Saturday, July 29, 2017


Several months ago our oldest son was baptized.  In some ways the Episcopal ceremony is very similar to a Mormon baptism.  Both ceremonies involve joining a community of faith, establishing a covenant relationship with God, the forgiveness of sins, and receiving the Holy Ghost.  Of course they differ in many ways.  For example, in a Mormon baptism you specifically join the Mormon church, whereas in the Episcopal church, baptism joins you to the Christian faith.  Also, unlike the Mormon church, the Episcopal church allows people to officially join the community of faith at any age.  In the Mormon church, active participation in a baptism ceremony is limited to the person being baptized plus three priesthood holders, whereas in the Episcopal Church the entire congregation participates by praying for and making promises to help the person being baptized in their life in Christ.

The most obvious difference in the ceremonies, whether or not immersion is used, seems to me one of the least significant.  While I appreciate the seriousness with which immersion baptism takes the baptismal symbolism, the aesthetic completeness of a symbol isn't all of what make a symbol meaningful.  I find changing the amount of water used in baptism no more objectionable than the LDS temple initiatory ceremonies changing from including a full literal washing to a symbolic drop of water.  From the moment John the Baptist performed ritual washings at the river instead of in the temple, the baptism ceremony has been changing, so I'm less concerned with imitating a specific moment from the past.  Episcopal baptisms can actually be by immersion or not, as desired and as is convenient.  While the architecture of our church doesn't easily allow for immersion baptism, this spirit of flexibility showed in other adaptations our priest offered that might help our autistic son participate comfortably in the ceremony.  As long as the symbols and covenants of baptism are understood, I think flexibility in how exactly it is done is admirable.

The covenant making in baptism is one portion of the service that I found particularly meaningful.  While there is much I honor in the Mormon vision of the baptismal covenant, I do have serious concerns about it.  For example, while covenanting to obey God's commandments is an idea that makes good sense, there can be a problem in my view when that covenant is interpreted by an organization that wants to have all the answers to life's questions and all the questions as well.  Also, while it makes some intuitive sense that it is easier to be guided by the Holy Ghost if you are trying to be obedient, I believe this concept often leads a misunderstanding of God's love.  I can remember that I was taught in preparation for my baptism that sin was like dirt in the electrical contacts of a flashlight keeping the battery from working.  Just like the the flashlight can't guide you in the dark if dirty electrical contacts are in the way, the Holy Ghost won't guide our lives if we are sinful because the Holy Ghost just doesn't like being around sinners.  Another way I was taught this concept came out of the Book of Mormon.  In 1 Nephi 10:21 it says: " unclean thing can dwell with God..."  Also in Alma 36:30 it says "inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God ye shall be cut off from his presence."  Since uncleanness can't dwell with God and God cuts off the unclean from His presence, the Holy Ghost is forced to limit His contact with sinners.  On the contrary, in Mark 2:16-17 we find Jesus intentionally seeking out sinners:
When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?" When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
I appreciate that the Episcopal baptismal covenant theology places fewer limits on where we might expect to find God's love and presence operating in the world.

To really understand the Episcopal Church's baptismal covenant coming from a Mormon perspective, it is important to realize that even the style of how the covenant is made is different.  In the Mormon church, with the prominent exception of the sacrament (or communion) prayers, covenants are rarely recited in public.  If the sermons made at the time of baptism failed to explain the baptism covenant, a non Mormon could attend a baptism or watch Mormons remake their baptismal covenants during Sunday worship and learn almost nothing about the covenant being made.  Of course, the Mormon baptism covenant is no great secret and anyone can learn the basics with a quick review of a Sunday School manual posted on the internet.  However, the specific words of the covenant are not culturally emphasized.

Unlike the Mormon baptismal covenant which is made without being spoken, the Episcopal baptism covenant is spoken publicly during the baptism service.  On a daily basis, Episcopalians may review the beliefs they have committed to during their morning and evening prayers.  The covenant is also recited publicly when it is renewed during special church services.  Perhaps because the covenant is designed to be spoken out loud, it is much more detailed than the Mormon version, which doesn't even officially exist in a spoken form.  The only written form of the Mormon baptismal covenant is two sentences in a sermon on baptism found in the Book of Mormon and a discussion of who is to be baptized in D&C 20:37, rather than a directly enacted covenant.  The physical act of baptism, not a spoken promise, is the method of covenanting.

I believe the focus on the specific details in the Episcopal Baptism covenant invites contemplation and decision making in what it means to live the covenant.  Without the specific details, the Mormon covenant of obedience is harder to turn into concrete action and depends overly much on interpretation from leaders.  In the Episcopal baptism ceremony, the following are the commitments made, omitting commitments made by parents and by the congregation, starting with the examination of the candidate for baptism that comes just before the covenant:
• Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
I renounce them.

• Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
I renounce them.

• Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
I renounce them.

• Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
I do.

• Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
I do.

• Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
I do. 

Then later in the ceremony is the actual baptism covenant:

• Do you believe in God the Father? I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. 

• Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God? I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.  He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  He descended to the dead.  On the third day he rose again.  He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again to judge the living and the dead. 

• Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit? I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. 

• Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers? I will, with God's help. 

• Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? I will, with God's help. 

• Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? I will, with God's help. 

• Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? I will, with God's help. 

• Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? I will, with God's help. 
Part of what I love about this covenant is the rich variety of ways that this covenant commits you to loving and serving other people.  Not that the Mormon baptismal covenant doesn't have that idea, but it sums it up as follows: "bear one another’s burdens, that they may be light... to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort"  While serving, empathizing, and comforting others are wonderful commitments, they seem inadequate on their own to describe the radical love that Jesus taught.

There is one last difference from the Mormon baptismal tradition that stood out to us as especially important.  After the baptism, while anointing with oil, the priest states:

You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever. Amen.

There is something beautiful about the relationship with God established in baptism being permanent.  Perhaps it is knowing that any local Mormon leader without even knowing us could try to "cancel" our relationship with God at any time that makes it especially meaningful to be a part of a church that views baptism as being something that can't be taken from you.  Because really, nothing can come between us and God's love.  When I consider my son's baptism, my hope is that I have brought him to a place where he will be able to understand this simple fact about God.  Nothing can come between us and God's Love.  Not for us.  Not for anyone else.

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