Study Paper: United Methodist Baptismal Ritual at 25 Years, Part 1

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

Background: Baptism and Our Mission
Three developments in the past 25 years have profoundly reshaped United Methodist baptismal theology and refocused The United Methodist Church around the sacrament of baptism.

First, the 1988 General Conference adopted The United Methodist Hymnal (published 1989) as the official ritual of The United Methodist Church. The new hymnal included three versions of a significantly revised baptismal ritual (Baptismal Covenants I, II, and IV). This revised ritual was far more grounded in early Christian, ecumenical and Wesleyan precedents than its antecedents had been.

Then, in 1992, General Conference commissioned the creation of an official doctrinal statement on our theology and practice of baptism. The result was "By Water and the Spirit," originally adopted in 1996, and subsequently reaffirmed in 2004 and 2012. The 2004 General Conference adopted legislation that put the recommendations of BWAS about membership, including the use of the vows in Baptismal Covenant I, II and IV (and not III) into practice, thereby, in effect, rendering Baptismal Covenant III obsolete. The 2008 General Conference further adapted two of the vows (United Methodist Church and local congregation), leading to the current authorized form of our baptismal ritual.

Finally, concurrent with but parallel to the development of By Water and the Spirit, General Conference adopted a denominational mission statement in 1996: "To make disciples of Jesus Christ." In 2008, General Conference added "for the transformation of the world."

Though the development of the mission statement focused on discipleship was parallel to the development of our baptismal ritual and theology, these two developments also deeply influenced each other. Those working on the baptismal ritual and statement understood and taught that the baptismal vows (all of them, not just prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness) were more than a statement admitting persons to church membership. As in early Christianity as early Methodism, they saw these vows as the foundation of a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ.

Taken together, these larger movements working in parallel have led our Church to the place be able to link baptism and the baptismal vows directly to our stated mission.

But that's only if we use the baptismal vows that way. That's only if we actively teach them as the basis for discipleship, not simply as words to be used in a ritual. And that's only if we actually use our ritual as provided in the first place.

The Study
As part of my work in support of the 2013-2016 Ministry Study Commission, I conducted a brief study to determine the degree of use of the baptismal ritual and the ways the vows are actively taught as the basis for Christian discipleship beyond their use in the ritual itself.

I created a brief survey on SurveyMonkey, distributed a link to all District Superintendents in the connection, as well as via multiple UM related Facebook groups, and encouraged all pastors in the connection to complete the survey.

The survey included two required questions and an optional question to make further follow-up possible.

Data was collected over a two week period, from September 6-22.

In total, 546 persons completed the survey within this timeframe, representing the five US jurisdictions relatively equally (a low of 15.5% from the Western Jurisdiction to a high of 23.7 for the South Central Jurisdiction). One person each responded from three of the Central Conferences (Central and Southern Europe, Congo, West Africa). No one responded from the Africa, Germany, Northern Europe, or Philippines Central Conferences.

Additionally, I contacted a random 10% sample of those who identified a willingness to be contacted to detail any specific teaching they offered beyond preparation of candidates for baptism or presiding at the services of the baptismal covenant in worship.


Question 1: (forced choice, “other” to allow comments)
How does your congregation use the official United Methodist baptismal ritual provided in The United Methodist Hymnal, The United Methodist Book of Worship, or the General Board of Discipleship website?

Answer Options Response Percent Response Count

We use it as provided. 58.1% 317

We use the vows and "creed" as provided, but adapt or omit other parts. 25.3% 138

We use it as a guide, but do not use much of it verbatim. 13.2% 72

We do not use it. 3.5% 19

Other (please specify) 69

The majority of respondents (58.1%) indicated they use the baptismal ritual as provided. A strong minority (38.5%) indicate they use only parts of the ritual, or use it only as a guide without using its vows or other element verbatim. Among those responding “other,” 22 indicated they did not use the vows or creed as provided at all.

How do we interpret a “compliance rate” of roughly 60% and a “variance” rate of a little over 40%?

On the one hand, we might be encouraged with a rate of compliance as high as nearly 60%. 25 years of approved use is not a long time. It was the early to mid-1990s before the majority of United Methodist congregations had purchased the “new hymnal” either in print or floppy/CD format. Since we had not “settled” our baptismal theology until 1996. (“By Water and the Spirit”), it would have been much easier and probably most common for congregations to use whatever appeared in the hymnals they already owned, whether (former) Methodist or EUB. With all of these considerations in mind, we might say our current ritual, which differs profoundly in many respects from its immediate predecessors, has been in “wide distribution” for at most 18 years.

At the same time, many United Methodists perceive our official ritual to function more as an important guide than as a canonical text authorized for use by General Conference (contra ¶16 and Article XXII of the Articles of Religion). The prevalence and strength of this view may help account for the fairly large percentage of congregations in this sample (41.9%) indicating they do not use the baptismal ritual in the form provided. Since there is a perception that use of our ritual may be more or less optional, a nearly 60% compliance rate at this point may be a positive sign, indeed.

On the other hand, when we look at the 41.9% who make significant adaptations to the established ritual, or treat it as a guide, or do not use it at all, we may need to begin to ask ourselves what their adaptations and their rationale for adaptations mean. This was the point of allowing comments under the selection “Other” in this question.

In examining these comments, two significant trends come to the fore. About a third of the respondents indicate they use only the vows, creed, congregational response and the words at baptism, in one form or another (not necessarily verbatim). Most of these specifically say they omit the creed entirely, which has the effect of removing any Trinitarian affirmation by the congregation, or indeed, much if any congregational participation at all. It also means a critical part of our Discipline-mandated vows (paragraph 217) are not being affirmed. An implication of this form of truncation of our baptismal rite may be that baptism is seen primarily as “the work of the elder/pastor, the people consenting.”

This stands at variance with the understanding of the role of the elder/pastor and of the laity provided in the Ordinal, “By Water and the Spirit” and the Book of Discipline. All three of these speak of the elder’s role as “administrator” of the sacrament of baptism. Administration does not mean “doing the entire rite.” Rather it means making sure all things related to the rite, including preparation of candidates and sponsors, are properly cared for.

In our ritual, the elder/pastor asks the questions, leads the thanksgiving over the water, and baptizes. However, our ritual also provides for a robust congregational participation throughout the entire rite, from presentation of candidates, to affirming the creed together, to participating in unison at several points during the thanksgiving over the water, to having representatives present for the laying on of hands after baptism, not to mention congregational affirmations and acts of welcoming the newly baptized or professing members. As with the Great Thanksgiving, the Thanksgiving over the water is the prayer of the whole gathered community led (not simply performed) by its authorized presider.

I would add this additional caution. Given the relatively high rate of truncating our ritual, and the specific ways it is truncated to reduce the role of the congregation, it may well be the case that even those who do not truncate our ritual may bring to it a similar understanding of the role of the pastor/elder as “confecter of the sacrament” while the people “consent” rather than the “work of the Triune God and of the people” which the elder/pastor administers.

Part 2 of this study will look at how and to what degree United Methodist congregations and clergy are intentionally teaching persons to live out the vows of the baptismal covenant as the basis of Christian discipleship.

Part 3 of this series will offer some suggestions about what those next steps might be.