wonder whether, in this case, the good faith of those who presented their children for baptism might not trump the change in words made by the priest. And I think I’d rather say, “We can trust” rather than “We can be certain” when it comes to divine action in the world.

The Scots Confession, one of the Presbyterian Church’s doctrinal standards, states, “(The sacraments) should be ministered in the elements and manner which God has appointed. Otherwise they cease to be the sacraments of Christ Jesus.” These sentences resemble the Diocese of Phoenix’s statement on sacramental form and matter. For the authors of the Scots Confession, sacramental form and matter are defined by God’s Word, the Bible. A valid baptism is with water in the name of the Trinity. Valid communion is with bread and wine. And to be valid, both must be administered by duly ordained ministers. Since they could not find in the Bible any use of anointing oil in baptism, nor did they see any evidence that the cup was withheld from believers, they abandoned both such customs, which were standard in the celebration of Roman sacraments in the 16th century.

As far as I know, saying “We baptize” rather than “I baptize” would not render a Presbyterian baptism invalid. On the other hand, I think we have a perfectly good liturgy that needs no improving upon. Only once in my ministry have I departed from saying “I baptize you.” It was early in the pandemic. We did not know nearly as much then about how the virus was spread. The parents and the infant were at the font while I stood on the far side of the chancel. Dad poured water on his child’s head while I said, “_____ is baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It seemed like the passive voice was best in this case when one person was in charge of the sacramental form and another in charge of the sacramental matter.

The more I think about it, though, I wonder if it’s not the better language. In the scriptures the passive voice can be employed to identify God as the subject without naming him. In baptism, God is the one who claims us as beloved children of the Father through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and God is the one who pours out the Holy Spirit on us. God baptizes us.

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