November 2012
Liturgy, Music, & Leadership

Baptismal Covenant

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
Through Holy Baptism, lay and ordained church leaders are called to share in the priesthood of Christ. That means that we are not only to believe the concepts embodied in the Baptismal Covenant, but we are to become what we believe. Each time we, as a community, renew our Baptismal Covenant, pieces of our self begin to atrophy and die, so that we may become more Christ-like in our interactions with God’s people. Respecting the dignity of every human being is not an easy thing to do for many people. With God’s help, however, respecting the dignity of another person becomes the only thing we can do because we are incapable of seeing anything other than Jesus Christ in the faces of humanity.

The Baptismal Covenant is the solemn promise, or sacred agreement, in which God, the principal actor, adopts human persons as his children, and makes them members of Christ's Body, the Church, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God. As black Episcopalians, what is even more heartwarming is that God will never revoke this action, and nothing anyone does can change what God has done.

This is indeed good news, because many of us share in a heritage which, at one time, was violated by slavery, and today years after its abolition, still worship in churches and live in communities where we are expected to contribute financially and otherwise, [yet] do not always feel welcomed. It is even more good news for those of us who are elderly, young, gay or homeless, since we are many times treated as persons to be pitied, forgiven or ostracized.

I serve in a large, vibrant and thriving, Caribbean congregation with a few members from Africa and the USA. This congregation is not the norm in the Black Episcopal Church, which is made up of about 80 percent of congregations with a membership of 150 or less. St. Augustine's, Brooklyn has an average Sunday attendance of 600 and an Easter attendance of 1,700. It is a congregation that seeks to focus on its mission "to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ," and is committed to the Baptismal Covenant in which all persons are welcome and accepted as God's own children.

We are so excited and thankful to God, that in loving trust, we confess belief in One God who we see in three different ways. We see God as the Father who creates, the son who redeems, and the Holy Spirit who sanctifies.

We promise, in loving obedience, and in response to God's generosity, and steadfast love to us:

  1. To live lives that are grounded in a sacramental worship, which is true to who we are as black Episcopalians. For example, we ensure that this happens, in our Bible studies, sermons, liturgies, vestments, and the language(s) used in worship, and music. Our Anglican Choir, Gospel Choir, and three Children's/Youth Choirs lead us in music from the Caribbean, Europe, Africa and the USA. As we lift our voices in praise, instruments such as the organ, piano, drums, a 40-piece steel band, and at times, trumpets and a bass guitar may be heard raising their strain in satisfying accompaniment.
  2. To honor our humanity, acknowledge our sinful nature, and always return to God for forgiveness.
  3. To share the Good News with others, of what God has done and continues to do in our lives. Members share freely, formally and informally the many blessings they receive. For example, a liver transplant, the wonderful report cards from school, the birth of a granddaughter, or a deep spiritual moment or experience.
  4. To seek to see Christ in all persons and to serve all persons as we would serve Christ himself.
  5. To work for just and peaceful communities in which all persons are treated with dignity and respect. One example may be seen in our relationship with the New York Police Department (NYPD). In New York and in many parts of this country, black people and the police do not trust each other. In recent years there have been several charges of abuse on the part of the NYPD especially towards our young black men. St. Augustine's decided to help in finding a solution to this problem. We started a Police/Fire Fighters’ Sunday, in which police officers and fire fighters come and worship, eat and speak with us. This has led a few parishioners and me to take a 14-week course at the police academy to better understand the police from their perspective. Also, when new police officers come into the community, they meet with me for an orientation in order to gain insight into the community, and the community's expectation of them.

With the advent of airplanes, and more recently the Internet, the world has shrunk to what some have called the global village. That means that we are able to communicate with each other much more readily, and move around the earth, no longer in 80 days, but in a matter of hours.

People travel physically, and virtually. So, literally and figuratively, we are in each other’s” face," producing a closeness which is a challenge to many. When people from so many different backgrounds and cultures come together in such close
communities, oftentimes they react in ways that deny the Christ in all of us, and grieve a loving God.

Black Episcopalians know firsthand atrocities such as racism, classism, and discrimination against the aged, homosexual people, and recent immigrants. We have seen the effects of oppression resulting in expressions of poverty such as homelessness, addiction, substance abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, and elder and child abuse. These evils are not always as a consequence of poverty, alone, but poverty provides a fertile environment for greed, hate, and other forms of bigotry to take root and flourish. But these are antithetical to what our Christian actions should be as we promised in the Baptismal Covenant.

How then are we able to be true to our Baptismal Covenant? The church must constantly and consistently facilitate authentic, sacramental worship, teaching and training. Who is responsible for this?

The onus must be placed squarely on the shoulders of church leaders - both clergy and lay together. I am convinced that the most effective form of congregational leadership happens when clergy and elected, appointed or informal lay leaders work as a team. There have been too many stories of negativity between clergy and lay leaders, because each views congregational leadership as theirs [alone].

Such is not the case at St. Augustine's. Clergy and elected lay leaders realize that the
life and work of the church is for "all." The work is too much for any one person or entity. Also, God reveals God's truth and will to ALL God's covenanted people, not only to the ordained.

We organize our life and work into three areas, which are owned by the entire congregation:

  1. Spirituality and Formation - the food for all Christians. This includes the ritual
    worship and other pastoral rites of the church, bible studies, retreats, and other
    formational opportunities. This is coordinated by the rector.
  2. Mission and Ministry - the work of all Christians. More than 20 groups in the church have organized themselves to engage the eight United Nations Millennium Development Goals, along with all the other community commitments. This is coordinated by a warden.
  3. Management and Finance - the infrastructure, which provides the support needed for Christians' food and work, includes my 7Ps: property, personnel, policy, procedures, polity, planning, and program. Finance is the Big Four: budget, endowments, investments, and fund raising. This is also coordinated by a warden.

The Baptismal Covenant requires an awareness and acceptance of who we are as black Episcopalians, our religious traditions and the social, political, and economic concerns in our communities. Living into the Covenant requires an inward journey into us and willingness, and readiness, in a developmentally appropriate way, to confess publicly, through word and deed, that Jesus Christ is Lord of our lives.

This article was first published as part of “Stories of Transformation: Worship, Witness, and Work in the Black Community,” a new resource from the Episcopal Church’s Office of Black Ministries and was reprinted by permission.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Howard Kently Williams is the rector of St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church. A native of Jamaica, West Indies, he is the former archdeacon of Brooklyn in the Diocese of Long Island. Williams holds a Certificate in Ministerial Studies, a Licentiate in Theology, a Master of Arts in Christian Education, and a Doctorate in Ministry from the United Theological College of the West Indies, the University of the West Indies, Princeton Theological Seminary, and the Graduate Theological Foundation respectively. His Doctorate is in Management and Spirituality.


This article is part of the November 2012 Vestry Papers issue on Liturgy, Music, & Leadership