Walter Brueggemann: On Sacramental Pronouns

As a regular church goer, I love to fall back into the familiar phrase and cadences of the liturgy. While I am a low-church Protestant, I have great appreciation for the recital of the classical liturgy. I take its familiar words as expansive poetic articulation of the mystery of faith, and so do not worry very much about the specificities. I take the sum of the liturgical cadences to be much more than the sum of its parts that I do not stop to parse.

My long practice of liturgy with access to a variety of ecclesial articulations, however, did not prepare me for the quite unexpected crisis in the liturgy reported in our local paper. On February 17, 2022 the Record-Eagle reported a piece from Phoenix entitled, “Baptisms by Arizona Priest Presumed Invalid Due to Error.” The report concerned Father Andres Arango who served as a priest in Arizona for sixteen years. During that time he regularly baptized new believers with the formula, “We baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” In my Free Church tradition, we might have quibbled about the use of the Trinitarian formula! But in the less humorous response of the Catholic Church, the objection (“error!”)  concerns the use of the plural pronoun “we” that, according to the Vatican, made all of the baptisms of Father Arango invalid. The church insists on the singular pronoun, “I baptize.” So now, the paper reports, there is an eager effort to identify all of those wrongly baptized who must be rebaptized.

Just five days later (February 22, 2022), the Record-Eagle has a second story on the case entitled, “Botched Baptisms Roiled Michigan Church?” It turn out that this same priest, Andres Arango, was previously a priest in Troy, Michigan and regularly used the same mistaken baptismal formula with a plural pronoun. This in Michigan or in Arizona, the church has had to be busy rectifying the priestly “error.”

I must confess I was not and am not alarmed about the plural pronoun. It seems just right to me. In the first article it is reported that the “errant priest” was using the plural pronoun to make baptism “more of a communal affair including parents, godparents and the communty” with the purpose of “welcoming a new member into the church.” OMG! Who would have thought baptism could be a “communal affair,” and would ever have contemplated that it was a welcome to a new member into the community of faith? I judge that only the most reactionary scholastics would be affronted by such contemplation. In the second article the explanation of the “error” is even less compelling. “It is not the ‘we’ of the congregation doing the baptizing, but the “I” of Jesus Christ, acting through the priest and deacon, that makes a baptism valid.” That seems to me as a remarkably novel mode of reasoning. After all, Jesus never baptized anyone! If one reads about the mass baptisms by Peter in the Book of Acts, moreover, I hazard that Peter had no sacramental awareness that he was acting in the role of Jesus Christ.

It is not Jesus who welcomes folk into the church. It is the church that does the welcome through its ministry.

The only conclusion that I could draw is that the hierarchy of the church wants to protect and underscore the singular authority of the priest who controls the sacrament. Thus the debate appears to arise from a concern to protect and maintain authority, power, privilege, and preeminence. The objection is odd since the bishops of the church have not hesitated, for a long time, to use the “royal we” in their pronouncements. And when they do, the “mystery of faith” is crowded out by the “mystery of the church.”

This all strikes me as an absurd fluff about very little. It is nonetheless an opportunity to think afresh about the communal nature of the Christian congregation and of the need for a “rightly ordered” ministry. I have no doubt that a “rightly ordered” ministry is essential for the church, but as a low-church pastor, I regard that as a functional requirement and not as an ontological reality. Of course this an old quibble in the church and arguments are long mustered on both sides of it. It is hard for me, nonetheless, to imagine that a “mistaken” pronoun in the recital of the liturgy could lead to a frantic effort to identify its “victims” as candidates for rebaptism. After all, in cases of emergency, anyone can baptize. And every time it happens, the one baptizes acts in and for the whole church. It is this common conviction concerning baptism that is at the root of all ecumenical possibility!

Thus we might rightly reflect, yet again, on Paul’s great articulation of the unity of the church and the requirement of a variety of gifts for a well-ordered ministry within that community. Our reasoning might include three moves. First, Paul’s great accent on the unity of the Body of the church. This imagery of the body means that every member, every element of the church, is important and has a role to play. That of course is why we sing the church:

We share each other’s woes, our mutual burdens bear;
and often for each other flows the sympathizing tear.
(“Blessed be the Tie that Binds.”)

We are indeed bound together and to each other in deep caring dimensions that go well beneath our reasoning. Or in a hymn we no longer sing in the church because of its martial imagery:

We are not divided, all one body we,
one in hope and doctrine, one in charity.
(“Onward Christian Soldiers”.)

What better than to be “one in doctrine, confessing the same narrative, one in hope that is best expressed in lyrical imagination. And one in charity, being generously grateful together. Or together we lean on the everlasting arms that make us all together “safe and secure.” It is a fellowship!

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms, leaning, leaning,
safe and secure from all alarms,
leaning on the everlasting arms.
(“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”)

We could imagine, in such a fellowship of solidarity, that we might say “we” to welcome new members!

But second, Paul is careful, in his extended articulation, to identify and take seriously very distinctive roles and functions in the church that he terms “a variety of gifts, a variety of services, and a variety of activities” (v. 5). He names some of these roles and functions; we may believe that his list is representative and not exhaustive. Thus we may imagine that over time the church might require many different roles and functions in order to perform the future of the whole body. Thus no doubt room is made for ministers who baptize, who are entrusted with that responsibility as one of a variety of gifts.

Thus Paul articulates both the claim of the whole body and the function of the parts. Paul does not (and apparently does not need) to sort out all of this. As a result the two sides of Paul’s argument are left as the endlessly continuing work of the church to adjudicate the claims of community and leadership. While the Reformation, at least in theory if not in practice, made great claims for the priesthood of all, the catholic (small “c”) tradition makes large claims for the specificity of priestly leadership as a requirement for the “right order” of the body. No doubt the baptismal matter concerning the work of Father Arango in Arizona and Michigan reflects the on-going adjudication of the matter. And I, as a low-church Protestant, must make room for the adjudication that concludes that the work of Father Arango amounts to an “error” requiring correction.

But what I find most important is that Paul makes a third move in his delineation of the church, a third move that does not figure in the anxious response of the church to Father Arango’s well-intended priestly actions. At the end of I Corinthians 12 Paul returns to the specific roles in the church to which he has earlier alluded (vv. 27-30). But his exposition does not end there. In verse he speaks of “greater gifts” and then uses his wondrous familiar phrase, “a still more excellent way.” With this breath-taking formulation, chapter 12 spills over into chapter 13.

It turns out that I Corinthians 13 is not a “love chapter” designed for weddings. It is rather the completion of Paul’s reasoning about the nature of the church, its unity and it variety of gifts.

I take it that Paul himself is aware that he has left unsettled the tension between the one body and the variety of gifts. And now, in this lyrical chapter, he shows the church how to adjudicate the quandary of one body and the variety of gifts. The “still more excellent way” is the way of self-giving love. My sense is that in this exuberant affirmation of the self-giving love singularly evident in Jesus, Paul regards the adjudication of one body and a variety of gifts as a moot and uninteresting question. I remember back in the early days of television on a show entitled “What’s My Line.” After a back and forth of score keeping participants, the emcee would simply void the score-keeping, and flip the chart of points to completion. So Paul simply flips the score-keeping of the church to completion in chapter 13. What counts, in Paul’s horizon, is not whether the variety of gifts is more important than the one body, or vice-versa. Both fade in importance before the summons and force of agape for the church to perform. In the wake of such reasoning that ends in self-giving, I conclude that the Lord of baptism will not want to quibble over pronouns. Presumably we may take it that Father Arango acted in love toward those whom he baptized. Further, those who witnessed the baptisms could see for themselves that Father Arango acted in such love. Give or take a pronoun, that is what mattered in the baptisms and what continues to matter.

I have no particular stake in how the Catholic Church settles the question posed by Father Arango. I have no special interest in this quandary that the church has manufactured for itself. But it does interest me that in the wake of chapter 12, Paul’s chapter 13 is always calling the church back to its core business, away from its particular quarrels and its tendency to forget its nature and work. For Paul, the single business of the church is to embrace a “still more excellent way.” Or as H. Richard Niebuhr has said it, the work of the church is to “increases the love of God and of neighbor.” This “still more excellent way” clearly will assist the church in its regular adjudication of budgets, buildings, and programs.

Paul goes on in chapter 14 to speak of “building up” the church (vv. 5, 12). In the end the urges that things in the church be done “decently and in order (14:40), but not in ways that detract from the up-building to be done in agape. Pronouns matter. I can imagine that the “I” of the priest and the “we” of the community converge together for the up-building of a community of agape.

The test of a pronoun is what “builds up.”

It remains for the community of the baptized to get on with up-building through the variety of gifts entrusted to the church. We do that when we are one in hope, one in doctrine, but above all, one in charity (agape).


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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