As a result of their responses to the Royal Commission into Institutional Sexual Abuse, there have been as number of priests and perhaps soon some bishops who have been ‘defrocked’ as the common speech would have it.
They have had their orders taken away from them. They can no longer call themselves ‘Bishop X or Fr. Y.’
This is a very serious matter. Here is how it works. The Church is seen, not as an hierarchy, but as a Spiritual community, where people are called to different ‘orders’. The first, and most important ‘order’ is the order of the baptized. But then there are other orders. There are deacons, and priests and bishops. Each of these orders represents a different way of being in the Church. So to be deposed from holy orders is to be deprived of a ‘way of being’.
This is tougher than just ‘being fired’. Every person who is either a Bishop, Priest or Deacon needs a licence, in order to function in one of these orders. If they can’t find a place from with to receive a licence, they may still be a bishop, priest or deacon, but just one who cannot find a job.
So being ‘un-priested, un-bishoped’ is a serious matter.
The interesting thing is that a person can never be ‘un-baptized’. It is rare, though possible that a Christian may be ‘excommunicated’ that is excluded from the communion of the Church, but this is not the same as being ‘un-baptized’.
This points me to the difference between baptism and the other orders of the Church. A baptism is real, not because of anything we do, but because of something God does.
It is true that when a person becomes a deacon, priest or bishop, they are asked ‘Do you truly believe that you are called [by God] to the order of ‘X’’
So no one becomes a bishop, priest or deacon just because they wasn’t to, it is always because they believe that they are called by God. But because being in tone of these orders is ‘undoable’ it means that the human agreement in that sense of being called is revoked.
This can never happen with a baptism. The reality of having once been plunged [baptized] into the life of Christ cannot be undone. This is because it is God who is reaching down and embracing us in baptism. It is not ‘about’ us but about God, who is always more active in our lives that we may want, or may be aware of.
This then gives weight to the impossibility of being re-baptized.
There are a number of people who have been baptized as infants and who then come to an adult understanding of faith. Sometimes these people say ‘I would like to be baptized.’ This is the ‘real one for me, the other one was not something that I was able to sign up to.’
Of course this is true, but for my money, it is not necessary. It is important that everyone comes to an adult faith, which they can own. I have been very happy to preside over ceremonies of recommitment and renewal of the baptismal vows.
We understand this about couple that have been married for a long time. They come into church and recommit themselves to their life’s partner. They do not say though, “I was too young when I was married to ‘X’, now that I understand it better, I want to marry her again. This is how I see baptism.
Sometimes, and there is plenty of evidence for this in the history of the Church, people have said that because they were not properly instructed, or were not fully immersed, that their baptism was not valid, so that they need it to be done validly.
This is harder, because doing something ‘validly’ is important. The Church has thought about this and come up with a proposal. The Church has said that the amount of water does not matter. It is nice and helps the meaning of the sacrament to come through if there is a lot of it, but the amount of water is not a matter that can make a baptism invalid. The other condition is who may do a baptism. The answer is that it is preferable if the minister of baptism is a bishop priest or deacon, but that it is possible for any Christian to baptize another person. Last a baptism is valid if it is done in the ‘Name of the Father, son and holy Spirit.’
I think that proper Christian formation needs to happen with young adults who have been baptized as infants as they come to think about what life means for themselves. I think that this is a proper time for renewal of their baptismal covenant as they take up for themselves what has been done for them, but if they have been validly baptized, they cannot repudiate it and be ‘done’ again.
This approach, however, makes it all the more important that the parents, Godparents and member of the congregation take very seriously what they are doing. They ought not to mistake a baptism for something else, like a nice naming for their baby. They ought not to make the promises to bring their infant to Church if they do not intend to do just that. Otherwise they are lying, not to us but to God.
Not being able to be ‘un-baptised’ points to the significance of what is being done, and who is doing it.