Culminating seven years of ecumenical dialog, delegates to the UCC's 28th General Synod in Tampa, Fla., will deliberate and potentially vote on a proposal recommending the "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism."
Forged between the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church-USA, Reformed Church in America and Christian Reformed Church – the agreement is being hailed as a "milestone on the ecumenical journey," says Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, chairman of the USCCB Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
The USCCB voted 204-11 last fall to approve the agreement. The Presbyterian Church-USA has also ratified the agreement. The Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church are scheduled to consider the agreement at their respective national gatherings this summer. UCC ecumenical partner, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, has a long-standing common baptism agreement with the USCCB.
"Together with our Reformed brothers and sisters, we Catholic bishops can affirm baptism as the basis of the real, even if incomplete, unity we share in Christ," says Gregory. "Our conference looks forward to seeing all four of the authoritative bodies of the Reformed communities approve the common agreement as we have today."
"It was quite the journey – seven years," says the Rev. Sidney F. Fowler, Interim Senior Minister of Westmoreland Congregational UCC in Bethesda, Md. "I think it offers an opportunity for an amazing conversation among UCC folks who have deep ecumenical commitments."
"There were some rather tough moments," says 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.
The two primary roadblocks to the agreement centered on language used during the baptismal rite and the manner in which water is used.
"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," says 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."
Research found that nearly 20 percent of UCC churches were using alternative language for "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" for baptismal formula, says Fowler. "Catholics don't recognize baptism other than 'in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.' "
Gregory says the agreement, after approval by the four Reformed denominations, will "allow Catholic ministers to presume that baptisms performed in these communities are 'true baptism' as understood in Catholic doctrine and law."
"The presentation of a baptismal certificate by Reformed Christians who wish to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, or to marry a Catholic, assures Catholic ministers that the baptism performed by a Reformed minister involved the use of flowing water and the biblical invocation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit," says Gregory.
The agreement also encourages local Christian communities to keep baptismal records, a practice already held in the Catholic Church.
Recommending a "patient and prudent" approach to changes that will accomplish the goals of the agreement, the document acknowledges some communions may not opt for immediate implementation. "We recognize that the journey towards full, visible unity depends on openness to the grace of God and humility before the initiatives of God's Spirit among us, which are themselves based on Baptism," the agreement reads. "Let us above all work to promote the works of charity and service not only to those who are of the household of the faith, but also to all people and to all of creation."