Remembering a 500-year-old divergence in their common faith journey, clergy of many folds, including two of our own members, came together on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 29, to bless the tie that binds them: their baptism in the Christian faith.
The Philadelphia Liturgical Institute organized “Celebrating One Baptism in Christ: An Ecumenical Commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.” The liturgical body—including Bishop Peggy Johnson and the Rev. Suzanne Duchesne of the Eastern PA Conference—gathered with about 200 worshipers at the Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Philadelphia just two days before the annual observance of Reformation Day, Oct. 31.
Reformation Day celebrates the Protestant heritage that began Oct. 31, 1517, the day Martin Luther, a rebellious German Roman Catholic priest and professor, published and famously nailed to a church door 95 criticisms against the Catholic Church. He railed mostly against the practice of preachers selling indulgences, which were certificates bought to reduce believers’ temporal punishment for committed sins. Luther’s actions ignited a schism in the Roman Catholic Church that profoundly changed Europe and birthed numerous Protestant denominations.
Clergy leaders of some of those denominations covened at the cathedral to hear homilies from Catholic and Lutheran peers and to share together in prayers, scripture readings, songs and a moving ceremony to remember their Christian baptism.
The Rev. Dennis Gill of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Pastor Gordon Lathrop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) both preached brief homilies, while other clergy offered liturgical readings, amid choral renditions of the moving, classic anthem “Deep River” and other music.
“Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” That admonition introduced scripture verses, as preachers and celebrants emphasized God’s new promise of salvation (Isaiah 43:18-20), Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his followers (John 17:1-11), and the Apostle Paul’s appeal for unity among Christians (Ephesians 4:1-6).
The clergy then renewed their baptismal confession of faith before coming forward to a baptismal font. There, as an ecumenical choir joyfully sang “Wade in the Water,” the ministers applied water as a sign to the foreheads of congregants who came forward, saying “Remember your baptism and give thanks!” They ended with a blessing and dismissal.
“It was an amazing moment of unity around the baptismal font,” recalled Bishop Peggy Johnson. “We were one in Christ, and the air of celebration and joy was unmistakable. There is still work to be done in the generations to come. But we stand on the shoulders of the work that has gone before us; and others will build on our efforts.”
“Even apart from the lamentable denominational splits among Christians, the themes of newness and maintenance of unity are important for Christians to hear,” wrote Timothy Brunk, a associate professor of theology at Villanova University, writing in the Roman Catholic blog Pray and Tell. “The liturgical celebration of our common baptism did not, of course, end divisions among us. Yet it was still a remarkable event.”
“Catholics and Baptists, Lutherans and Episcopalians, Orthodox and Presbyterians, Methodists and members of the United Church of Christ…gathered around a font given by Lutherans to Episcopalians for use in the Episcopal Cathedral,” he continued. “Ministers from different denominations encouraged people from different denominations to remember their baptism; the rite did not feature one line for Catholics and another for Lutherans, etc. I am sure that I am not the only one who left the cathedral wondering whether I am indeed making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3).
“As a member of the Philadelphia Liturgical Institute, I saw the hard work that went into the planning of the service,” said the Rev. Suzanne Duchesne, a clergy spouse who is working on her PhD degree at Drew Theological School. “The Philadelphia Cathedral conveyed a sense of the holy, and at the same time provided an intimate space to experience Word and Sacrament. I felt pride as we sang two Wesleyan hymns including “Love Divine All Loves Excelling.”
She noted especially the lament of Evangelical Lutheran pastor and liturgical scholar Dr. Lathrop. “He said we have all fallen short of Jesus’ desires for us to truly hear one another and care for one another, even as we express our differences. He reminded us of our theological and liturgical walls that separate our denominations but also divide us within our own denominations. And he called us to a path of reconciliation, offering words of assurance that indeed we do share one Lord, one faith, and one baptism.”
Duchesne continued in her recollection of this sacred, unifying service:
I couldn’t help but be reminded of our United Methodist Commission on a Way Forward. As I watched Bishop Johnson sitting among the other bishops and denominational leaders, I said a prayer for her and for all of us, as we discern together our path. I realized my own inability to truly listen at times.
The liturgy took us further up the path of hope, inviting us to remember our one baptism. We almost danced to the large font where all our bishops and ecclesial leaders stood shoulder to shoulder offering the water as a reminder that we all have been baptized in faith. As the choir bathed us with verse after verse of “Wade in the Water,” I turned to the woman seated next to me and said, “God is surely troubling the waters today.” She wholeheartedly agreed declaring “Amen.”
It poured rain as we left the cathedral. I thought about it for a moment and realized that our liturgy was being reflected back at us. The baptismal waters signed on our foreheads now fell from the sky continuing to bless us as we made our way home.