Baptism agreement articulates a common understanding

BaptismLeaders of five branches of the Christian Church have reached an agreement to formally recognize each other’s baptisms.

The baptism agreement was signed by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and American Protestant denominations including the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Presbyterian Church (USA), Reformed Church in America and the United Church of Christ.

The denominations signed the “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism” Jan. 29 at the annual meeting of Christian Churches Together in the USA, an ecumenical association, at St. Mary Cathedral in Austin, Texas.

The agreement comes after seven years of dialogue but centuries of difference.

The Rev. David Gambrell, of the PCUSA Office of Theology and Worship, explained the significance of the agreement.

“The Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism is an important landmark in ecumenical relations,” Gambrell wrote in an email response to The Layman. “At the local, practical level, this means that Reformed congregations will no longer re-baptize persons who were previously baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, and vice versa. At the broader, theological level, this agreement offers a firm foundation for further conversations on Christian unity, as we seek to respond to Jesus’ prayer ‘that they may all be one’” (John 17:21).

“Equally significant is the collaboration among Reformed denominations that led to this agreement. This was a valuable opportunity for the Reformed partners in the dialogue – the Christian Reformed Church, Reformed Church in America, Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ – to clarify and articulate a common understanding of the Sacrament of Baptism.”

According to The Christian Post, the document jointly signed to recognize baptisms reads, “Together we affirm that, by the sacrament of Baptism, a person is truly incorporated into the Body of Christ (I Corinthians  12: 13 and 27; Ephesians 1:22-23), the church. Baptism establishes the bond of unity existing among all who are part of Christ’s body and is therefore the sacramental basis for our efforts to move toward visible unity.”

The document continues, “We rejoice at the common faith we share and affirm in this document. We understand that the journey toward full, visible unity depends on openness to the grace of God and humility before the initiatives of God’s spirit among us.”

Christianity Today and Catholic Culture reported the document also indicates that water and a reference to the “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” as found in Matthew 28: 19-20, are required for the mutual recognition of baptisms. Gambrell indicated that remains consistent with the PCUSA Directory for Worship, which includes the same instructions.

Additionally, Gambrell pointed out that the Reformed/Catholic Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism asserts that, “Baptism is to be conferred only once, because those who are baptized are decisively incorporated into the Body of Christ,” which also is in accordance with the PCUSA Directory for Worship.

Gambrell noted that the Reformed bodies still have some other issues to address.

“The PCUSA and other Reformed denominations have been engaged in dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church for decades, at both the national and international levels,” Gambrell  wrote. “This agreement was a product of the seventh round of Reformed/Catholic dialogue in the United States, which took place from 2003 to 2010. The seventh round also examined our respective theologies and practices around the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper, but did not result in an agreement to share the Lord’s Table. The eighth round of this dialogue, which began last month, will explore questions around ministry and ecclesiology. These remain some of the most challenging issues between us.”