The Philadelphia Liturgical Institute organized “Celebrating One Baptism in Christ: An Ecumenical Commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.” The liturgy took place on 29 October at the Episcopal Cathedral in downtown Philadelphia.
There were two brief homilies, offered by Rev. Dennis Gill of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Pastor Gordon Lathrop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. The former is the director of the archdiocesan Office for Divine Worship and the latter, known to many at PrayTell, is professor emeritus at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and past president of the North American Academy of Liturgy and of Societas Liturgcia. Their homilies were interspersed among three readings from Scripture, a responsorial psalm, and a hymn. They were followed by another hymn, a series of intercessions, the Lord’s Prayer, and a choral anthem (“Deep River”). Next, the assembly (about 200 strong) together renewed their baptismal confession of faith before coming forward to the baptismal font. At the font, ministers signed the foreheads of those who presented themselves, saying “Remember your baptism and give thanks!” As this was happening, all sang “Wade in the Water.” Following this rite was a blessing and dismissal.
The readings chosen for the liturgy emphasized God’s new undertaking (Isa 43:18-20), the priestly prayer of Jesus for, among other things, the unity of his followers (John 17:1-11), and an appeal for unity among Christians (Eph 4:1-6). Even apart from the lamentable denominational splits among Christians, the themes of newness and maintenance of unity are important for Christians to hear. What particularly struck me about these readings at the liturgy was the way in which they were introduced: “A reading from X. Listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.” For Roman Catholics such as myself, the first sentence is quite familiar. The second sentence, however, is not typically a part of Catholic liturgy. I experienced in a particular way the force of a line from Sacrosanctum concilium no. 7: “[Christ] is present in His word, since it is He Himself who speaks when the holy scriptures are read in the Church.”
The liturgical celebration of our common baptism did not, of course, end divisions among us. Yet it was still a remarkable event. Catholics and Baptists, Lutherans and Episcopalians, Orthodox and Presbyterians, Methodists and members of the United Church of Christ and others whom I may not have noticed gathered around a font given by Lutherans to Episcopalians for use in the Episcopal Cathedral. Ministers from different denominations encouraged people from different denominations to remember their baptism; the rite did not feature one line for Catholics and another for Lutherans, etc. I am sure that I am not the only one who left the cathedral wondering whether I am indeed making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:3).