AFTER SEVEN YEARS of theological, historical, and pastoral conversation, leaders of Reformed and Catholic churches in the U.S. this January signed a carefully worded, one-page agreement to mutually recognize the sacrament of baptism as it is practiced in each other's churches. This agreement represents dedicated—and inspiring—ecumenical work.
The agreement was signed by representatives of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the Roman Catholic Church, and the United Church of Christ. This agreement is not unprecedented, coming as it does nearly five decades since Vatican II's decree on ecumenism, in which the Catholic Church recognized non-Catholic baptism whenever "duly administered as Our Lord instituted it, and ... received with the right dispositions." However, for each tradition, baptism gives sacramental expression to that tradition's understanding of the church and what it means to be a member. For these churches to recognize each other's baptismal rites gives visible witness to their mutual desire for unity among the members of Christ's body.
This desire for unity between the churches is not an add-on to the gospel; it is not something we do if we happen to get to it. It is central to the saving work and mission of Jesus.
This January's agreement is spare in its requirements. It states that the use of water and a reference to the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) are all that are needed for mutual recognition. By specifying these two simple elements, the ecumenical team made a decision to respect the liturgical tradition of each church. The unique way that components of the rite have developed in each church—how catechesis is done, the use of scripture, the use of sponsors, anointing, and other elements—do not need to be changed.