Friday, July 16, 2010

The Third Vow

Christian Worship: Words and Music that Matter
Doctor of Ministry Resource Seminar, SFTS
Final Paper: Putting the Oomph into “We Will”
July 16, 2010

During the sacrament of Holy Baptism,*
the Celebrant addresses the congregation, saying:

Will you who witness these vows do all in your
power to support these persons in their life in Christ?
People We will.
At marriages, the Celebrant addresses the congregation, saying:
Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your
power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?
People We will.

At ordinations, an exchange like this takes place:
Is it your will that N. be ordained a priest?
The People respond in these or other words:
It is.
Will you uphold him in this ministry?
The People respond in these or other words:
We will.

“We will!” the people say. They say it with all the good will in the world, but what will it
mean? In coming days after the liturgy what difference will it have made to say this?
“We will” comes as the ‘third vow’ in the rites of baptism (and confirmation,
reaffirmation, and reception), marriage, and ordination. It comes after the candidates, or
the woman and the man who are marrying each other, or the ordinand, has said, “I will.”

It is the undertaking of the congregation – to uphold/support these people in their pledge.
What it will mean after the service – may be somewhat outside our sphere of influence,
unless we have begun to give it meaning before the service. Instruction/preparation and
ritual forms may help the principals and the congregation to develop their understanding
of the significance of the ceremony before the rite itself – laying the groundwork for the
expression in action of its meaning after the flowers have faded and the dishes are done.

How can this be accomplished? Let’s take the example of the service of Marriage.
In my tradition (Anglican stream of north American Christianity) and within that, in my
denomination, The Episcopal Church, the service called “The Celebration and Blessing
of a Marriage” is laid out for us in the Book of Common Prayer (most recent version,
1979, p. 422ff.). Following it we find man and woman making solemn and public
covenant together in the presence of God – and at least two witnesses.

Quite often this is a ceremony held not on a Sunday and not in the presence of the
congregation, and not in Lent, though I have (Bishop consenting) celebrated a wedding
during the principal service of the Eucharist on a Sunday during Lent (a feast day in the
middle of the great fast).

One hopes that the local congregation, the home church of at least one of the two
principals, will be the gathering place, or that that congregation will be strongly
represented should the service be at another place or at another time.

Regardless of location or day of the week, the celebrant, in the section of the service
called “The Declaration of Consent”, having obtained declaration of consent from woman
and man, then continues by addressing the congregation: “Will allow of you witnessing
these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?”

There is no indication in the Book of Common Prayer that this, third, vow, is to be taken
any less seriously, or carried out with less of a will, than the vows that precede it in the

This may come as a surprise. How valid is a promise that is surprised upon you? How
binding? Therefore the question is: how to make the people ready for their part in the
marriage – and not just the service but also the embodiment of the sacrament in daily

What I think we can do, liturgically, is to expand upon the old and occasionally revived
practice of ‘posting the bans’ – that is, announcing in service on three Sundays preceding
the ceremony the intention of the two to wed. This could be enhanced, made lavish, by
incorporating suggestions gleaned from two conversations I have had, one recently with
the Rev. Dr. Susan Marie Smith and one five years ago (during my own pre-marital
instruction) by the Rev. John R. Smith (St. Michael and All Angels, Tucson).

Amma Susan suggested that we could take a page from the catechumenal preparations
and have candidates (bride and groom to be) and sponsors from the congregation come
forward each Sunday during a season of preparation (three weeks? six? ten?) to stand and
be recognized, to offer their intention up to God and to receive the prayers of the
congregation. This offers immediate and ongoing prayer support – and it shows in ritual,
symbol, form, the intention of the congregation to put some ‘oomph’ into that ‘we will’.

Fr Smith pointed out the connection between the vows of marriage and the vows of
monks: they both are entering into community, in the case of the newly wed, a
community of two, and the rites begin in a formal, sacramental way, a ‘life together’.

By speaking about the cost of that relationship, that ‘forsaking all others’, that dedication
to common purpose and trust, to care and comfort, ‘in good times and bad’ (as the flatfooted
Roman liturgy has it), and to remain faithful to the covenant for a lifetime, the
priest, people, and candidates recognize the solemn, joyful character of the ceremony –
and the commitment it represents.

By doing this in public as part of the principal service on Sunday mornings, the
community comes to see the ceremonial beginning of a marriage as part of their common
life, and their own role as supporters and upholders as part of their common mission.

What I would do, and will try to do, with willing principals, is to enact this pattern in
preparation for a forthcoming wedding. When I meet with the prospective bride and
groom to instruct them in the sacramental nature of marriage and of the ceremony, I will
invite them to undertake a sort of ‘catechumenate’, a season of instruction and
preparation, in which they will learn more about each other and how to get along together
(this is where my requirement of premarital counseling by a licensed therapist comes in)
and what this wedding will mean to them. I do not know if I can find premarital
counselors who specialize in whole congregations as clients – I will try to highlight in
ritual, in liturgy, and in sermons, as well as in organizational consultations with leaders in
the congregation, what the role of the people can be. It often is important that material
and spiritual and moral (emotional) support be at hand for people getting married. Let’s
get it to them – and let’s let the congregation know how they can get in on the work.

What comes to mind is a recent wedding which met the criteria I have set out for couples,
formally in a brochure and in personal meetings, of premarital counseling and other
preparations for the couple, but which did not include strong preparation for the
congregation to act in support.

The young couple could use material support – wisely not carelessly given, along with
moral/emotional support, and occasional pastoral visits, as well as conscientious ongoing
‘sponsorship’ by reasonably insightful responsible adult members of the congregation as

Now after the fact we have the realities of a new young struggling marriage to deal with.

Next time let’s do better – and learn again, from this taking a resolve to be more
conscious of our role of support.

Theologically this means that to the extent a church is an ‘extended family’ (as some
congregations characterize themselves) it is a family that must take the responsibility for
looking after its ‘children’ when it has publicly affirmed its intention to do so. There is
promise keeping to be done; more importantly, there are people to be served.

The same young couples are likely sooner or later to request the baptism of children. At
this time we should take another opportunity to take seriously the ‘third vow’ of support
by the people of God for the people principally affected by the Pastoral Office. At
baptisms we are used to parents, godparents, sponsors, witnesses and/or presenters to take
a role. There is a teaching role already – this is not a private, family ceremony, but a
service of the church and therefore public. It is not simply giving something special away
– it requires responsible incorporation of new members into the community of faith.

Grace is what we want to impart – not cheaply nor wantonly entered into but advisedly
and soberly, with a reasonable intention to guide us. The minister, the priest, must have,
indeed, a ‘founded hope’ (in the felicitous Roman phrase) that the child shall be raised in
the faith. This hope may be founded on the vows not only individual but congregational.

"Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their
[new] life in Christ?"

Ordinations ordinarily involve quite extensive preparation. In the Episcopal Church these
take place under the bishop’s eye – he supervises the shaping of the liturgy, and he
presides at the ceremony. At a recent Lutheran ordination I attended, the bishop’s role
was more peripheral – mostly the ordinand presided for himself, and had organized the
evening from welcome to coffee. Ordinands, I can attest, have moments of inattention
and leave out canonically essential – oh, say, the Lord’s Prayer - or pastorally important
elements – such as, honoring and praying for the family of the ordination candidate.

Bishops can also oversee a quite extensive season of preparation for candidates and all
assembled. In a way, “that’s what they do.” What it does is show us an example of how
seriously and joyfully a congregation can affirm its happy undertaking of support.

Vows by monastics, I believe, follow this pattern too. Chapter meets and votes in a new
member; there is extensive preparation, then a service of mutual commitment. The point
to be learned here is the creation of a bond of fellowship and community by ceremony
and serious preparation, both in prayer and in instruction. What I recall – this from the
conversion memoir of Thomas Merton, A Seven-Storey Mountain (New York: Harper &
Row, 1948) – is that there were seasons of prayer and levels of approach to the day itself.
We do not commonly have engaged couples prostrate on the pavement before the altar.
We do not often require stages and levels of commitment leading up to the big day.

We can get by without these. Can we ‘get by’ – can the newly wed get by – without some
serious, ritual and ceremonial, pastoral and educational, preparation for the sacramental
rite of marriage? Can baptism ‘take hold’ (in viable fashion) if we just ‘get it done’?
So as with baptismal candidates, a season of preparation: come forward, we call them out
of the congregation, come forward, your sponsors come along too; and we will pray for
you, and we will work with you, and walk with you, in the newness of life you now seek.

A. Season of Preparation. A period of weeks in which candidates study the meaning of
the life they enter into, that is symbolized by the rite. Sponsors from the congregation
escort them forward each Sunday during the principal service, to receive prayer and the
laying on of hands by the priest and the people assembled.

B. The sacramental rite: “We will!”

C. The congregation, represented by the sponsors continues to monitor the progress in
faith and newness of life, offering material and moral support and guidance as needed.

What this plan is intended to do is to bring home the rite to the people of the congregation
– its significance for them as the people of God in whose context and presence these
sacramental rites take on living form, incarnating the grace of God in the middle of them,
and bringing home to the congregation as well their role in the ongoing support of the
newly baptized, newly married, newly ordained, newly en-vowed, as they continue to
pursue and enact the vocations these vows represent.

My hope is that this will in turn help the congregation to take responsibility for its growth
and development as a welcoming, Christ-centered community, and to take pride in faith
and fellowship, moving forward into a hopeful future, a future where the members of the
church embody and enact the reign of a just and loving God in their relationships with
each other and in their service to the community and the world, individually and together.

An overall question of mine is: how can worship create a context in which conversion
can occur, meaning can emerge?

How can worship communicate or engender awareness of symbol in renewal of baptismal
vows on All Saints Sunday, Baptism of Our Lord, Easter Vigil, or Pentecost? Better how
can the symbol of baptism become efficacious as a sacrament not only for the newly
baptized but also for the whole people of God?

How can worship do this for marriages?

And how can, in either case, the vows of support from the congregation be made real to
them as a real commitment to be carried out in coming days?

Common experience of the sacrament in liturgy, then reflection – perhaps in the sermon,
the prayers of the people, in discussion afterwards … and beforehand in preparation.
In all of these services, pastoral offices and Episcopal services both, there are vows and
there is some statement of affirmation and support – even a ‘third vow’ – from the
congregation. How then can these ‘third vows’ be made sufficiently explicit (and lavish)
to engender a sense of meaning and responsibility in those who take them?

If conversion can be defined, as Donald L. Gelpi, S.J. defines it (cf. Charism and
Sacrament; Experiencing God: A Theology of Human Emergence; Committed Worship
as taking responsibility for an area of one’s own growth and development, be it
affective/emotional, cognitive/intellectual, ethical/moral, political, or religious in nature,
then how can these sacramental occasions become occasions of felicity for the
transformation of consciousness not only of the ‘candidates’ but of the whole people
there assembled?

This is the hidden opportunity of the ‘third vow’. There are plenty of charming examples
of a presider chiding the people, ‘say it again, this time with feeling’, but beyond emotion
and stage theatrics, what change can be effected by taking this vow?

And what help and support and affirmation might the candidates – the newly wed, newly
baptized or confirmed or received, or newly ordained – expect to receive after the service
is over? And what kind of sponsorship might be set up – and what expectations – before
the day of the ceremonial passageway?

To take a suggestion from Dr. Susan Marie Smith along with one given me by Fr. John R.
Smith (St. Michael and All Angels Parish, Tucson, Arizona) some five years ago, it helps
to think of these as parallel occasions – that like the taking of vows into a monastic
community, the taking of vows by those being married is an entering into community,
and certainly baptism is expected to be that, and more. “We receive you into the
household of faith” – in a transcendental way; and in some traditional ways of thinking a
sense of an ontological or teleological transformation is not absent. (Does the coming of
the Holy Spirit invoked at ordination cause an ontological transformation in the subject?)

So then a season of preparation, like Lent or Advent (in miniature), could become a
season of focused activity, with candidates preparing for the rite itself, and the
congregation affirming them, sponsoring them, praying for them – and supporting them
throughout the process. The idea of sponsors for those to be married, parallel to sponsors
or witnesses to baptism, allows for some willing individuals to represent and model for
the congregation the affirmation that all make together and the support that all undertake
before God in solemn assembly to carry out.

In Pastoral Offices or Episcopal Services, the liturgy includes an exchange between the
celebrant and the people assembled. As the candidates for baptism, confirmation,
reception, or reaffirmation of baptismal vows, or for ordination, give their vows, so does
the congregation, in affirmation and support of those people and, in services of Baptism,
to renew their own baptismal covenant through the words of the Apostles’ Creed and the
baptismal promises that follow it and flesh out its meaning in contemporary language.

Why not then bring home to the people of God that they are the people of God, that they
have work to do, in praise and prayer and service, which is affirmed and renewed in these
sacramental liturgies? Why not take the opportunity to put some ‘oomph’ (energy;
vitality; enthusiasm) into ‘we will’ – and vim into the vows, and power into the prayers?

* (New York: Oxford University Press, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979)

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