Rite proposal stirs passion

Published September 1, 2000

The United Church has dropped an attempt to substitute gender-neutral language for “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” in the baptism rite – a proposed change that caused concern among the church’s ecumenical partners, including the Anglican Church.

About 100 groups and congregations last fall were asked their opinions of various new forms of the rite, said Fred Graham, liturgical officer for the United Church. The church is developing a new worship book, Celebrate God’s Presence.

Conservatives, however, did not care for the changes – as Mr. Graham put it, “that sector in our church rose up” against alternate wording. Others felt, he said, that inclusive language was to be encouraged. At the same time, the United Church’s General Council Executive, which rules on matters of doctrine and faith, decided that such a fundamental change would need to be put to a church-wide vote.

Among the wording considered was:

You are baptized in the name of God, source of Love;

In the name of Jesus Christ, Love incarnate;

And in the name of the Holy Spirit, Love’s power.

Another formula read:

We baptize you in the name of the Father,

And of the Son

And of the Holy Spirit –

One God, Mother of us all.

Another proposal substituted “creator, Christ and spirit.”

The process “concluded a two-year examination of the trinitarian formula with our Roman Catholic partners,” said Mr. Graham. “We asked, is this the only way to identify the Holy Trinity or are there other ways?’ Why do we have to stick with those words (Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit)?”

The document that resulted (In Whose Name – The Baptismal Formula in Contemporary Culture) said congregations have two basic choices: retain the classical formula or augment it with options in the form of blessings, said Rev. Richard Leggett, an Anglican priest who is associate professor of liturgical studies at the Vancouver School of Theology in British Columbia.

The United Church and the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Roman Catholic churches in Canada have agreed to recognize each other’s baptisms. Such a fundamental change in wording would need agreement by all, said Rev. Alyson Barnett-Cowan, director of faith, worship and ministry with the Anglican Church.

“My view was that while we empathize with the desire to find inclusive language for the trinity, that was of sufficient importance ecumenically that it was difficult to see one church doing that on their own. And it would put in jeopardy the agreements on baptism which go back a long way,” Canon Barnett-Cowan said.

Talk of changing the baptismal rite has led to concern that one of the basic tenets of Christianity – the Trinity – could disappear or be changed so much as to be unrecognizable.

“Without the Trinity, there is no church,” said Mr. Leggett. “When you meet Jesus Christ, you meet God and the Spirit leads you to recognize that is what’s happening,” he said, explaining the concept.

“The ‘father’ language talks about the relation of the first person to the second person of the Trinity,” he added. However, there is room for an expanded view, he believes. “You don’t solve the problem of sexist language by going neutral. You expand the images (in the rest of the service),” he said.

The primary motivation, however, for keeping the traditional language was ecumenical, not theological, said Mr. Leggett. “We are dealing with fundamentally an ecumenical question. If we don’t have commonly-agreed consensus on an alternative, we are going to err on the side of conservatism and that is not always a bad thing,” he said.

For now, the United Church proposals were dropped and the new worship book is going to press with the traditional trinitarian words for baptism. It does, however, include three optional prayers, one of which says, “May the blessing of the one God, Mother and Father of us all, be with you today and always.”

Book or no book, some priests already use alternative language in their baptismal rituals, Mr. Graham and Mr. Leggett said.

While declining to identify anyone in particular, Mr. Leggett said some of the wording used, such as “Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier” would “cause problems” if someone moved to another denomination and sought to have the baptism recognized.

“Some (clergy) would like to know what was said. To some people, I’m sure (the issue) sounds trite, but language does matter,” he said.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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