12 December 2007

When signs signify: an address of the Rev Dr Louis Weill

Here is the full text of Weill's address. Audio had been posted here earlier.

My final purpose in this address is to speak of the radical inclusiveness of Christian Initiation. I found as I developed this work, however, that I first had to explore how the sacraments signify meaning. We say some significant things at a Baptism; but if we do not mean what we say in our rites, then it does not really matter what we say, does it?


A few years ago, two friends of mine were in Rome for a holiday. One day they went to visit the cathedral church of Rome, St. John Lateran. While there, they went to spend some time in the marvelous baptistery of that church. But when they arrived at the baptistery, they were shocked by what they saw.

Within the enormous octagonal walls which anciently held a great amount of water in which Baptism took place, they found no water at all. Rather, in the middle of the octagon, there was what appeared to be an Italian bathtub, perhaps of the 17th.c. Across the two sides of the tub, there was a wooden plank; and resting upon the plank was a small bowl. The bowl was the vessel for holding the water for Baptism as the rite was currently being performed. My friends reminded me that on the walls of the baptistery was carved an extraordinary baptismal passage written by St. Leo the Great in the early 5th.c. The current set up, however, betrayed everything that Leo's words proclaimed.

Less than a year later, I was in Rome, and I decided to go to St. John Lateran to see the baptistery for myself. When I arrived there, it was exactly as my two friends had described it. But as I stood there in amazement, I heard voices coming from a nearby chapel. I went to see what was going on, and lo! it was a Baptism: not in the great baptistery in which I had been standing, but in a small adjacent chapel. In addition to a priest, a few adults were present, parents and family of the infant, I presumed. And on a table a very small bowl contained the water for the rite. I am not sure that St. Leo would even have recognized what was taking place.

Why tell this story? Why does it matter? Quite simply, it matters because our sacramental rites embody meaning, and when the mode of celebration undermines the meaning, then, I believe, we are on a slippery slope toward the trivialization of the meaning, toward the impoverishment of what is being signified.

I must make something clear at the outset or else I risk being misunderstood. I am talking about signification - not about validity. I have not the slightest doubt that even a minimal amount of water can be used for a valid celebration of Baptism. The rite I observed that day was certainly valid. The problem is that historically the Church came to see validity as the primary goal of sacramental celebration. But validity is not at the top of the scale: validity is at the bottom. Validity answers the first basic question as to whether the Church can recognize this ritual act as effecting what the Church intends. In an extremis situation, of course a minimal amount of water is adequate. The trouble is that historically this minimum standard became the common practice even when there were no extenuating circumstances, and when water was available in abundance. The extremis model became the common practice.

It was my great privilege in the 60s, to study sacramental theology with Marie-Dominique Chenu, the distinguished Dominican theologian, and one of the great lights of Vatican II. One day in class, Father Chenu startled us by saying that "in their celebration, the sacraments must border on the vulgar.” He then explained that what he meant by this is that their signification should be made abundantly clear by the manner in which a rite is celebrated. One should not have to explain that Baptism is a spiritual bath, or that the Eucharist is a sacred meal at which people actually eat and drink.

The sacraments touch our humanity in ways which correspond to human experience: in our physical humanity, you and I understand what it is to wash and become clean; we understand what it is to eat and drink and so sustain our lives. The whole sacramental system of the Church is built upon that foundation in our humanity. Father Chenu's teaching had an indelible impact upon my own ministry as a teacher of liturgy, and specifically upon my own understanding of sacramental acts and how they signify meaning.

I do not know if it is as true in Britain as it is in America, but as a society Americans have enormous difficulty in claiming the meaning of a symbol. This may be the result of the literalism of American frontier religion. Whatever the source is, Americans tend to look at religious symbols merely at the literal level. For us in the Anglican tradition for whom religious meaning takes embodied form in ritual actions, within those rituals, the physical elements, water and oil, or bread and wine, become multivalent. This means that the sacraments operate at many levels of meaning; to try to understand them merely at a literal level leads in the end only to the erosion of their meaning and significance in the life of faith.

We do not explain a symbol: we enter into a symbol, and there we are grasped by its meaning. If the signification of a symbol is eroded, then we are left only with its outer shell. The fundamental symbols of Christian faith -- which are essential in Catholic practice for the living out of that faith - embody for us the Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Through these symbols, you and I are caught up into God's redemptive work in the history of salvation.

But when the power of their signification is undermined, what are we left with? Earlier I referred to the problem which results when the mode of celebration undermines the meaning. Remember, I am not talking merely about validity: the Church has been generally clear about the minimal standard for validity in our sacramental rites. Again, I am talking about their signification - because without attention to that higher level of sacramental meaning, we risk that the rites may be reduced to merely a liturgical routine, a religious drill which clergy see to on behalf of the laity.

Yet what I want to do here today is not only to plead for modes of celebration which embody as adequately as possible the meaning of the rite. More than that, I am convinced that an impoverished sacramental practice works in a kind of parallel, a mutual inter-relatedness with the impoverishment of their meaning. In other words, not only is the richness of the ritual undermined -- as in the case of the baptistery in Rome -- there is a corresponding trivialization of the theological content which the ritual is intended to embody. There results a minismalism concerned only with validity.

Even a casual look at the history of the liturgy reveals examples of this. Let me point to one of the most obvious: in the history of the Eucharist. For centuries the Sacred Meal of Christians was celebrated in the Church without the laity receiving the Holy Gifts. The way the theology of priesthood had developed had so identified the celebrant as the only necessary communicant that the laity might attend Mass frequently without their non-communication even raising a question. Finally in the early 13th.c., the bishops decreed that laity really must receive the Sacrament once a year. This could only have happened because Communion - sacred eating and drinking - had ceased to be understood as essential to the meaning.

At the common sense level, we would say that a meal at which people do not eat and drink is rather strange. But this is the whole point of Father Chenu's comment: the signification of a sacrament is not obscure; it is manifest. At a meal people eat and drink together; so at the central act of Christian worship, as Sacred Meal, it is evident that reception of the sacrament is normative. The signification is not theoretical, it is embodied. That is the way sacraments work. Hence my title: "When signs signify:” when our rituals manifest their meaning.

With this as background, let me move more directly toward the Baptismal Covenant, both as implied by the rite of Baptism itself, and in its explicit form as found in the American Book of Common Prayer of 1979. To do this, I want first to explore with you an extraordinary passage in the final chapter of The Great Catechism by St. Gregory of Nyssa (330�395). Gregory writes of those who have "come to the grace of baptism,” and yet who are "only seemingly, and not really, regenerate.” This is a startling comment since it suggests that the sacramental act of baptism was somehow invalid. Gregory then speaks of the necessary link to which I have pointed: "For that change in our life which takes place through regeneration will not be change, if we continue in the state in which we were.” In other words, the meaning of baptism as a new birth, a dying and rising with Christ, is undermined if that new being is not somehow manifest.

"I do not see how it is possible to deem one who is

still in the same condition, and in whom there has been

no change in the distinguishing features of his nature, to

be any other than he was � (since) it is for a renovation

and change of our nature that the saving birth is


We need to be clear at this point that the terms 'valid' or 'invalid' are not in Gregory's vocabulary. Those terms, familiar enough to us, did not appear with reference to the sacraments until well after the Reformation, and at first simply meant 'true' or 'untrue'. In other words, a true sacrament meant that it conformed to the Church's intended meaning: the Church could recognize it as fulfilling its intended meaning. You can easily see how this might contribute to minimalism: just how little water can be used for the rite still to be valid? For the early centuries of Christianity this would simply have been seen as a silly question. The sign and the meaning signified were in accord: the rites embodied their meaning.

Back to Gregory of Nyssa: "it is for a renovation and change of our nature that the saving birth (Baptism) is received.” In other words, the purpose of Baptism is the creation of the new being in Christ - a new being, a changed nature. Gregory continues, "It is evident that when those evil features which mark our nature have been obliterated, a change to a better state takes place. � But if, when the bath has been applied to the body, the soul has not (been) cleansed � but the life after initiation keeps on a level with the uninitiate life, then, though it may be a bold thing to say, yet I will say it and will not shrink, in these cases the water is but water, for the gift of the Holy Spirit in no way appears in him who is thus baptismally born.”

I suspect that this last phrase made some of you rather nervous, especially those who have gone to theological college. Gregory says that the rite can be celebrated and yet not effect what it signifies. Traditional Western theology has taught us that the sacraments "be certain and sure witnesses, and effectual signs of grace.” In other words, the sacraments effect what they signify. How do we reconcile that with what Gregory says in this passage?

First let us remember that Gregory is writing in the fourth century. The persecution of Christians had ended only one generation earlier. The memory of the potential cost for professing Christian faith is still vivid. For Christians who were living in Gregory's time, conversion to Christ was the meaning of Baptism, and was the basis of a transformed way of living. In that context, it is easier for us to understand Gregory's teaching: if your life does not demonstrate this transformed way of living, then apparently "the water is but water.”

Can we reconcile that with the later teaching that the sacraments effect what they signify - or, to invoke the classic phrase, ex opere operato? It is important for us to remember that this phrase refers to God's action in the sacraments. The Church was right to affirm in later centuries that if we celebrate the rites faithfully, we can depend upon God's action to make them a means of grace. But what about the human dimension? What about our stewardship of the sacraments? The rites may be the instrumental means of God's grace, but they are not magic. If we plant a seed within a block of cement, it is no surprise if it does not grow and blossom.

Gregory is pointing us to the human side of the sacraments: he asks, what does it mean if what is signified is in no sense manifested? It should sober us to remember that both Hitler and Stalin were baptized. I think that infant Baptism offers us insight on this matter. Remember that in Gregory's time, most candidates for Baptism were adults; a hundred years later, the shift to predominantly infant Baptism was well underway.

Infant Baptism reminds us that the embodiment of the meaning of Baptism in transformed lives is always proleptic; on God's side, the rite effects what it signifies - the infant becomes fully a member of the Body of Christ. But the living of a transformed life must await growth into maturity, and this depends upon an array of "embodiments” on the human side in the care and nurture of the child, and in due course in the Christian formation which will bring the child later to make a profession of faith which as an infant could not be made.

I am not trying to explain away Gregory's teaching by noting the particular circumstances of a fourth century Christian. We cannot know if Gregory would or would not have found a vocabulary of 'validity' useful. The concept was simply not part of the sacramental vocabulary at his time. But I do think that the vigor of his declaration - and he admits that "it may be a bold thing to say,” - confronts us today with a question as relevant to us as it was in his time: is out baptismal liturgy simply a ritual pattern of words, or do we really mean what is said?

Have we for many centuries lived with a situation in which doing the ritual form - be it Baptism or Eucharist, or any other of the Church's sacramental rites - that is, doing the outward sign, has somehow been accepted as sufficient? Is this the negative underside of ex opere operato? -- it is God who acts, so we are off the hook!

Two recent publications have looked at this question in the context of our situation today. Since my focus here is Christian Initiation, I shall mention one of these only in passing because it is concerned with the Eucharist; but the underlying question is the same. My colleague in the Graduate Theological Union, the Franciscan sacramental theologian Kenan Osborne, recently published a book titled Community, Eucharist and Spirituality. In his first chapter, Fr. Osborne discusses the relation of the Eucharist to authentic Christian community as he sees this relationship revealed in the New Testament. Like Gregory of Nyssa, Kenan Osborne startles us. He asserts that in Paul's letters, "there can be no Euchaist in a community whose members do not love one another.” Put another way, the lack of love invalidates the Eucharist. Osborne develops a passionate attack on any attempt to understand the Eucharist in terms of individual piety. The Eucharist for Osborne always presumes a community, not merely a congregation, but a community, and more, a community of love.

Osborne then steps back just a bit from this precipitous edge; it is as though he suddenly remembers, "Oh yes, ex opere operato,” and so he says in his concluding summary that without such a gospel community, "any and every celebration of Eucharist becomes a diminished Eucharist.” But then he adds that without such a community, "Eucharist is meaningless.”

We see here as we saw in Gregory of Nysssa that the sacraments embody meaning. But if that meaning is undermined or eroded, what remains? This question is aimed not at the issue of validity, but rather at signification. "When signs signify,” then the outward ritual form and its meaning confirm each other. As Fr. Chenu taught, the depth of meaning is manifest: the sign and what is signified are essentially one.

The second recent publication is an article by David Batchelder. His title startles us: 'Baptismal Renunciations: Making Promises We Do Not Intend to Keep'. As the title indicates, the focus of the article is the renunciations which, in one form or another, are an essential part of all baptismal liturgies. As the subtitle of this address indicates, my purpose here is to examine "the Baptismal Covenant in its Sacramental Context.” So my focus is different from that of Batchelder. But I have found some of his comments on the renunciations useful with regard to the Baptismal Covenant as well.

The problem which Batchelder's article points to is the same one that we heard about in the words of Gregory of Nyssa. Batchelder writes,

"I worry that our communities have learned to

practice a way of speaking ritually that not only

permits false witness at the font, but establishes

it as a norm. We make claims concerning sin

and evil, but often live as if we have not really

considered the implications. Sometimes I

wonder whether the church believes there are

any serious implications at all. Ritual practice

can give the appearance that accountability

is fulfilled simply by one's participation in the

rites with the moral weight residing in the rhetoric.”

Batchelder continues his passionate cry of the heart with these


"The ethical responsibility of baptismal vows seems

more associated with using strong language that,

paradoxically, absolves the community from the

cross rather than obligates it to the cross. As a

result, ritual performance at the font is in danger

of becoming a scandal of saying what we do not

really mean.”

Batchelder concludes,

"I am concerned that we have claimed permission

to speak a strong truth without the ethical obli-

gation to live the strength of it as suggested by the

language. In such a practice, the potency of the

ritual speech itself is sufficient to excuse weak

practice. Even more dangerous still, the speech

is accepted as a substitute for practice. The late

Neil Postman spoke of this as the 'demeaning of


Can you hear an echo of Gregory of Nyssa's word in what Batchelder is saying?

Keeping this in mind, let us apply what has been said to what is called in the American Book of Common Prayer (1979) the Baptismal Covenant. The use of that title is new to Prayer Book evolution. I believe, however, that what it says grows out of what has already been present in the evolution of the Book of Common Prayer over the centuries. In the 1979 rite, the title 'The Baptismal Covenant' comes at the point where historically the Apostles' Creed was recited, as in all of the English Books from 1549 to 1662, by the Minister of Baptism. In 1549 in fact, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer kept the medieval Sarum pattern in which the candidate simply responded, "Credo,” "I believe.” In the American Books, from 1789 onward, the candidates were asked to affirm belief in "all the Articles of the Christian Faith, as contained in the Apostles' Creed �,” substituted for the actual recitation of the Creed by the Minister as indicated in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

In the 1979 Book, The Creed is proclaimed in response to the threefold questions, "Do you believe in God the Father?

� Son? � and Holy Spirit?” I want to emphasize that this affirmation of faith in the Triune God is the first and foundational part of the Baptismal Covenant. The Creed is followed by five questions which have become the focus of criticism and are even treated negatively as though these questions stood alone to form the Baptismal Covenant. And so I emphasize again, the foundation of the Covenant is the affirmation of faith in the Triune God.

For those of you who are not familiar with the American rite, I shall list the questions:

--- "Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and

fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the


--- "Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever

you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?”

--- "Will you proclaim by word and example the good

news of God in Christ?”

--- "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving

your neighbor as yourself?”

--- "Will you strive for justice and peace among all

people, and respect the dignity of every hnuman


To each of these questions, the candidates for Baptism and the entire assembly respond, "I will, with God's help.” This inclusion of the assembly thus makes the occasion of Baptism the occasion also for the renewal of the baptismal commitment of all who are gathered at the liturgy.

Peter Toon, a priest of the Church of England who now lives in the United States, has been harshly critical of these five questions. Toon isolates the questions from their context. I shall give you his own words.

"What is taken absolutely seriously is the so-called

'Baptismal Covenant', and within it the part where

the baptized commit themselves to striving for peace

and justice in the world and recognizing the dignity

of all persons. � This commitment is � roughly the

equivalent of the social and political agenda of

the United Nations to improve the world.”

Toon insists that the Church is a divine society and that Baptism is incorporation into that society. He states this, an assertion with which we agree, as though the Baptismal Covenant stood somehow in contradiction of that. The Church must not, he says, take its agenda from the world. The American Baptismal Covenant, he says, is primarily concerned only with social implications. This seems to reflect an inadequate under-standing of the theology of Incarnation: "God so loved the world that he came.”

Toon is only able to make this assertion by ignoring the fact that the Covenant begins with the affirmation of creedal Trinitarian faith. Since I was a member of the Commission which wrote the 1979 rite, I know what we intended: for us the questions flowed from the affirmation of faith. It is important to note that in the English rite of 1662, the Creed is followed by a question which was taken into the American Prayer Books prior to that of 1979. The question is:

"Wilt thou then obediently keep God's holy will

and commandments, and walk in the same all

the days of thy life?”

Our intention in the five questions of the American rite was quite simple: we felt that it was necessary and pastorally useful to spell out - as it were, to flesh out - the implications of keeping God's holy will and commandments. It is possible, of course, to hear these questions, and, as we heard from David Batchelder's article, to say "what we do not really mean.” As we have seen, that danger has existed in the liturgy at least as far back as Gregory of Nyssa. The members of our Commission knew that full well. But it was our hope that by being explicit about some of the basic implications of our baptismal commitment - "to continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship; to continue in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers; to persevere in resisting evil, and if we sin to repent and return to the Lord; to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ; to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to strive for justice and peace among all people; and to respect the dignity of every human being,” - that thus the Baptismal Covenant would become a constant basis for reflection and a reference point for catechetical instruction. The final commitment, to strive for justice and peace and to respect the dignity of every human being, was for us on the Commission the fulfillment of Paul's wonderful words that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither bond nor free, neither male nor female,” in its extensive implication that there must be neither black nor white, neither gay nor straight � and the list will continue as long as human beings struggle for justice in the name of Christ.

The hope that the Covenant would assume a significant place in the general life of the Church has been abundantly fulfilled. The Covenant is now often used in preaching and teaching, and has sent down its roots deeply into the awareness of many in our Church. And it has become very common for the Covenant to be renewed not only at a Baptism and at the Easter Vigil, but also at other major events in the life of the Church, and increasingly at Ordinations so that those who are to be ordained renew their baptismal commitment with the whole assembly before they go on to make their ordination vows. This is theologically significant in that Ordination is thus seen as the fruit of the discernment of particular gifts for the ministry of Word and Sacrament for the People of God rather than as an elevation to a higher status. The ordained person lives out his or her baptismal identity within the larger context of the common baptismal vocation.

Sorry Mr. Toon, but I have seen nothing but good fruit

springing from recovery of a baptismal ecclesiology. At the same time, we cannot be na�ve nor unrealistic in our expectations. No liturgical text can of itself renew the life of the Church. And so I come to my final point: it is an absolute imperative that much more energy be devoted on the part of all of us to the ministry of Christian formation. Now as I am nearing the time for retirement, I often find myself saying to my students, "Teach� in season and out of season, teach. Our people are hungry to deepen their understanding of the faith. I have had this confirmed for me time and time again. Whether it be the catechumenate, or adult education during the coffee hour, or an open forum where questions can be asked and engaged respectfully: all such occasions should be seen as opportunities to nourish God's people, to strengthen faith. It is imperative for the Church to claim such opportunities at every level of our corporate life.

I am convinced that much of the conflict in our Communion today has resulted from not making basic education and continuing education a higher priority for laity and clergy alike: education in Scripture, education in basic theology, the exploring of moral issues, mining the riches of our extraordinary liturgical tradition. Throughout my ministry as a teacher of liturgy in seminaries, now for over four decades, I have regularly been involved in lay education in parishes. And this has not meant asking people to read big, fat books. My goal has always been to enable people to reflect on the meaning of their faith and to connect faith in Jesus Christ with the realities of their daily lives. The fruit of this has been to enter more deeply into the symbols of our redemption which form the central meaning of the sacramental life.

To end, I want to return to the baptistery at St. John Lateran in Rome. On the walls of that great baptistery we find the extraordinary words of St. Leo the Great which continue to proclaim to us the meaning of the wonderful gift of incorporation into Christ:

"Here is born in Spirit-soaked fertility

a brood destined for another City,

begotten by God's blowing

and borne upon this torrent

by the Church their virgin mother.

Reborn in these depths they reach for heaven's realm,

the born-but-once unknown by felicity.

This spring is life that floods the world,

the wounds of Christ its awesome source.

Sinner sink beneath this sacred surf

that swallows age and spits up youth.

Sinner here scour sin away down to innocence,

for they know no enmity who are by

one font, one Spirit, one faith made one.

Sinner shudder not at sin's kind and number,

For those born here are holy.”

They were drenched in grace.

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