The sacraments (17): commonalities and differences in black and white

Naturally the churches acknowledge each other’s baptisms, even though this step has taken centuries to achieve. After all, the question of sacraments is intimately linked to the respective understanding each one has of what constitutes church. And yet they have all managed to approve sound papers on the subject.

In the meantime, such things have indeed come into being: documents in which the churches describe a common position on baptism. These are more than merely the “lowest common denominator”, and yet they still leave wiggle room for divergent individual explanations.

The mother of all ecumenical convergence declarations on baptism is the so-called Lima Declaration. In addition to providing an explanation on the proper rite of baptism, it also deals with the ecumenical definitions of ministry and the Eucharist, which is why the document is also called the B-E-M Text (Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry) in some circles.

In 1982 a commission of the World Council of Churches (WCC) convened in Lima, Peru. Its published paper took decades of struggle and represents something of a breakthrough for the mutual acknowledgement of baptism in the different denominations. There have been no joint declarations concerning ministry and sacrament since.

The common understanding

The following theological principles concerning baptism were largely recognised by all participating churches:

  • baptism is participation in the death and resurrection of Christ.
  • it is a realignment of the entire personality (key word: conversion).
  • it is the promise of the Holy Spirit.
  • it is incorporation into the church of Christ.
  • it is a symbolic reference to the coming kingdom of God.

The enduring link between baptism and faith, which applies to both adult baptism and child baptism was also collectively acknowledged.

The common form

The Lima text specifies the basic conditions for the proper execution of baptism, notwithstanding the fact that individual denominations still perform their own rites and customs. Accordingly, baptism must be performed with water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. And it was also generally recognised that—because of the significance of baptism for the believer—the celebration of baptism should take place within the context of a public divine service.

All national documents that have been published since are based on the Lima Declaration on baptism. Two of these—one in Switzerland and one in Germany—have achieved high international standing due to their publicity and the high degree of participation by many churches.

The Riva San Vitale Declaration

Riva San Vitale is located in Ticino, in Southern Switzerland. Already in the 1970s there was an agreement between the Reformed, Methodist, Christian Catholic, and Roman Catholic Churches in Switzerland to mutually recognise the formally dispensed sacrament of baptism. This agreement was recorded and publicly ratified on Easter Monday 2014. On this date, six churches signed the Riva San Vitale Declaration, namely the Swiss Bishops’ Conference, the Swiss Protestant Church Federation, the Methodist Church in Switzerland, the Christian Catholic Church in Switzerland, the Anglican Church in Switzerland, and the Federation of Protestant-Lutheran Churches in Switzerland and the Principality of Liechtenstein. In 2016, the New Apostolic Church Switzerland submitted an application to add its signature to the declaration.

The Magdeburg Declaration

Similar agreements exist among the churches in numerous countries. In Germany, the corresponding document has become known as the Magdeburg Declaration. On 29 April 2007, eleven member churches of the Association of Christian Churches officially declared mutual recognition of baptism as part of a solemn ecumenical Vespers prayer. This was preceded by an intensive communication process, in which even the member churches of the ACC that are not in agreement with the notion of mutual recognition of baptism were involved from the start. It was on the tenth anniversary celebration of this document that the New Apostolic Church also announced it was in agreement with the positions of the declaration, and added its signature.

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Peter Johanning
sacraments, Holy Baptism, Denominations