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On making too much of vows I

On making too much of vows I

This is the first of a two-part article.

By Donald Schell

It feels like a new Episcopal church norm or standard may be emerging, making an Easter Vigil part of our Holy Week. I like that. For more than twenty-five years I was pastor of a congregation where the Saturday night Vigil was our biggest liturgy of the whole year and our only Easter celebration. Easter Day we had a picnic.

But often the rediscovery of the vigil brings with it yet another “Renewal of our Baptismal Covenant.” I’m increasingly uneasy with our attachment to promise making and promise renewing – renewals of baptism covenant, renewals of ordination vows for clergy in Holy Week, anniversary renewals of wedding vows. The passion narratives in Holy Week and the Easter appearances of the Risen Jesus sharpen my worry. Each of the four Gospels tells catastrophic story of promise making and promise breaking – Peter’s vehement promise to stand by Jesus when everyone else abandons him.

The oldest version of Peter’s promise making in Mark’s Gospel has him insisting to Jesus, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” Jesus replies with the haunting prophecy that before the cock begins its pre-dawn crowing Peter will have denied him three times that very night. Resurrection stories in all four gospels attend in some way to Jesus’ mending the fracture of betrayal, folding Peter back into the community. Often the New Testament lists Peter as the first witness to the resurrection, displacing the story of Mary Magdalene encounter with the risen Jesus, probably for the sake of telling the story to emphasize the restoration of Peter the to the place among the twelve that his betrayal might seem to have lost him.

To my mind John’s Gospel offers the loveliest of these reconciliation stories by the lakeside in Galilee, almost at the very end of the Gospel. Jesus has appeared, shared breakfast with the disciples, and then takes Peter aside and three times (to match the three denials) asks, “do you love me more than these?” and “Do you love me?” Peter, insistent as ever, keeps saying, “Lord, you know I love you.” And each time to this insistence, Jesus replies, “feed my sheep” or “feed my lambs.” Loving expressed in doing seems to trump promise making.

Promise making has an odd history in the church’s liturgical evolution. Apparently monastic vows were the first church-acknowledged promises. Wedding vows come some centuries later. The earliest Christian wedding practice followed Judaism, where the sacramental act wasn’t husband and wife making promises, but the priest (or rabbi) praying on behalf of the family and assembly to ask God’s blessing on the couple. Apparently the most ancient ordination rites also were blessings prayed by the bishop without the person who was being ordained offering vows. We certainly know of a number of sainted priests and bishops who tried to refuse ordination in this period and in the end were forcibly ordained against their will – doesn’t sound much like promises were made there. And the baptismal covenant that we’re often repeating now was an addition to baptism with the last round of Prayer Book revision. Whenever I hear someone talking about ‘my baptismal covenant’ or ‘our baptismal covenant,’ I remember Martin Luther’s refuge in times of darkest depression feeling himself besieged by Satan himself (like the line in “A Mighty Fortress,” “and though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us”). Luther’s steady response to facing his demons was to remind himself, “I have been baptized.” He didn’t find direction or comfort in his own promise but in the church’s faithful act and God’s faithfulness.

Actually, of course, most Episcopalians over the age of about thirty-five were baptized without any covenant being uttered, not even on their behalf as babies. It was the revisions leading to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer that reframed the apparent working of the sacrament around an extended vowing.

So what did these sacraments look like before each, in succeeding centuries was reframed with vows?

Jewish style, they were blessings with a physical, enacted or embodied affirmation:

-a blessing over the water and a sacramental gesture of water and the sign of a cross,

– a blessing over the ordinand and a sacramental gesture of laying on of hands,

– a blessing over the couple and a sacramental gesture of a kiss and exchange of gifts or rings.

I’m not against vowing or promising. I’m often deeply moved to hear a couple make this symmetrical promise each to the other in turn:

“In the name of God, I, [name], take you, [name], to be my husband/wife, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.”

In fact I suspect that in the fifteen hundred year history of vow-creep that’s reshaped our ancient sacraments that the marriage vow is the most profound and spacious – it’s simple as unreserved, faithful love until death no matter what.

Baptismal vows and ordination vows for the orders of bishop, deacon and priest all go beyond simplicity to offer a fuller picture of the commitment the candidate is making. It’s not a bad picture they make. All these other vows draw appropriately on the Bible, on tradition, and on experience to sketch that picture, but somehow in the end what more they offer seems less than the stark, lean vows of a wedding.

This time of year with Holy Week, musing about ordination vows and baptismal covenant, I was haunted by the French film, Of Gods and Men, the Trappist monks facing what would be their martyrdom in Algeria. The film retells a real event of 1996 from the accounts of the two surviving brothers of the community, the journals of the martyrs, and the stories of their friends and neighbors in the Muslim village alongside the monastery. Nowhere in the painful, confusing time of choosing to stay and face possible death do the brothers remind one another of their ordination vows.

“Peter, do you love me?” “Feed my sheep.”

It’s love that drives them, not keeping their word. Love for Christ, for the brothers in their community, for their Muslim friends in the village. And they don’t stay in order to be martyred, but simply because they come to see staying and facing danger with each other and their neighbors as the only reflection of their love that makes sense.

The Rev. Donald Schell, founder of St. Gregory of Nyssa Church in San Francisco, is President of All Saints Company.


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This is wonderful conversation, much enriched by the experience of making promises that we find ourselves unable to keep, for whatever reason. Much to think about for the next few days and life-times.

I want to add another ‘formative’ picture (I’m the parent with the ‘show me the acts and I’ll believe the vow’ response above) that has come to mind with love and tears as I’ve read through the conversation here:

My parents were married in 1952. I have vivid childhood memories of my parents marking various anniversaries by repeating their vows. From memory (as at their wedding), but not from rote. It was as if they were alone in the universe, just with God and each other and this congregation of their children.

What I didn’t know until later was that my parents would also repeat their wedding vows when they were angry with each other, or afraid. When Dad had a psychotic break and had to leave for an extended stay in a locked hospital.

I don’t know this, but I’ll bet that when they discovered her cancer was terminal and that the road ahead was going to be very hard for both of them, that they repeated their vows.

When we scattered Mother’s ashes up in the mountains, my father poured them out, repeating those same vows.

When he remarried, he asked the minister who performed the rite to use the familiar old words, because those were the only ones that mattered to him.

There are times (thankfully not many) when the only reason I stay in my marriage is that I promised to. Those vows are deeply important to me. But when I tried the same kind of repeating of vows that meant so much to my parents, it felt flat and rote.

I guess that I’d take from this that I am glad that vow renewal is a spiritual practice that is available, and that it can take many forms. It seems a mistake to ritualize the ritual, so that NOT participating becomes suspect or a political statement. Like any ritual, if it becomes too far separated from the experience from which it springs, it is a dead thing — from which something else needs to spring to life.


Donald Schell


thanks for adding powerful (and powerfully ambiguous) experience to this conversation. I like very much how all you’ve written circles back to Pam’s response, the first in this sequence. She’s linked her name on the post to her blog which offers us more brave storytelling and wondering and ambiguity and frustration as she finds the way to live into called love of her husband and children –


Thank you Donald for starting this conversation, and all of you for your insights.

As one who has tried very hard to live into the Baptismal Covenant (and am one of those baptized from the 1928 BCP) that I plan on renewing at tomorrow’s Great Vigil, I ponder how so many of us say the words and make the promises without really understanding the full meaning behind them. It’s easy to say, “I will, with God’s help.” It’s harder to actually live it out 24-7-365.

These postings recall the sacramental promises I have made in my life: my marriage vows (34 years and counting) and at the baptism of my children. One of my children chose years ago not to be Confirmed – he felt that he didn’t need to stand in front of the congregation and answer “Yes” a couple of times with a bunch of young people he knew he would never see set foot inside the church again. I’ve told him, “But I made a promise that you would come back and reaffirm the vows I made for you as an infant.” He tells me not to worry – Jesus doesn’t mind and God didn’t build a church.

My father is caring for my mom, who has Alzheimer’s disease. I recently put her on the waiting list to enter a long-term care facility. This was a hard reality for my dad. He had promised her he would never do this. Today my husband signed papers to begin hospice care for his mother. When she signed over power-of-attorney and a DNR request years ago, he promised he would care for her when she could not care for herself. As I sat beside him while he signed more papers, I can help but remember the last time he signed papers “for” her.

Perhaps all this conversation taking place on Good Friday is appropriate. Somehow I recall a saying, “Promises are meant to be broken.” But perhaps promises are meant to remind us how to care for one another.

Sharon Ely Pearson

Donald Schell


Thanks for your reflection (and for adding your witness to Sylvia’s and Marshall’s). As I read this ongoing conversation, I can add a tad of clarification. While I get the power of structure and definition that the various vows bring (and wonder why the lean marriage vows with the least description seem the most powerful among marriage, ordination and baptismal promises), what I’m most wondering about is whether the ritual repetitions and routine reiterations of the vows contributes to Christian formation. Is this re-vowing practice? Or does it hold our minds and hearts at stage of novices and new initiates? Today, Good Friday, remembering how Jesus, ‘having loved his own, loved them to the end,’ are we witnessing the living out of a vow, or something beginning promises (i.e. ours in marriage, ordination, baptism) could only hint at?

Christopher Evans

Donald, I would posit as I did in my lectio piece that patterned gospel responses seem closer to an Anglican emphasis that gives real flesh to love thy neighbor. As Sylvia notes, to renew vows which give us some shape or patterns of response the gospel presented just previous in the Creed, convicts and renews. As Marshall notes our culture is very up on love but without sense of pattern that does sometimes mean forgoing because of a particular commitment, and that this over the longhaul can be a freedom. In other words the Gift takes shape in our lives and works to order our lives more to the gospel. We can otherwise end up with a cheap form of grace.

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