Here’s the thing about Christian baptism: It’s irreversible.
You can no more undo it than you can undo your own birth. Once baptized, “Everything old has passed away; …everything has become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NRSV). No going back. As The Episcopal Church’s baptismal liturgy puts it: you have been “marked as Christ’s own forever.”
Some—perhaps even most—baptized Christians might find the sacrament’s irreversibility reassuring, a source of hope during the darkest hours of the night. Nothing they do, nothing done to them, will ever separate them from Christ, into whose death and resurrection they were baptized. Nor will anything separate them from Christ’s body—the Church universal—of which the baptized are individual members.
But speaking as someone who was forced out of my local Episcopal church community through clerical misconduct, I just find it really frustrating.
More than once I have prayed that God would find it in the unfathomable depths of divine mercy to erase this indelible mark on my soul; to free me from my new life in Christ; to break the Church’s claim to me and my life. And every time to no avail. Like it or not, I will be a Christian until the day I die.
And I don’t like it one bit. For my baptism has become a chain around my neck, binding me forever to my priest abuser. Hardly something to celebrate.
Every baptism is a contract that imposes obligations and confers benefits on the three parties to it: God, the baptized, and the catholic Church.
Through their “Prayers for the Candidates,” Episcopalians secure God’s pledge, among other things, to renew the baptized in the resurrection life of God’s Son and to bestow upon them the power of God’s Holy Spirit. In return for these gifts, God receives the praise, obedience, and trust of God’s people.
The baptized promise, among other things, to “renounce all sinful desires that draw [them] from the love of God” and to accept Christ Jesus as their saviour. In exchange, the salvation God’s Son secured becomes theirs by right, as does that special vehicle of divine grace God has made available to God’s Church: the Holy Eucharist. Having gained a share in what the liturgy describes as Christ’s “eternal priesthood,” the baptized may—this time in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews—“approach the throne of grace with boldness.”
What of the Church? It increases in size and ability to discharge its evangelistic mission to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:16–20). For that, the Church’s local representatives—that is, the clergy and congregation present at an individual baptism—renew their own baptismal covenants with God. And, no less importantly, they make a pledge to the baptized themselves to, with God’s help, “do all in [their] power to support [the baptized] in their life in Christ.”
As is the case with any contract, the parties to a baptism may breach their commitments—and thereby become liable to the relevant consequences.
Through apostasy and excommunication, for example, the baptized forfeit certain of their sacramental rights.
If baptism is conversion, apostasy is its antonym: the experience of de-converting or falling away from the Christian faith. And if Hebrews 6:1–8 is to be believed, post-baptismal apostasy is just as irreversible.
“For it is impossible,” the author of that book writes, “to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit … and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and holding him up to contempt.”
The “enlightenment” in view here is the faith in Christ Jesus and repentance from sin that precedes and, indeed, motivates a person to undergo baptism (see vv. 1–2). Faith being a gift from God, it is “impossible” for apostates to be restored to enlightenment because God refuses to dispense that gift a second time to a person who received it once only to subsequently throw it away.
Why? Because these apostates have experienced crucifixion with Christ and yet have chosen to crucify Christ. Their reasons for doing so are irrelevant: what matters is that they have decisively severed their relationship with God’s Son, and that God honours this expression of human agency by declining to undo their choice.
Like irrigated earth that produces only weeds, apostates experience the blessings of divine grace but later backslide into an unrepentant state. In so doing, they lose the guarantee of Christian salvation; their “end is to be burned” in the divine judgment against those who live in sin, no matter what they might later do.
It is possible, by contrast, to remedy one’s excommunication from The Episcopal Church.
The Book of Common Prayer’s “Disciplinary Rubrics” contemplate four circumstances in which individual believers might exist in a state of impaired relationship with the larger Christian community. There are those occasions in which a person “is living a notoriously evil life [and] intends” to partake of the Eucharist. Those in which a person has wronged their neighbour and thereby become “a scandal to other members of the congregation.” Those in which “there is hatred between members of the congregation.” And, finally, those in which one of the parties to a dispute declines to forgive the other.
In all such cases, where the situation becomes known to the parish priest, that priest is to speak to the person(s) in question and advise them that they may not partake of the Eucharist until they have repented of their wrongs—including, where necessary, by making restitution to those they have harmed. Having done so, the priest is then to promptly notify their bishop as to their “reasons for refusing Communion.”
While at first glance an act of cruelty, this informal rite of exclusion is perhaps better understood as an expression of Christian mercy. The express purpose behind it is to encourage what the prayer book terms “repentance and amendment of life.” Moreover, it protects wicked believers from receiving the Eucharist unworthily, which, as St. Paul warned the Corinthians, would amount to “eat[ing] and drink[ing] judgment against [themselves]” (1 Corinthians 11:27—31).
It is, in other words, for the ultimate benefit of those under their charge that Episcopal priests are tasked with denying to some that to which they would otherwise be entitled by virtue of their baptism: the body and blood of Christ.
If the baptized may, through their actions, lose the rights and benefits that accrue to them at their Christian initiation, surely this also be the case for the catholic Church in those cases where it, too, breaches its baptismal duties.
Breach those duties it does when, to name just a few abuses, the Church drives away faithful believers through discriminatory and exclusionary policies; sexual, physical, or emotional violence; and practices, by leaders lay or ordained, that prey on the vulnerable.
The Church’s most basic obligation to the baptized is to include them in its corporate life. Hence, immediately after the baptized are “sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism,” priest and congregation assure them that “We receive you into the household of God.” Without that welcome, their baptism would be incomplete; it is not an optional component of the liturgy.
When priest and congregation renege on this initial assurance, the bonds between the Church and its abused members loosen. Their relationship is impaired, no less than when baptized Christians renege on their own pledge to resist evil. The Church loses its claim to the abused—at least so long as it persists in an unreformed state, and maybe even eternally.
I am speculating at this point, of course; although not, I suspect, without some warrant.
God’s presence is not confined to the Church, nor is God’s justice and mercy. It is, rather, among the nations, whom God is also leading to salvation. “Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,” God thus asks through the prophet Amos, “and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?”
God’s faithfulness to those the Church wounds and rejects is not in doubt, even if the Christian community’s is. Perhaps, then, for such people baptism is not a chain that keeps them from escaping their abusers, but an anchor that keeps the abused from drifting too far from the knowledge of God’s grace when the Church cuts them adrift.
It is an intangible and, indeed, indelible reminder that not a single thing “in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39). Not even Christians. Not even the Church. No matter where they might go. No matter where they might make their home.
Perhaps there is something hopeful about baptism’s irreversibility, after all.
Charlotte Dalwood is a current JD/MBA student at the University of Calgary, and a graduate of Yale Divinity School. Her other publications include articles in the CBC, the Edmonton Journal, Earth & Altar, and the Journal of Anglican Studies. Follow her on Twitter @csdalwood, or visit her online at www.charlottedalwood.com.