Feature Article No: 03/21
13 October 2021
By Susan Kim (*)
A church wants to receive a Christian who was baptised in a different church. A woman wants to marry someone from another faith tradition. A child is growing up in an inter-church family.
These real-life situations are evidence that thinking about mutual recognition of baptism shouldn’t be relegated solely to lecture halls in theological institutions. Recognising that mutual recognition of baptism—and the obstacles toward it—is an issue that affects the daily lives of countless Christians across Europe and beyond. The Conference of European Churches (CEC), through its Thematic Group on Ecclesiology and Mission, has initiated a study process to explore this topic.
The study seeks to identify agreements concerning baptism within CEC Member Churches, and explore official guidelines with regard to the reception of Christians moving from one church to another, recognition of and pastoral care for inter-church families, and Christian initiation, religious education, and pastoral care of children raised in inter-church families.
In December 2020, CEC sent a questionnaire to its member churches to gauge both their experiences and practices regarding baptism. After gathering responses received by March 2021, the CEC Thematic Group on Ecclesiology and Mission is now hosting bilateral and multilateral dialogues exploring the topic.
“On one hand, we have gathered stories of real-life experiences from people whose lives are affected—both positively and negatively—by the mutual recognition of baptism, or, conversely, by the obstacles to such mutual recognition,” said Katerina Pekridou, CEC Executive Secretary for Theological Dialogue. “On the other hand, we are harvesting the knowledge from experts who have been working in this field for many years. Together, these equally valuable inputs are forming a study process that is already beginning to yield fruitful insights.”
In a December 2020 CEC webinar, theologians discussed challenges to the mutual recognition of baptism, summarised theological positions in different church traditions, and suggested possible solutions.
In the webinar, Rev. Dr Dagmar Heller, study secretary for Orthodoxy and director at the
Institute for Ecumenical Studies and Research in Bensheim, Germany, explained that, generally, churches can be grouped into two categories with regard to understanding baptism: paedobaptist churches and credobaptist churches. “The credobaptist churches again contain two groups, namely those with an exclusive understanding of the church and those for whom the borders of the church are not linked to a visible church,” said Heller. As a consequence, some churches do not recognise the baptism of (some) other churches. She also elaborated on some of the possible ways forward in the ecumenical debate on this problem.
Baptism and diverse theological perspectives
Rev. Dr Tomi Karttunen, from the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland, reflected on whether a formal declaration on the recognition of baptism makes sense, as well as the resulting theological and practical consequences.
“Baptism is the foundational sacrament of unity,” said Karttunen. “The recognition of baptism is crucial for ecclesiology and other Christian doctrines in this context.”
In other words, the mystery of baptism is a sacrament of faith and incarnation, reflected Karttunen. “At the same time, it is based on the work of the Holy Spirit through the word of God in a hidden but real and effective way,” said Karttunen. “Through faith in Christ’s presence in us and through the word in the Spirit we receive the gifts of salvation, and above all Christ himself, in a holistic way.”
Karttunen gave an example of a practical application of the intimate connection between baptism and Christian life: the custom of commemorating ones' own Christian baptism.
“The churches generally emphasise the primacy of God’s initiative in their baptismal theology,” said Karttunen. “An approach which points to the cognitive or conscious nature of the faith can be seen as problematic for those who are either too young or whose disability means they can never articulate their faith.”
Nonetheless, Karttunen believes that the recognition of baptism gives us hope and encourages us to work more deliberately to promote shared Christian witness and service.
“As Christian churches and Member Churches of CEC, we all emphasise that faith, baptism, and growing in faith – that is, living as Christians and disciples of Christ – are intertwined,” said Karttunen. “They are fundamental parts of Christian and ecclesial existence, and the basis for witnessing and serving together.”
Dr David Heith-Stade, from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, shared notes on baptism and Christian division in the Eastern Orthodox tradition.
He described some of the reasons behind the reluctance of Greek church fathers to accept baptisms celebrated outside the visible communion of the universal church. “Most fathers considered that the universal church must be visible and that it is the exclusive abode of the Holy Spirit, who is the source of all sacraments,” he said. “Some fathers believed that the custom of their local church when it came to receive converts reflected apostolic tradition, but these fathers often did not consider that all groups of Christians outside the visible communion of the universal church are not the same and cannot therefore automatically be treated in the same way.”
Heith-Stade also spoke of the impact of the separation between the Western Church (Roman Catholic Church) and Eastern Patriarchates (Eastern Orthodox Churches) as a drawn-out process continuing for centuries from the 9th century until 15th century.
“There are documented examples of rebaptism from both sides, but also other ways of accepting converts between the Western Church and the Eastern Churches,” he said.
(*) Susan Kim is a freelance journalist from the United States.