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Who Can Baptise?

In two Roman Catholic dioceses, lay people have been commissioned to administer the Sacrament of Baptism. Prior to this, there has been the acceptance that Baptism can be administered by anyone in an emergency (the person administering does not even need to be a baptised Christian). But the public, ordinary administration of Baptism has been reserved to the ordained. Currently, the two dioceses are the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart and the Diocese of Essen, both in Germany.

There are several points to reflect on. Women will now be baptising in Roman Catholic churches. Women will be acting in persona Christi as they minister this Sacrament. Roman Catholics will grow used to seeing women performing actions and looking similar to what, until now, they have exclusively seen male-only clergy doing. Many arguments against women’s ordination (“only men can act in persona Christi” etc) will not only no longer have consistency; furthermore, they will lose their emotional potency. Roman Catholic women have already been running parishes and providing pastoral care, they are now administering sacraments that were the reserve of males.

In many, many places, Roman Catholics have become used to married deacons looking like, and acting akin to, celibate priests – they baptise, preach, bless, lead weddings, funerals, and Communion Services. Furthermore, there are increasing numbers of married Roman Catholic priests (Anglican Ordinariates, clergy who have transferred from other denominations). Eastern-Rite Catholics, in full union with the Vatican, have always had a married priesthood.

With vernacular liturgy, a stress on the centrality of the scriptures, synods, and a constantly-widening move away from sacramental ministry being reserved to celibate males, Roman Catholicism is clearly catching up with Reformation developments five centuries after many other communities went down this track. The divisions, controversies, and issues that are part of Roman Catholic life currently, echo many similar debates and events of the Reformation period.

The experience of lay Roman Catholics, whatever their gender, being ordinary ministers of Baptism will be fascinating to follow. Half a century ago, having married clergy would have been unthinkable in most of Roman Catholicism – now, in many places, the celibacy aspect of in persona Christi makes no sense whatsoever. Reform takes time – the English Church reforms that began, say, in 1548, took until, say, 1662 to get to some sort of stability.

Postscript: in researching who can baptise for this post, I noted the peculiar ruling of NZ Anglicanism:

a bishop or priest presides over a baptism. If the priest is absent it is permissible for a deacon to baptise.

A New Zealand Prayer Book – He Karakia Mihinare o Aotearoa page 381

Can someone please unpack this for me: why is the definite article used here, “THE priest” – and to whom does this refer to? As the rule is not “a priest”, it seems a deacon is permitted to baptise in NZ Anglicanism even if a priest is present in the congregation. Does “THE priest” refer to the parish priest (or equivalent, say, in a school)? So if the vicar is on holiday, might the deacon baptise? If the vicar is ill or otherwise detained? Certainly, the rule precludes a curate who is a deacon baptising in the presence of their training vicar… Any explanation of this rule from NZ Anglican Church leadership?

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2 thoughts on “Who Can Baptise?”

    1. I’m a bit confused by your sentence, Tom. Do we not all offer ourselves in the Eucharist? Or are St Augustine, others, and our liturgies all in error in that reality? Blessings.

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