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Giles Fraser: The real covenant of baptism is what matters

26 September 2007

by Giles Fraser

At the press conference that concluded the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit to New Orleans, he was asked if he had learnt anything from his conversations with the bishops of the Episcopal Church in the United States. He replied that he had not fully appreciated hitherto the way in which the Episcopal Church’s theology of baptism fed into its thinking about gay bishops. This is interesting.

The other day, I was at a baptism in an Episcopalian church in the United States. My friend, the Dean of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, the Very Revd Tracey Lind, baptised two beautiful boys, and then proceeded to offer a fascinating homily. Baptism, she said, was an ordination of sorts. It was an ordination into the priesthood of all believers.

Wow: I had never heard that sort of thing said at a baptism before. These two baby boys had just become priests. Why did this seem so new to me? After all, the priesthood of all believers is a foundational idea of Protestantism.

Here is what the bishops of the Church of England have said about the baptism of gay people: “Issues in Human Sexuality made it clear that the Church did not want to exclude from its fellowship those lay people of gay or lesbian orientation who, in conscience, were unable to accept that a life of sexual abstinence was required of them and instead chose to enter into a faithful, committed relationship.”

Many in the Episcopal Church conclude that if gay sex is not outlawed for the priesthood of all believers, it cannot be outlawed for the priesthood. After all, these conditions are not distinguished by fundamental questions of theology.

Last year, I had the privilege of talking for an hour with the Bishop of Louisiana, the Rt Revd Charles Jenkins. He spoke of the floods that followed Hurricane Katrina as like being “baptised with dirty water”. It was one of those phrases that, once heard, changes things for ever.

The whole point of the Reformation was to deny that access to God had to pass through the narrow weir of a restricted church order: the Pope, his clergy and bishops. No, God can come to us all, and, in following his call, we are admitted into his covenant of baptism. This is the real covenant, to which nothing needs to be added or taken away.

One of the best places to learn the meaning of this covenant is in the devastated lower-ninth ward of New Orleans. The real priests here are those who stick up for the hungry, homeless, and destitute. They are ordained by God, and not always by the Church. Sexuality is irrelevant.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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