An Invalid Word?

If you were in worship last Sunday for our latest baptism, you may have noticed a subtle change in the language I used during that sacrament.  First some background:

It seems that thousands of Catholic baptisms in the Phoenix, Arizona area are being labeled invalid because of a grammatical error spoken during the sacrament.  Father Andres Arango, who has served most of his ministry in Phoenix, consistently used the following words during baptisms:

“We baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  

That is the phrase that has invalidated countless baptisms; all because of one word: “We.”  The correct and only valid phrasing, according to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is:

“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  

This is because only the clergy carry the authority to baptize and they act on behalf of the church, not those gathered.  Father Arango has sincerely apologized for this unintentional error, but it has caused great upheaval because it calls into question whether other sacraments are available to those whose baptisms he officiated.

Not surprisingly, I don’t think Father Arango did anything wrong–theologically speaking–which is why I used (and will continue to use) the words “We baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

“We” is, in fact, the all-important word here because as clergy, I am acting on behalf of the gathered people of God in that moment.  I officiate on behalf of the church and the church is the people; particularly those physically gathered for the sacrament.  

“We” should be used because it reminds everyone of their part in the baptismal covenant: That we all act on Christ’s behalf to bring this person into the Christian community and support them on their journey of faith.  I am only there to represent the “we”.

It may sound like a very subtle difference, but it speaks volumes about our understanding of the church and our shared ministry.  

Do I have the authority to change the language of the United Church of Christ Book of Worship from which I read this liturgy?  Within reason, yes.  “We” is in keeping with UCC theology and our Book of Worship offers the option of “You are baptized in the name of…” so this is not out of keeping with the flexibility that is possible.  

Also (scandalous though it may be!), during pre-baptismal counseling I also invite people to other words for the trinity other than “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” knowing that these traditional, more patriarchal words may create a barrier to God’s grace for some.  Most, however, opt for the traditional words for this occasion.

Language is important.  Replacing one word with another can make a world of difference and, in this case, it can say more than we realize!

See you in church,

–Rev. Dominic