The committee considering the recommendation to approve the “Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism” began deliberations Sunday with a statement by General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey Black.
“We are bringing it to you with the hope and recommendation that you will approve it,” said Black.
The committee was specifically asked to approve eight points of agreement as outlined in the 82-page document, “These Living Waters.”
Ecumenical Officer Karen Georgia Thompson emphasized that this agreement is not just a bilateral, but multi-lateral agreement that includes the Reformed Church tradition partners. In these times of blended families who live across many different Christian traditions, the agreement offers common language and a consensus that “as an ecumenical community, we can own this baptism,” she said.
Thompson also emphasized that the agreement is not binding. Pastors are not required to follow it in performing baptisms but are encouraged to use the opportunity for discussion with families as to the language that will be used and the implications of using that language. It also opens the door for expansive language. To be recognized, the wording must include the words “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” But, pastors are not limited to that wording as demonstrated in the “Riverside Formula,” used at The Riverside Church in New York City, which adds “One God and Mother of us all.”
Elizabeth Clement, a member of the Executive Council, spoke for many on the committee when she said she sees the agreement as an effort to narrow the meaning for a very diverse community to understand.
“That is the point where expansiveness begins,” she said. “For a community that respects others enough, it is a way of narrowing language to a point where everyone can begin.”
"It was quite the journey – seven years," said the Rev. Sidney F. Fowler, Interim Senior Minister of Westmoreland Congregational UCC in Bethesda, Md., in an earlier interview with United Church News. "I think it offers an opportunity for an amazing conversation among UCC folks who have deep ecumenical commitments."
"There were some rather tough moments" in the agreement’s formation, said Fowler, who has worked for the national settings of both the UCC in worship and spiritual formation, and has extensive experience developing lectionary-based and international ecumenical resources.
"At a moment of significant impasse, Geoffrey brought fresh eyes and asked crucial questions that helped the process move forward so all parties could sign off on the common agreement," said Kimberly Whitney, UCC minister for community life and assistant to the UCC's five-member Collegium. "Our general minister and president looks forward to charging us as a denomination toward continued groundbreaking and visionary connections – both interfaith and ecumenical – that are ahead of us."
George Peters, a delegate from Rhode Island, said this agreement gives him a glimmer of hope.
“I’ve waited 40 years for the Roman Catholic Church to recognize the church I love as being valid,” he said. “I don’t think I will live long enough to share in the Eucharist but I hope my granddaughter will.”
Although the majority of the committee was in favor of recommending that the document be approved, there was opposition. Two people spoke out against it, stating concern that the committee was being asked to “bend” when other traditions were not equally willing to make concessions.
“How come they can’t come to the table chopping off some of the stuff they have held for centuries so we can meet somewhere along the riverbank,” said Harlette Washington, a delegate from the Illinois Conference.
She acknowledged that everyone wants baptism to be respected but that she hopes, if approved, there won’t be problems later.
In the end, the committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of recommending that the statement be affirmed and the resolution adopted. A separate recommendation will be brought before General Synod asking that educational materials be developed to help pastors, churches, and those being baptized understand the agreement.
A summary statement detailing the objections of the two people who voted against the recommendation will be included with the committee report.