A Letter to Delegates of the Annual Meeting from the Worship Team of Annual Meeting Planning,
By the Rev. Kelly Burke, Chair

Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized? –  Acts 8:37

Dear Delegates:

During an Annual Meeting Planning gathering, we were discussing the theme of Thursday night’s service: Remembering Our Baptism.   The Rev Catherine Stuart approached me, as Chair of the Worship Team.  She had a ‘wondering question’ as Godly Play would put it.  Or, in keeping with this year’s theme, What if…?   Specifically, “What if there was an actual baptism as part of the service on Thursday night?  Could Ethan be baptized?”  Ethan is 8 months old, the son of the Rev. Catherine Stuart (nee Barkhouse) and the Rev. Scott Stuart.

Well, this began a whole lot of wondering, in terms of the theology, polity, pastoral sensibilities and lived practice of our denomination around the sacrament of Baptism.   Immediately the Executive Secretary David Hewitt was consulted, with the following conditions being stated:

1. United Church worship is experienced in a particular community.               Worship, marriages, baptisms, or funerals take place under the authority of       the local Pastoral Charge and with their agreement and permission. No United Church minister can conduct such services without this permission.

2. The local record books should contain the record of such activities.

3. A baptism should take place within the context of an ongoing faith community that takes “real” responsibility for the promises made.

Thus we began a conversation with the Rev. Catherine Smith, clergy at Sackville United Church, which serves as the ‘local pastoral charge’ in this instance.  She took care and time to ponder the request, and then took it to her Council.  On Sunday, May 19, 2013, the motion was passed “to record in the registers of Sackville United Church, the baptism of Ethan Stuart, into the community of the Maritime Conference at their Annual Meeting, on May 23rd, 2013, with the participation of members of Sackville United Church present for the sacrament.  [N.B. By presence, it was meant only that the Sackville United Church folks in attendance make the promises along with the Conference, no more than that.]

Requirement #3 made for especially deep and interesting thinking.  What does it mean to be an ‘ongoing faith community’, and does Maritime Conference apply?   Are we able, in real ways, to take responsibility for the promises made by the community at Baptism?   We concluded that Conference, by attending to this sacrament, is living ever more deeply into its identity.  We are doers of the Word, wrestling with questions of justice and faithfulness, mission and outreach, locally and globally.     But at the heart of it we are this: a worshipping community.  It is who we are.  It is what we do.    It is simply expected that sometime during our worship time together we will share bread and cup in the sacrament of Communion.  In this instance, we are gathering to also share in our other sacrament as we worship: that of Holy Baptism.

Central to all of this was the family involved.  This clergy couple had in fact delayed Ethan’s baptism while they examined their particular situation.  Indeed, where to have the sacrament? Catherine and Scott minister in two separate pastoral charges, with 6 preaching points between them.  Ethan is a beloved child of all of these congregations, not to mention the multiplicity of other charges that lay claim to him, such as Port Wallis UC, where Catherine was a student minister, or Grandparent’s home churches in Cape Breton and New Brunswick, where he also spends time.   And who would preside?  One of the parents?  A dear mentor or colleague?    The parents felt that what was most faithful was to set aside personalities and friendship attachments, and to have the local minister preside.  For this situation, the President of Maritime Conference, the Rev. Phillip Kennedy, can claim that role.  Again, the Rev. Catherine Smith was consulted, and she welcomed such an arrangement.

For Scott and Catherine, Conference Annual meeting is where they have grown up in the faith.  They are grateful that Sackville United is playing a role in this sacrament, for Catherine and Scott met at Mount Allison during their undergraduate years, worshipped at Sackville United, were active with the Youth Group, and attended chapel at Mt A.  They both experienced their calls to ministry through this time.

Their reality, is that there are, and will continue to be,  a vast array of congregations that will be helping to raise Ethan in the Christian faith.  What has emerged is that all of these places are represented by Maritime Conference.  Yes, we meet less than weekly.  But In his eight months of lived existence Ethan has been at 5 meetings of Conference Committees.  He is being prayed for, and educated by, witness to and participant in, the working and worshipping community of Maritime Conference.

This is the place, and you are the people that are playing a role in this child’s faith life.   We are a wide and varied lot, covering a rather large terrain that does indeed push the boundaries of what it means to describe a worshipping community.

No, we have never done this before.

Yes, it is a new thing.

But it has been examined prayerfully, carefully, lengthily, and rigorously.  We are the church, so conversations have been robust and testy and, thanks be to God, full of love.

When the Baptism liturgy turns to the questions, it is you, the Delegates of Maritime Conference, along with the members of Sackville United Church who are present, who will be asked if,  by the grace of God, we commit ourselves to support and nurture Ethan within a community which worships God, resists evil and seeks justice.

If you are uncertain you are welcome (as we always are at such a time) to refrain from voicing a vow.  However, if you are able, we welcome you to speak your ‘yes’ to be, in some measure, a continued part of God’s ongoing activity in Ethan’s life of faith.  Together we will bear holy witness to the grace of Christ that has already been poured out in abundance upon Ethan, and indeed, upon us all.

In the Name of the One who said ”I am doing a new thing,’ I give thanks for your attention to this, to your prayerful consideration, and to seeing you all on the floor of Annual Meeting!

On behalf of the Worship Team of Annual Meeting Planning,

Grace and Peace, The Rev. Kelly Burke, Chair