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Participants in the Christian Initiation Study Group compared the initiation rites of several Christian churches in discussions led by David Batchelder, Ron Anderson, and Paul Turner.

Batchelder presented "The Role of the Community in Rites of Christian Initiation."  He summarized the difficulties of defining which rites are initiatory (e.g. should they include first eucharist?) and of comparing texts to ritual celebration.  He described the role of the community as maintaining presence, giving witness, expressing a diversity of roles, making covenant, and cooperating with the Holy Spirit for efficacy.  He emphasized the importance of the Sunday assembly in celebrating the rites of initiation and those preparatory to it.

In the ensuing conversation, the group expressed the need for developing materials for the congregation to assume its role, and to recognize the initiatory aspects of interactions with new members and with family members outside the ritual.  Especially in regard to infant baptism, the community provides a sense of protection, where the emphasis is less on coversion and more on God's outpouring of love.  All initiation rites call us into mission with the world.

Anderson presented a chart of "Images of 'Initiation' in Recent Christian Initiation Rites."  He noted that the term "initiation" still lacks a commonly held definition.  Anderson's matrix consulted the Episcopal, Lutheran (ELCA and ELCIC), Presbyterian, Roman, and United Methodist initiation rites, and discovered uses of the following images: illumination, instruction/nurture, passage/process, reception/joining, covenant, baptism, joining to Christ, and ministry of all Christians.  He asked if these images signal our failure to sustain a Christian worldview through post-baptismal integration into the community, and if these are rites of passage more than rites of initiation.

The group discussed how images relate to the meaning of initiation.  We contrasted rites of intensification with rites of initiation and assented about the failure to integrate back into the community.  This caused some discussion on the fourth century experience which created both the initiation rites and the need for mystagogy.  The group explored the reasons for mystagogy against this historical backdrop in search of reasons why the preparation for baptismal succeeds better today than our mystagogy.  We expressed the value of mystagogical catechesis for the entire parish community while searching for ways to help it take root.

Turner presented a table of ritual values which surface in male and female initiation rites, adapted from Catherine Vincie's article in last year's Proceedings (esp. pp. 161, 166f).  He proposed that male ritual values include puberty as initiation, accepting a lower status during the liminal stage, separation, isolation, peer bonding, removal of clothing, the imposition of taboos, and the forming of community.  Female ritual values included puberty as intensification, the maintaining of a similar status, enclosure, modified spatial change, intergenerational bonding, addition of clothing, the suffering of taboos, and emergence.

Conversation returned to the problem of defining initiation.  Although the anthropological sciences speak of initiation in terms of maturity rites, the rites of Christian initiation pertain more to transfer of allegiance for the initiate, and to the sharing of a way of life for the community.  The revival of elaborate initiation rites today may parallel the fourth century church's need to call forth allegiance to Christ in the midst of a society promoting other values.

In light of this discussion, the group agreed to accept the invitation from the Medieval Studies seminar to spend one session together next year.  We are especially interested in learning the relationship between the initiation rites of a particular period and the worldview which created a need for their development.  John J. O'Brien will present information on the fourth century worldview, referring to The Making of Late Antiquity by Peter Brown.  Vincie will surface some issues of conversion.  We hope these discussions on the early and medieval church will help us examine the issues of implementation and conversion which surface in the initiation rites of today's churches.

The group selected Ron Anderson as its new convener.

This report appeared in the Proceedings (1996) of the North American Academy of Liturgy.

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