I didn’t even remember the phone call. One evening when I was loafing around the house an Arabophone brother called me from a foreign country and had some questions about our small Arabophone fellowship, Kanisa. What did we believe? I answered: we had an evangelical orientation and confessed the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. Did we belong to a particular denomination? I answered: I’m an Anglican priest and the other pastors come from Assemblies of God and Methodist backgrounds, though we welcome people from the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, ex-Muslims, and Muslim seekers too.
Weeks later a woman—a convert from Islam to Christianity—contacted me. She had believed in Christ and been discipled by a brother in another country (the one who had first called me, I later realized). Would we baptize her?
She lived in a neighboring comunidad or state. But after some planning and travel my fellow pastor Raouf and I were able to meet with her. After lunch (and a return train ride and bus ride) we concluded that she had been catechized well and was ready to be baptized.
Now Kanisa (Arabic for church and the name of our fellowship) is non-denominational. I am thankful that the missionary society that Sharon and I have worked with for 15 years allows for this. I suggested to Raouf that we translate the liturgy for baptism of an adult from the 1979 BCP to Arabic and use that. I sent him the text and he (a native Copt of Egypt and skilled in literary Arabic) translated it into Arabic. I suggested a few changes and they were incorporated.
The reasons for the changes were two-fold. First, to make the Arabic a bit easier to read and understand. Literary Arabic is not a type of Arabic that most Arabic-speakers can actually manage well, even ones who are educated. Consider: what if you asked someone to give a speech in Elizabethan English? Even most educated people would not be able to do it well. Same with liturgical Arabic.
Second, to bring a few phrases in line with the older translations. Having served as missionaries in Nazareth (Diocese of Jerusalem) for five years I knew how the old missionaries had translated such recondite phrases as “meet and right.” Raouf happily made these edits.
Then there was the question of location. I knew that a baptism by sprinkling or pouring was permitted—that is how our three children were baptized. But I also knew that most churches that welcome and incorporate converts from Islam do not accept such a baptism. I could foresee a time when she wanted to join a local church and they would want to rebaptize her and…well, you get the idea. Why put her through that when it was not necessary? It would be a lot more complicated, but baptism by immersion was necessary. In the words of Paul, “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9, NIV).
Our trusty friends in the Assemblies of God were happy to lend us their local sanctuary, which had a baptistry. More than that, they went out of their way to help us with details: audio/video, warm water for the baptistry, and more.
We asked Lydia—that’s the biblical name she chose for herself, though I was clear she did not have to choose one—if she was ok with an open baptism. From the beginning of Kanisa we had decided to be public and not operate in the shadows. And that in spite of the fact that our regular meeting place is a block away from Madrid’s oldest historical mosque. She was fine with it. We invited many people, and many people came.
As Lydia is fluent in Spanish, we could have done everything or some things in Spanish. But we felt it was important to do the entire liturgy in Arabic. Heaven knows that was a lot more complicated for me and that some of the people in attendance would not even understand what was happening. Why make this decision? Our thinking was that, when possible, a sacrament, especially a one-time sacrament like baptism, should be carried out in the heart language. God spoke to us in his heart language when the divine Logos became like us. That’s the theology behind the thinking.
We gathered together on Saturday, the 7th of December. Pastor Dan was in charge of A/V; Sharon, our worship leader (and my wife), acted as sponsor (and worship leader); and Raouf and I wore trousers and clerical shirts.
We felt we should make some slight changes to the baptismal liturgy from the 1979 BCP. The first one was an addition: she shared her testimony. (I translated the Arabic into Spanish for those attending.) This was immensely encouraging for those in attendance, and we were able to share it (for a limited time) at Kanisa’s Facebook page.
The other one was an addition to the examination of the candidate. During this section of the liturgy the candidate makes several vows or promises. We decided to add a vow to “denounce all lying prophets and false religions.” This was something we had learned from the Rev. Dr. Mark Durie—also an Anglican involved in ministry to Muslims and converts from Islam. His experience revealed that it is important for people committed to a covenant to renounce any former covenant. And Islam is most certainly a covenant: one between humanity and Allah mediated by Muhammad; humanity’s obligation is called shari’a and Allah’s obligation is victory. The thinking is that, in entering the people of the New Covenant, one must clearly renounce any old covenants.
Everything went well—the testimony, Raouf’s sermon, the actual triune baptism in cold water. Oh, and here we opted for the Eastern Orthodox tradition: one dunk for each person of the Trinity. Two Moroccan ladies who were invited by friends (and who would not have understood anything in Spanish) made confessions of faith a few days later.
So what’s the takeaway?
This was a major victory for a small fellowship.
What did I learn from this as an Anglican pastor?
First, mission comes before denomination. If I had waited for Anglicans to partner in founding Kanisa I’d still be waiting. My mission is to welcome people into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. I’m happy when that’s Anglican, but if it’s not, I don’t mind. Furthermore, in Spain at least, we have about 50 churches in the entire country. Most new believers don’t even have access to an Anglican church.
Second, the Anglican liturgy is powerful. This is also true for non-Anglicans. Other than Sharon and our three kids, there was not a single other Anglican in attendance at the baptism. Yet all the feedback we received indicated that the service was beautiful and moving.
Third, the liturgy exists for the mission, not the mission for the liturgy. Are there Anglican churches or dioceses or provinces where the mission exists for the liturgy, rather than the liturgy for the mission? The answer is a resounding yes. In this case, though, we took the liturgy and, with a couple of minor modifications, used it to further the mission of God in the world through his Church. Ask yourself: is your mission to bring people into your liturgy? Or does your liturgy exist for the sake of the mission?