Most of the headlines in religious news over the last couple of weeks have been dominated by the abdication of Pope Benedict. Though not unprecedented, this has not happened in hundreds of years and has therefore generated lots of speculation about who the next pope will be, how and when the conclave will take place, and whether having a “pope emeritus” will matter to his successor.
At the same time, the Presbyterian News Service has reported about a new agreement between Catholic and Reformed Christian denominations to recognize each others’ baptisms. This is an important step in intra-faith relations, accomplished after seven years of discussions by Christian Churches Together in the USA, an ecumenical network created in 2001.
Here is the link for the PNS story: http://www.pcusa.org/news/2013/2/14/catholic-reformed-churches-agree-baptism/
What makes this so important? For years, inequalities in the recognition of baptism have not only confused many Christians, it has harmed our ability to act in unity as the body of Christ. Certainly, I do not believe – and do not expect – that all Christians will agree on every aspect of faith and tradition, but baptism is something that we all hold in common.
Reformed Christians consider baptism to be one of the two sacraments of the church (along with Holy Communion) because Christ both participated in it and advocated it as something to his followers – those that would become the church – should continue to do. Jesus himself was baptized in the Jordan River, inaugurating his ministry. But, John was not the first to baptize. Jews had practiced ceremonial washing for centuries, but when John did it in the wilderness, it was a welcome to all – those considered saints and sinners alike – to repent of their sins, change their ways, and join together in God’s name.
This ecumenical agreement takes another step in saying that although might belong to different historic denominations, we are united in Christ. Ours in not better, nor more right, than another; and yet our beliefs are not inferior.
To outsiders, it probably seems that seven years is a long time to spend negotiating this agreement. For the ecumenical representatives, it probably felt the same way. But, I see it as taking one step toward greater unity among Christians – one step closer to being one Body of Christ.