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Together in Baptism and Marriage

Dr. Eileen Scully

Dr. Eileen Scully is an Anglican, who earned her doctorate in Systematic Theology from St. Michael's College, Toronto (Roman Catholic). She held the position of Associate Secretary for Faith and Witness with the Canadian Council of Churches from 1995-2000, where she facilitated theological dialogue among representatives of the member churches of the Council. One of the Council's projects during that time was the production of an ecumenical resource on Christian marriage, Together in Christ

A lecturer in Theology at Huron College, London, Ontario, Eileen serves on several national committees of the Anglican Church of Canada, and has recently been appointed to the international Inter-Anglican Theological and Doctrinal Commission.. She is involved in relationship-building with First Nations people in her diocese. Eileen is married to Eric Duerrstein, who comes from the Mennonite Brethren church. 

The family lives in Waterloo, Ontario, where the children are able to enjoy the inherited traditions of both their sets of grandparents.

Well, good morning. And thank you for the kind introduction. It is exciting for me to be here. I’ve been following the build-up of energy towards this conference through your email listserve, and can certainly feel the energy in the room this morning. This is both an honour, and a real first for me, such a large and diverse and international gathering. It was a joy to share ecumenical gifts last night, and to share in worship this morning.

Sometime last week, I was chatting with a friend, an academic, describing what was coming up for me this week. And when I spoke of the theme, and my desire to hone in on ‘baptism’, he harrumphed a bit and said, "oh, you ecumenists, always taking the safe road, always talking about what you can politely agree on - what’s been controversial or exciting about baptism lately?" – suggesting that the conference organizers and I, in my desire to focus on baptism, had somehow chosen a ‘lowest common denominator.’ Harumph.

Another scene sprung immediately to mind, actually many scenes, repeated over this past year as I’ve been involved in leading workshops on The Waterloo Declaration of Full Communion between the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. Inevitably at any one of these gatherings, someone, could be equally Anglican or Lutheran or an ecumenical partner from another church, but someone, almost always a lay person, springs up and says "why is there so much ink in this Declaration about bishops?" Well, of course a part of the reply is that in ecumenical dialogue of the kind that has led to Waterloo, and especially in bilateral dialogue, we tend to focus the most theological energy on the things on which there has been, or is, disagreement – the fine things to work out. Inevitably, the response to this reply has been "couldn’t the theologians of the dialogue say something more about our common baptism and discipleship and what it means for us to walk this out as churches together?"

Well, this says at least two things to me, that I don’t think I need to spell out to this crowd. Except to say that between the academic’s harrumphing over lowest common denominator and the plea of folks in the workshops, I think I know which voice I’m most inclined to listen to here, the one that speaks to the desires as I perceive them, of this conference. Because I don’t think I was asked to talk about something ‘safe’ and ‘lowest common denominator’ – gosh, what a picture of baptism is that?? Harumph to that! No, I think that the topic of Unity in Baptism and Marriage was chosen to start us off because this is the core of things, the heart of the matter, if you will.

It’s difficult to talk about such heart-of-the-matter, central things in just a few minutes, and so all I can try to do this morning is to offer some opening reflections, and perhaps just do a bit of a reorientation for my friend who saw nothing terribly exciting in the topic. Because I do find this exciting. My only goal here is to start us off to doing some theological reflection on our own experience as baptized Christians, on our relationships within the Body of Christ, churches to churches, friends to friends, partners in marriage, families.

And so you know where I’m going with this, here’s my three-part map: 1. The first part I’ve called in my notes "Together in God’s Love" – and this is where I’ll talk in a brief, introductory way about the dynamics of baptism and discipleship. 2. Part 2 is where we’ll spend the most time, and I’ve called it "Together in the Power of the Spirit" – here’s the place for looking at the dynamics of our lives together as churches, and in marriage, not skirting, but delving into the brokenness that marks these realities. 3. Finally, I’ll ask us to consider together what it means to be "Together in Discipleship," in the outward and transformative ministry that is our baptismal call to follow Jesus.

  1. Together in God’s Love

I have to admit to having been initially somewhat hesitant to accept the invitation to speak here – for the simple reason that I have become fond of starting off theological reflection by reflecting on my own context, and I don’t live in an inter-church family in our household.

My husband Eric and I came from the same hometown, but from very different contexts: he, Mennonite Brethren, me Anglican, and when became friends and eventually dated, and in the early years of our marriage, we tried to ‘solve’ this dilemma in a number of ways, none of which ‘worked’ in the sense that none lasted, in the sense that non was healthy for both of us. I tried taking on his tradition and community, but in order to do that I had to give up a tremendous part of the core of who I am. I didn’t see that at the time – it felt like the right self-sacrificial thing to do for love, but it ate up at me in what became spiritually and psychically rather self-destructive ways. While I was busy studying Religion and Culture as an undergrad (funny how we do these kinds of things when we have deep spiritual struggles to work out – you can trace the issues in my spiritual struggle directly by tracking my choice of courses throughout my undergrad & grad studies days!) – anyways, in my studies, I thought I’d learned enough about the Christian churches to be able to figure out a logical happy medium between Anabaptism and Anglicanism.

We tried several third option compromise possibilities, but they never really took life. We each began to feel estranged from any real sense of church ‘home’. Eventually, in the funny way that things happen when you follow your heart, we ended up back in my home church, freely and wholly – and thought it’s taken a good ten years, Eric now really is an Anglican. Though, of course, you can take the boy out of the Mennonite, but you can’t take the Mennonite out of the boy. But while there was much in his tradition that he wanted to affirm, celebrate and bring forward, much about his upbringing in that tradition was quite damaging to him, and there was really no question of going back to that home. That’s part of the broken reality of the Christian church too.

So: I guess you can see my hesitance – far from having committed to each having a strong sense of identity and presence in our own traditions, and seeking to honour these traditions in our relationship, we, married at a time in our young lives when we were going a lot of searching and questioning of our religious identities, explored a lot.

So, what could I say to this group? Then I thought more about Christian unity and my own church and the ways in which through we’re not strictly speaking an inter-church family, we’ve made a commitment to not lose the gifts we’ve discerned from his own Anabaptist tradition, and have tried to keep some of those sensibilities and values alive.

One strong memory came out at me, the way these things sometimes do – I thought of the baptism of our second son, Colin. We have two children, and our first son’s baptism was a quiet affair. We were uncomfortable with how uncomfortable my Anabaptist inlaws would be with the rite, and so kept things rather low key. The next time around, feeling what had been lacking the first time, we really wanted to mark the occasion, yes, in the church family, but also in our families. And so we invited a pre- service gathering, with just a touch of ceremony to it, inviting the grandparents to say a few words about what the baptism of Colin meant to them, what they hoped to pass along from their heritage and faith to Colin.

It was one of those perfect moments of harmony –hadn’t anticipated it to be: sometimes the greatest harmony comes after the greatest amount of risk-taking! – I thought to myself, what a wonderful change from the private afternoon baptisms I’d remembered hearing about in childhood. This was a very public affair, a coming together of families, of churches, of traditions, of history, of hope for the future – a moment of tasting just a wee bit of what that koinonia is that stretches both through space and time.

Funnily enough, when the grandparents spoke – and it was the grandmothers who chose to do the speaking – it was my mother-in-law, the Mennonite, Believers’ Baptism church, who in her talk emphasized the unearned grace that was gifting Colin even now, at three months of age, and that was embracing him and binding him within the family and tradition that included ancestors persecuted for their faith. It was my mother, the Anglican, who talked about her hope for how Colin will grow eventually to claim the promises made for him, to take on faith in an adult way with an adult’s ability to make judgements and commitments when the time comes. It was a poetic little shift.

Now, as an adult, because of the dynamics of our marriage, our ‘theological household’ as it were, has tended to take a long and dynamic view of baptism. In the process of weighing and sifting and trying to figure out what all was involved in the contrast between a believer’s baptism and membership tradition and an infant baptism tradition, we recognized that each has something to say about a larger dynamic.

One of the other parts of the dynamic that we saw each tradition reflecting somewhat differently in its emphases has to do with community. My upbringing grew in me a sense of the community supporting, holding, the newly baptized – the making of promises for me as an infant – and therefore my dependence spiritually on that community. Eric’s experience of baptism emphasized the responsibilities that he was expected to now take in the community, and his service to the community. These are some of the realities that flow naturally from one’s stage of life at time of baptism. But I hope you can see how having both experiences in the household shapes a very lively sense of the baptized life and what baptism means in shaping Christian identity. Baptism: God’s call in love to us, the grace, and gift of that transforming love that, in the power of the Spirit in Christ makes a truly new creation. And it is also response: recognition, reception, living as that new creation.

There are a few other words I want to say about the dynamism of baptism, and that has to do with the life of the church. Darryl and Maureen and I were talking a bit about this yesterday. I guess it’s part and parcel of a generational thing for us as well. The churches were already well on their way to becoming marginal in the life of Canadian society by the time I hit grade school. By the time I was a teenager, I was deeply aware of there being something rather counter-cultural about the Gospel, - something about the values of community, of healing, of love and self-giving, naming and of confronting sin and turning to embrace this gift of new life – of all of this flew in the face of the Yuppie 1980s. And I could see my own church confused and wrestling with its relationship to that counter-cultural Gospel and its own temptations to desire to cling to the kind of power and influence and social standing in the culture that it had had for so long.

My point: the more aligned the church is with the dominant culture, to the extent that the radical call to discipleship of equals, confronting sin and offering of new life in Christ in concrete ways – to the extent that the radicalness of that call is obscured, the more ‘static’ is life in the church. Baptism is, of course, rite of membership – being called into this Body, as a new creation in Christ. But the more static the body, the more static the view of baptism as, what, a membership ticket? Proof of citizenship like a passport you can carry around? But we’re in very very different times now. And the place of the church in relationship to the dominant culture has shifted radically. What wonderful energies are freed up when we’re no longer concerned about maintaining ‘place’ in society. The Body (us) starts to move, exercise its muscles, unclog the arteries leading to the Heart (Christ). It stretches its legs and walks down the street, and acts as the Body of Christ is bound to act, reaching out to the marginalized, the poor, the suffering, offering a healing touch, binding up wounds, drawing strangers and aliens together at the same table.

Baptism into this Body is baptism into a Body in motion, a Body already in the motion of hearing God’s call and responding to it, movement that reaches out into all creation with a touch of healing, an embrace of reconciliation, and the power of the possibilities of new life in Christ.

So to share a common baptism is to share in membership unlike any other kind of membership in our world – if it were like any club or institutional membership perhaps we could be accused of looking at the lowest common denominator.

Membership in this Body is unlike any other because it is both free by gift of grace and costly in the ways that real loving service are costly. Far from that "lowest common denominator"! And these days, the possibilities of more and better self-consciousness about what this baptismal membership in the One Body of Christ, and the baptismal life is about are greater and greater.

Still I wonder if we celebrate this enough ecumenically. I’m aware that when we’ve marked anniversaries of baptism with our lids, we’ve still done so in a rather parochial way. How to give them a sense of their baptism being into the whole Body, for example? I’d like to start dreaming of ways to widen their senses of "belonging" and connection to the wider Christian family. Perhaps anniversary of baptism might be a day to visit a church of a different denomination – intentionally? I haven’t quite thought this one through and am open to suggestions!

  1. Together in the Power of the Spirit

Yet at the same time that I celebrate that baptism is baptism into the whole Body of Christ, I see that baptism into this Body is also baptism into a Body that is wounded, whose dance is less than it can be, whose movement is fractured, whose own parts at times move awkwardly and even in counter-rhythm to each other. Some of the connective tissue has been severed in ways that seem irreparable. But it is a Body nonetheless. I don’t need to say more about these realities to this group: you know them well. Inter Church families feel them deeply. Where you live, in the most intimate places of your lives you live the at times paradoxical, at times painful, conjunctions of the realities of the brokenness of the Body of Christ, and your knowledge that wounds can be healed, reconciliation is possible, Christian unity can be lived out with integrity.

Baptismal membership is unlike any other kind of membership. And Christian unity is unlike any other kinds of ‘unity’, say of corporations, clubs, nations. It’s been remarked - and, shoddy footnoter that I am, I can’t remember who first said it – that, in sharp contrast to other forms of community, the church embraces all manner of people who otherwise would not naturally find themselves together.

It has been said over and over again that the fact of division between the churches is a scandal and a barrier in our witness to the world. True. Jesus’ prayer that his disciples be one wasn’t for the sake of unity for its own sake, but so that the world – the whole world – may believe, and so be caught up in the unity of God’s Love through the Spirit.

Christian unity – being together in and through the power of the Spirit, is a movement – and energy – that faces this brokenness – that’s the baptismal gift and call: reconciliation for the sake of the world.

I’ve been playing around with different, contrasting images and values around unity lately:

  • As I’ve been trying to explain Full Communion. It’s not a merger, like that of corporations or even for pragmatic self-preserving institutional reasons – but it’s a sharing of life together, in response to God’s gift of unity, for the sake of the world.
  • As I’ve been thinking of ‘empire’ a lot lately. Under ‘empire’ (whether of states or corporations), the powerful unite with increasing strength in order to dominate, conquer and subjugate weakness (or perceived weakness) and any form of difference that gets in the way of the increase in power of the already-powerful.

But the unity of the Spirit is unity in a very different kind of power – one that seeks not to dominate, but to serve; one that is not concerned with institutional, cultural or personal survivalism (or even religious survivalism!), but is ready to lay down its life for friendship.

We know only too well the tendencies of churches – because they are us, and we too are shaped by these cultural forces – to get caught up in patterns of relationship that look more like Empire than Reign of God. Particularly when we’re under the stress of a secular world, and threatened with the worst of contemporary threats – irrelevance.

We might be tempted as individuals and as churches to try to hold together, to present a unified front against those forces that seem to threaten us. We might be tempted to want to ignore, or do away with voices that remind us of our own fragility, or that might remind us that we haven’t got it all completely together.

But the fact of the ecumenical movement is that when we, as Christians from different traditions, walk together – and more, live together in covenant love and raise families together – we enter into a radically different experience of unity in the power of the Spirit.

To contrast, I want to say a few words about sin, and then a few words about the something new that I believe God is doing in our midst.

Sin has its roots in the desire to ‘lord over’, and shows itself in the use of power over others that subjugates, dominates, and excludes. All fancy words for the basic fact of denying the personhood of another. "lording over" many other names: patriarchy, colonialism, abuse, racism…

But there is something new being born in our midst as these many – and other – faces of ‘lording over’ (kyriarchy) are being named, turned over and transformed.

I see one of these new things in the celebration of Full Communion between the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. This is not a merger, but a much deeper exchange of recognition of friends in Christ by friends in Christ – recognizing each other fully as church, with distinct gifts to offer and to be received by each other. Friendship exists and grows in the free-flowing of gifts of our deepest selves to each other, and it eschews the tendency of one to use power to dominant, assimilate or control the other. Rather, this is a growing under, through and in, the power of the Spirit.

I also see new things being born in the shifting patterns in marital relationships, in relationships between women and men in these last few decades. The emergence of married relationships where the passion, love, and all the things of shared life together, are grown from the soil of friendship that seeks the integrity of each person as the foundation of the integrity of the relationship – well, that is something to celebrate. It’s something that the realities of inter-church families shows to me: in your faith lives, you are living in this power, not where one dominates the other, but where each beholds with deep joy and wonder, as gift, the integrity of the other’s faith life and faith tradition. This is, indeed, love in the power of the Spirit, and a very new thing being done in our midst.

I was reading one of the ‘blurbs’ for Inter-Church Families, on a display in the hallway. It reads: "Many enter into ‘mixed’ marriages believing that one tradition must dominate the other. We are living witnesses that this need not be the case." You are indeed witnesses of something new being done.

Each of these says something to me about unity in the power of the Spirit: where the values of mutuality, justice, right relationship, not dominance and submission, flourish.

This is a unity, in the power of the Spirit, that is not for its own sake, but carries with itself that grace-filled energy to reach beyond itself – whether we’re talking about inter-church families or Anglicans and Lutherans in Full Communion – that grace-filled energy to reach out into the world with the ripple-effect that real hope for transformation can have.

The simple transformative power of friendship – so powerful?? Ask anyone who has ever been lonely what the power of friendship can do in their lives. Then think again: how powerful can be the witness to this world of friends of Christ who have become friends in Christ, how powerful that witness can be!

  1. Together in Discipleship

Christian membership in this Body is unlike any other kind of membership we know in this world. So too Christian unity is unlike any other kind of coming together that we know of in this world. And so of course, Christian discipleship is unlike any other form of discipleship – like that of following a political or social leader, a teacher or even wise thinker – that we might follow in this world.

Pardon me an excursus to read from a recent address given by Sr. Joan Chittister in a speech last month to the Women’s Ordination Worldwide conference in Dublin.

The problem with Christian discipleship is that instead of simply requiring a kind of academic exercise – the implication of most other kinds of ‘discipleship’ – Christian discipleship requires a kind of living that is sure, eventually, to tumble a person from the banquet tables of the prestigious boards and the reviewing stands of presidents, and the processions of ecclesiastical knighthood to the most suspect margins of both church and society. To follow Jesus, in other words, is to follow the one who turns the world upside down, even the religious world. Real discipleship is a tipsy arrangement at the very least. People with high need for approval, social status, and public respectability need not apply. … Christian discipleship is the commitment to live a gospel life, a marginal life in this place, at this time, whatever the cost. To follow Christ is to set about fashioning a world where the standards into which we have been formed become, too often, the very standards we must ultimately foreswear. …

Christian discipleship is about living in this world the way that Jesus the Christ lived in his – touching lepers, raising donkeys from ditches on Sabbath days, questioning the unquestionable and – consorting with women! Discipleship implies a commitment to leave nets and homes, positions and securities, lordship and legalities to be now – in our own world – what the Christ was for his. …Discipleship is prepared to fly in the face of a world bent only on maintaining its own ends whatever the cost. If discipleship is what you’re here for, be not fooled! The price is a high one.

Powerful stuff. It sounds like a calling far beyond my own limited, halting walk. But it is the stuff of new creation, signs of which can be seen in our midst. I believe that God is doing a new thing in our midst. I see it in this gathering, in the stories I’m hearing shared. You are living out a radical, counter-cultural thing of integrity and great beauty –t he kind of friendship that risks greatly to allow each of you to be whom you believe God has called and consecrated you through baptism to be, shaped in the traditions that make you who you are.

This is precious and rare.

The inter-church families whom I know in my home town are mainly Roman Catholic and Mennonite couples. They give witness to a high degree of commitment in service to community. They are risk-takers, both in society and in church. They are self-conscious about their faith, are intentionally disciples first in their faith lives. They tend to be the ones at the forefront of ecumenical work, social justice advocacy and outreach, the people who roll up their sleeves to get the work done in shelters, Out of the Cold programmes, and food banks. They work hard to ensure religious formation of their own children and others’ children, of a kind that has integrity. Coincidence? I think not.

I think there’s something about living out the unity and difference in loving friendship and in the dynamism of inter-church families that is so grounded in the ministry of reconciliation that is our baptismal call that it naturally reaches out beyond itself to transform the world in the power of God’s love and in the vision of God’s kingdom. I see seeds of that here in this room, and am grateful to God for the opportunity to witness what is happening here and in your relationships. I thank you for that witness – it is precious and rare and is a gift to the whole church.

And I thank you for listening.

Dr. Eileen Scully