On CWOB: I May be a Heretic
It seems that I have failed to convince my e-audience that CWOB should be permitted. Derek recently wrote up a piece for Daily Episcopalian against it, and it looks to me as if he has broad support. As his position remains the official--canonical--position of TEC, and of much of the rest of Christianity as well, I'm compelled to consider: Did I go wrong here? Maybe I did; for all I really know, I may be a heretic. Arius could have felt justified with his old-school logic, and he might have gone to the grave unconvinced; just so, my unshaken conviction does not imply the truth of my position.
Maybe Derek et al's tenacity is at least in part a function of TEC's success in liturgical formation. It may be, as the BCP '79 is almost thirty years old, his voice represents a formed conviction among the first generation of Episcopalians raised entirely--or mostly--within the BCP '79. And there is no way of getting around the centrality of Holy Baptism, and the Baptismal Covenant, in the BCP '79. CWOB from such a perspective threatens to displace the rightful place of Holy Baptism in our liturgical life, and to do so for largely unarticulated liturgical reasons at odds with the liturgical format, and tradition, set forth in the BCP '79. Of course, this is not to say only the BCP '79 figures in their response to CWOB, as the BCP '79 in many places obviously reaches beyond itself and its own denomination.
If I really am a heretic given my continuing stand in favor of permitting CWOB, it is--I should hope!--merely material. Our community, by which I mean to include Anglican churches and movements most broadly, has not really progressed to the point of having a clear conceptual framework within which to argue about the permissibility of CWOB. We have clearer liturgical forms, and to some extent they may do our theology for us, but the problem is liturgy is just too rich for theology. It cannot be limited to/exhaustively expressed in theology; like Scripture, liturgy underdetermines theology in part because theology just is not the main point of liturgy or Scripture. At its best, I submit, Anglicanism understands this about liturgy and Scripture.
The consequences of liturgical (and even more: Scriptural) underdetermination are hard to live with. For instance, it may be that life with the BCP '79 and associated liturgies forms a sensibility under which CWOB betrays the nature of Baptism and more besides. But due to the richness of the liturgy, the very same BCP '79 may form a contrary sensibility under which denying the permissibility of CWOB betrays...the nature of Baptism and more besides.
A paragraph like this from Derek's article is to the point (brakets added):
...[A] the message of the Gospel is not simply a message of hospitality alone. Scripture also insists upon the reality and the responsibility of the covenant community. [B] True Christian hospitality is a sharing of not merely of things or of time—as valuable as these are. [C] Through these vehicles it is a sharing of what God has done for us, a sharing through both deeds and words, [D] and an invitation for the stranger to remain a stranger no longer but to enter the covenant community through Baptism.
I take it Derek is summarizing his case here. But note how much of what Derek says could be accepted as-is by a proponent of CWOB. The call for responsibility/commitment along with hospitality he makes in [A]? Nothing about CWOB implies a rejection of responsibility or even a deferral of commitment. The point in [B] that true Christian hospitality is more than sharing things and time? That flies with CWOB too, where the risen Jesus and the love of the Trinity are shared, neither of which are merely things in time. And of course we may share our story, the things God in Christ has done for us that Derek refers to in [C], even with CWOB. Finally, an invitation to Baptism, mentioned in [D], is compatible with--and even called for--by CWOB. In short, it is very difficult to see where the sound reasons for rejecting the permissibility of CWOB are when CWOB can enfold and incorporate so many of the practices of concern to its critics. But behind the argumentative critique here, note something much more important: how the underdetermination of theology by liturgy is an issue. The various practices Derek notes and mentions as part of his case, most of which are connected to liturgical action and spirituality,can fit well both with forbidding and permitting CWOB. They won't "do the deciding" for us alone.
I'll close with a tenuous observation. The Episcopalian center-left includes groups formed in various ways by contrary sensibilities, in spite of their common and firm devotion to Jesus, the authority of Scripture, and the liturgy of the BCP. One of the center-left's growing segments is low-church, connected to the emerging church movement and left-evangelical emphasis on justice (thinking Tony Compolo)--I think of venerable Episcopalian churches with stonework and stained glass flying rainbow banners inside and sporting portraits of notables like Martin Luther King while taking pointed license with various shortcomings in the BCP's official forms. If there is a constituency for CWOB in the Episcopal Church, it is here. And if that constituency really is growing, and will continue to do so, there will be a reckoning on CWOB on the level of General Convention soon. We had best continue to learn to speak one another's language before that day, lest that day be another occasion for division without comprehension.