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In Whose Name? The Baptismal Formula in Contemporary Culture

Dialogue: Roman Catholic-United Church
Date published: 2001
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In Whose Name? The Baptismal Formula in Contemporary Culture

An excerpt from the report…

Over the past five years, members of the Roman Catholic/United Church Dialogue of Canada have been involved in a careful study of the use of the Trinitarian formula in baptism. With the publication of this Report, In Whose Name? The Baptismal Formula in Contemporary Culture, we would like to invite other members of our two churches, ecumenical partners, and theological colleagues to join the dialogue. Some suggestions for study of the Report are outlined in Appendix E.

In the mid-1980’s, the United Church began raising the question of alternative Trinitarian formulae for use at baptism, both in its own documents and in ecumenical circles (for example, its response to the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry document of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches). From then until now, the General Council has resisted approving any changes pending consultation with ecumenical partners. At the same time, the Canadian Council of Churches wished to seek clarification of United Church theology and practice on the matter of the baptismal formula. The Committee on Inter-Church and Inter-Faith Relations of the United Church also proposed that Trinitarian language at baptism become a discussion topic for the RC/UC Dialogue. It was thought that this would be a conversation with practical value not only for Canadian churches but for the broader ecumenical community.

Our Churches’ Understanding of Baptism

Both of our churches consider water baptism a sacrament. Baptism is an action which the Church carries out as part of its mandate to continue the mission of Jesus Christ in the post-resurrection era. Both of our churches baptize believers and infants, the latter as a sign of the priority of grace in all aspects of human life. Both have come in recent years to recognize more and more the need for pre-baptismal catechesis of candidates or their parents or guardians.

Roman Catholics hold that, through baptism, people “are born again as children of God and, made like to Christ by an indelible character, are incorporated into the Church” (Code of Canon Law, §849). In Roman Catholic teaching, those who are ignorant of the Gospel of Christ but seek the truth and do the will of God in accordance with their understanding of it can be saved. (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1260) Yet, the actual reception of baptism is ordinarily necessary for salvation for those to whom the Gospel has been preached. When it is correctly carried out by anyone in the form laid down by the Church, baptism is an effective and unrepeatable act. The Roman Catholic Church presumes that a baptism is valid if it is done with water and the Trinitarian formula: “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Only those baptized in this way may approach the other sacraments.

The United Church’s Basis of Union says of the sacrament of baptism: “Baptism with water into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is the sacrament by which are signified and sealed our union to Christ and participation in the blessings of the new covenant” (Basis 2.16.1).

In 1975 our churches entered into an agreement with Presbyterians, Lutherans and Anglicans in Canada whereby each church would accept as valid the baptisms of the others administered according to established norms (i.e., with water and the use of the traditional Trinitarian formula). Unless there is evidence that a church’s established norms are not being followed, its baptisms are presumed to be valid. This agreement was not to be interpreted as restricting the number of churches whose baptisms would be recognized as valid but as identifying the conditions for such agreement.