Deepening the meaning of baptism

Representative from international commission of Mennonites, Lutherans and Roman Catholics presents report on baptism at Waterloo event

November 20, 2019 | News | Volume 23 Issue 21
Janet Bauman | Eastern Canada Correspondent
Waterloo, Ont.
Cristina Vanin, second from left, responds to feedback at the ‘One Baptism? A Symposium on Baptism and the Christian Life’ event during a panel discussion. Also pictured, from left to right: John Rempel, Mary (Joy) Philip, Anthony Siegrist and facilitator Jeremy Bergen. (Photo by Janet Bauman)

After five years of meetings by an international commission of Mennonites, Lutherans and Roman Catholics on the topic of baptism, John Rempel, the commission’s Mennonite representative, presented a trilateral report from that dialogue at an event called “One Baptism? A Symposium on Baptism and the Christian Life,” at Waterloo North Mennonite Church on Nov. 8.

Pastors, denominational leaders, professors and some students from Conrad Grebel University College attended the Anabaptist Learning Workshop event, sponsored by Grebel and Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.

Framed around scriptures emphasizing the image of the church as one body with one baptism, the symposium began and ended with times of worship. In between, Rempel summarized the report and then invited three people, one from each tradition, to respond. They formed a panel that fielded further comments and questions. 

Mennonite World Conference (MWC) engaged in the trilateral dialogue because “Jesus Christ calls us to be one.” Participation was seen as a way to build on previous reconciliation efforts between the denominations, nurturing mutual understanding and cooperation. 

Rempel’s presentation followed the structure of the 90-page report, first exploring three main themes:

  • The relationship of baptism to sin and salvation.
  • The celebration of baptism and its relationship to faith and membership.
  • The living out of baptism in faithful discipleship.

He then articulated the cherished convictions that each tradition has preserved, and what gifts and challenges they provide to the others. He emphasized that it was an opportunity to “look at our own traditions through the eyes of our dialogue partners,” and, ultimately, “to help one another grow in faithfulness to Jesus Christ.” Several convictions were seen as mutually enriching:

  • Baptism is God’s initiative. God is the active agent and faith is a gift of God’s grace. We are “responsible to that gift of grace.”
  • Baptism is a beginning step. The goal is to awaken faith and discipleship, which is a lifelong journey.
  • Sacramental theology helps us appreciate the “absolute gratuity of God’s saving action.”
  • This conversation has awakened a need for a stronger theology of ministry with children.

Rempel ended with proposals from the report for Anabaptist-Mennonite churches to consider, including:

  • Accept the authenticity of other baptismal traditions by receiving members from those traditions without requiring rebaptism.
  • Enrich the practice of parent/child dedication.
  • Provide occasions to remember our baptism.

In responding to the trilateral report, and to questions and comments from participants, the three panelists broadened the conversation.

Cristina Vanin, a professor from the Roman Catholic tradition, suggested that the “yes” of baptism, whenever it happens, is an “important moment in a life commitment that requires a community” to share in the faith formation.

Using the metaphor of an estuary, where waters from different rivers empty into the water of a bay, Mary (Joy) Philip, a Lutheran professor, suggested that where different traditions meet is a productive place with rich possibilities for new growth, when God is trusted as the active agent. 

Anthony Siegrist, pastor of Ottawa Mennonite Church, was drawn to the sacramental theology of the Catholic tradition, seeing it as a way for Mennonites to “recover a deeper sense of God’s grace.” 

As one way to process what was heard, participants were asked to reflect on practical considerations around baptism from a pastoral perspective. They included:

  • Youth often delay baptism, saying they are not ready because they do not have their faith figured out. “Is there room for faith the size of a mustard seed?” one person asked. 
  • How should pastors respond when people ask for baptism without church membership?
  • What does it look like to support parents in raising their children in the faith?
  • What does baptism mean for people who cannot articulate their faith intellectually or verbally?

The symposium also included time to reflect on the rituals of initiation. Sarah Kathleen Johnson, worship resources editor for the new Voices Together collection, shared resources being developed for baptism, child dedication, welcoming new members and reaffirming baptismal commitments. She noted how ecumenical conversations have inspired and clarified the resources.

César García, MWC’s general secretary, described the process going forward. The intent is for the Faith and Life Commission of MWC to present this document at its next gathering, and for churches to study it and provide feedback. While it might help to shape Anabaptist-Mennonite identity, García said, “We are not looking for a unified practice of baptism.” It will also challenge Anabaptist Mennonites to have the conversation around respect for other denominations, he said.

It was acknowledged that, while the proposal to accept the baptism of other traditions without requiring rebaptism seemed to be an acceptable practice by the churches represented at the symposium, the group in attendance was not representative of Mennonites in Ontario, let alone around the world. Pushback from others within the MWC family is anticipated and is seen as valuable for ongoing dialogue and discernment. 

This article appears in the Nov. 25, 2019 print issue, with the headline "‘Jesus Christ calls us to be one.’"

Related stories:
'Ramping up the rituals'
Remembering my baptism
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Mennonites, Lutherans, Catholics discuss baptism

Cristina Vanin, second from left, responds to feedback at the ‘One Baptism? A Symposium on Baptism and the Christian Life’ event during a panel discussion. Also pictured, from left to right: John Rempel, Mary (Joy) Philip, Anthony Siegrist and facilitator Jeremy Bergen. (Photo by Janet Bauman)

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