09 May 2009

Our shared baptism in Christ

Patrick Comerford with Mrs Margaret Copeland, Official Visitor from the Methodist Church, at the General Synod in Armagh (Photograph: David Wynne).

Patrick Comerford

The General Synod of the Church of Ireland continues meeting in Armagh today. In the morning we had a lengthy debate on the finances of the Church of Ireland during the reports of the Representative Church Body and the Church of Ireland Pensions Board. Geoffrey McMaster, Eimhin Walsh and Ian Poulton raised important questions about ethical investments, the banks and the arms trade – but must have gone away with the feeling they had never been answered.

The Bishop of Meath, the Most Revd Richard Clarke, proposed and I seconded the debate on the report of the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue this afternoon. During the debate we also tabled Motion No 6, which says:

“That the General Synod is of the view that the time is right for the different Christian traditions in Ireland to explore afresh together a common theology of baptism and to share insights concerning their baptismal discipline and practice. The Synod accordingly instructs the Commission for Christian Unity and Dialogue to make this issue a priority on its agenda.”

Seconding that motion, I said:

“When it comes to enthusiasm and lack of enthusiasm in the Church, I can see your initial lack of enthusiasm for this motion as your eyes glaze over.

“But, in terms of enthusiasm, let me tell you the story of two churches that stood side-by-side on the same street, and tried continually to poach each other’s members.

“One hung out a banner that proclaimed: ‘We are the Easter people, and our song is Allelulia!’

“The other church promptly hung out a banner that declared: ‘We are the Christmas people, and our song is ‘Ding, Dong, merrily on high.’

“But we are the Easter people. In Baptism we have died with Christ and we have been raised to new life in him.

“It’s not signing the vestry roll that makes us members of the Church. It’s not paying into the sustentation fund that makes us members of the Church. It’s baptism that makes us members of the Body of Christ.

“And we tear the body of Christ apart every time we deny that someone’s baptism has made them members of the Body of Christ, and we tear it apart. If we really believed that would we need an Anglican Covenant? I regret the intemperate and rude words about our fellow Christians and sister Churches yesterday.

“I was moved to tears by the words in the hymn that we sang at our worship this morning: ‘The love of God is broader than the measure of our mind ... we make this love too narrow by false limits of our own; and we magnify his strictness with a zeal he will not own.’

“I am the godfather for children who have been baptised in both the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. My archbishop is here so I won’t say whether I have ever broken the rules in those churches when it comes to receiving Communion. But at grassroots, local level, the ordinary practice of lay people, the sesnus fidelium, is teaching us something: they accept our baptism, our eucharist and our ministry.

“Each time we deny someone who is baptised is part of the Body of Christ we tear that Body of Christ apart on the Cross once again.

“In baptism we have died to Christ and have been raised to live his risen life. But each time our words , our actions, deny another Christian’s baptism, we try to roll the stone back over the grave.

“There is only one baptism. It is foundational for our ecclesiology, our understanding of the Church.

“And so I have great pleasure in seconding this motion.”

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