Goshen College, John D. Roth

Goshen, Indiana
2021

To foster ecumenical conversations about baptism by hosting seminars for pastors and lay leaders using a newly created accessible study guide on the recent groundbreaking report of the international Lutheran-Mennonite-Roman Catholic Trilateral Dialogue on Baptism. 

Researcher(s): John D. Roth 
Academic Discipline:  History

Project Summary

This project will promote ecumenical conversation on the topic of baptism among Mennonites, Lutherans, and Catholics by creating a study guide that translates the recent groundbreaking report of the international Lutheran-Mennonite-Roman Catholic Trilateral Dialogue on Baptism ("Baptism and Incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church") into language that is more accessible to pastors and lay leaders. The project will include 6 regional seminars to foster ecumenical conversations about baptism based on the report, and make the study guide widely available in English, Spanish, and French. 

What questions about worship and your discipline will be guiding your project?

For many in the Anabaptist tradition, voluntary baptism is constitutive to their theological identity. In the 16th century the crime of "re-baptism" resulted in the juridical execution of some 3000 Anabaptists. These historical memories have often reduced understandings of Catholic or Lutheran practices of infant baptism to caricatures. As we approach the 500th anniversary of Anabaptist beginnings, this project invites Mennonites to rethink the ritual of baptism and the history of their origins. 

How do you envision this project will strengthen the worship life of congregations?

Rituals are formative to theological and communal identity.  By challenging Mennonites to rethink some of their assumptions about baptism in the context of ecumenical conversation this project will help all participants come to deeper understandings about the layered meanings associated with baptism and to re-energize its relevance in the life of local congregations. Engaging more sacramental perspectives on baptism could challenge the Mennonite tendency to regard it as "merely" a symbol. 

What do you expect might be your greatest challenges (or challenging opportunities)?

Because voluntary baptism is so central to Mennonite identity it is difficult for many to imagine the biblical or theological coherence of any tradition that practices pedobaptism. Furthermore, ecumenical conversations have not been a high priority among Mennonites. Although the premise of this project is built on the recent Mennonite-Lutheran-Catholic international dialogue on baptism, I think creating contexts for meaningful local ecumenical exchanges will be the biggest challenge/opportunity. 

What do you hope to learn from the Grants Event and other grant recipients?

Mennonites have traditionally been vaguely suspicious of formal ecclesiastical rituals, an impulse that is only reinforced by the increasingly "disenchanted" nature of modern society. Yet rituals of worship are still profoundly formative, often in ways that go beyond our conscious awareness. I hope to learn more how other traditions--particularly "high church" groups, for whom rituals have a sacramental function--are responding to pressures of secularization/disenchantment.