Monday, May 30, 2011

A Spiritual Exegesis of the Baptismal Covenant, Part 1

The Baptismal Covenant. Let's talk about it.

If you've seen the comments sections on Anglican blogs, you'll likely have noticed a basic trend when people talk about the Baptismal Covenant. "Liberals" think the BC is a great thing, something to be celebrated. "Conservatives" think the BC is just one more mistake made by the 1979 Prayer Book committee.

Politically, this divide makes sense. Liberals (henceforth, please imagine the scare quotes) use the BC as a way to justify their liberalizing agenda. The last line of the Covenant contains the promise to "strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being." Liberals tend to summarize the whole BC with this promise, a move used to great effect in their ethical arguments.

It's understandable why Conservatives (remember: scare quotes) then want nothing to do with it. In the North American Anglican political and polemical discourse, the BC is the wholly owned subsidiary of the Liberal cause.

In other words, the Baptismal Covenant has become, like so many other shared texts, a source of contention instead of a source of unity.

This is a problem for North American Anglicans (Canadians included) because the BC is part of each and every Baptism we perform. Because of its polemical place in our political struggles, the Covenant has lost its ability to be a shaping influence in our baptizands' lives.

But, what if we tried for a moment to remove the Baptismal Covenant from its polemical setting and let it interpret itself? What if we stood back and in an attitude of prayer performed a spiritual exegesis of that text?

I think we would find something that is not only deeply Anglican but also deeply Christian, biblical, sanctifying, and helpful. I would like to see the BC removed from our political debates and ensconced in the context of the Christian life, in the life of Christians being shaped into the image and likeness of Christ.

We could, as many do, point to the authors (they are still alive) and say we can know the BC's meaning by looking to their intentions in shaping it. But, here's the thing. The BC is part of a conciliar, liturgical document, hallowed now by decades of use. Whatever the authors' original intentions, the BC has a history now, a spiritual effect in people's lives. That effect is informed more by the spiritual world it creates for us than by the BC's polemical context. Its spiritual world is created and nurtured by the deep interconnections of language and practice that hold the Book of Common Prayer together and hold the Prayer Book together with the Bible.

Over the course of the next several weeks, I intend to undertake a spiritual exegesis of the Baptismal Covenant. I will treat the Prayer Book as 'text,' allowing its internal connections to tease out its meaning, in some ways attempting to allow 'it' to explain 'itself' insofar as that is possible. To this layer of meaning we will add the Bible's language, from which the language of much of the Prayer Book (and much of the Baptismal  Covenant) is drawn. To use a post-liberal term, this spiritual exegesis is an exercise in first-order language.

I will begin next time with a brief look at the initiation of God's covenant with Abraham and end with an overview of the 'parts' of the Baptismal Covenant and the order in which I will take this spiritual exegesis.

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