This is an article that I wrote for the Journey to Baptismal Living e-news. It is longer than most of my posts:
For Episcopalians, the first authoritative set of rites for the catechumenate was published in the 1988 Book of Occasional Services (BOS). Thirty years later, the 2018 General Convention approved a working version of a new BOS that includes a revision of the section on the catechumenate and related rites. For the most part, the approved rites remain the same as in the 1988 BOS. However, the instruction for implementing the catechumenate has significant modifications. This article will review some of those changes.
In general, the language in the 2018 BOS instructions is more pastoral than that of the 1988 version. In the 1988 version, the catechumenate is a period of training and instruction. The 2018 version describes the catechumenate as a time of discernment, as a period of exploration of the Christian life.
The list of those who are responsible for the preparation of catechumens is the same: the bishop, shared with local clergy, lay catechists and sponsors. The 1988 instructions are explicit about the roles and responsibilities of the sponsor. The sponsor needs to be well prepared for their ministry in the services and for guiding and supporting “their catechumen.” Sponsors also have a role in the discernment process as to when a catechumen is ready to celebrate the call to candidacy (i.e. enrollment). According to the 2018 instructions, “seekers” are to meet regularly with sponsors and catechists “to explore the interpretation of Scripture, communal worship, personal prayer, and service to the poor and oppressed.”
The 1988 instructions explicitly name the catechetical method as “experience first, then reflect,” i.e. mystagogy is the method throughout the catechumenate. This includes the recommendation that “the services not be discussed prior to their celebration.” The 2018 instructions change the language to “reflection”: reflection on the catechumens’ experience in the light of Scripture. There is nothing in terms of celebrating the rites before any discussion or rehearsal. This toning down of the place of mystagogy throughout the catechumenate reflects the input of catechumenate ministers during the 30 years between the two instructions on the catechumenate process. While the method of “experience first, then reflect” is fruitful when exercised, it is difficult to get catechumens and candidates to agree to proceeding “blindly” into the celebration of the rites.
In 1988 the instructions spoke of “classes,” “curriculum” and “instruction.” These terms can lead to the misunderstanding that the catechumenate consists of classes. The 2018 instructions are more explicit: “each catechetical session consists of reflection on the readings of the Sunday Eucharistic Lectionary…. Preparation for Baptism…should not be confused with reading or memorizing the Catechism found in The Book of Common Prayer. (emphasis added). This latter language leaves no doubt that the catechumenate is not about teaching the doctrines and dogmas of the Church. Instead, it is about mutual discovery, through reflection, of who Jesus is for us.
The year-around catechumenate remains a topic of discussion for many catechumenate teams. Should we attempt to have a catechumenate process that is operational and available throughout the year or do we continue with a process that begins sometime in the fall and finishes on Pentecost Sunday? The 1988 BOS is explicit: “The catechumenate exists throughout the year in the parish, and persons may enter at any time.” (p. 112) The 2018 instructions are less direct: “The process of preparation is ongoing in the congregation, and persons may enter it at any time.” (p. 125) The modification recognizes that most congregations that have a catechumenate exercise a break in the ministry. Each congregation must still answer the question of what does it look like to have a catechumenate in which “persons may enter at any time.” That phrase remains in the 2018 instructions.
The instructions describe each of the “stages” (1988) or “steps” (2018). Stage 1, “The Pre-catechumenal Period” of 1988 becomes “Inquiry” in the 2018 introduction. The 1988 description of this period talks about “classes with sufficient preparation to enable persons to determine that they wish to become Christians.” (p. 113). But there is no mention of who will teach these classes. The 2018 edition identifies the inquiry as an exploration that “can occur in any number of settings and contexts.” Congregational leaders are encouraged not to teach but rather to look for creative ways to share the Gospel (p. 126)
Stage 2, “The Catechumenate” is renamed as “Exploration, or the Catechumenate.” The Rite of
Admission is explicitly named in the 2018 version as opposed to “a public liturgical act” in 1988. The 1988 version uses “instruction,” the language of knowledge transfer as opposed to catechumens gathering with their sponsors and catechist “to explore the interpretation of Scripture….” (p. 126). Both descriptions name four focus areas for this period: Scripture, communal worship, personal prayer, and service to the poor and oppressed. The 1988 version identifies this as the appropriate time to “determine the name by which one desires to be known in the Christian community.” (p. 113). There is no reference to naming in the 2018 version. (At some point in the process, many catechumens and candidates choose a “confirmation name.” Exploration of those named in The Great Cloud of Witnesses or other references to exemplars of Christian living can be a fruitful part of the catechumenate.)
The name of Stage 3 is changed from “Candidacy for Baptism” to “Preparation for Baptism.” The guidance on when the Rite of Enrollment is celebrated is changed from explicitly being the beginning of Advent or Lent to, more generally, “approximately six weeks prior to the date of Baptism.” (p.126) This allows for the numerous variations that may occur in the catechumenate journey. The 1988 instruction specifically mentions use of the “private disciplines of fasting, examination of conscience and prayer, in order that the candidates will be spiritually and emotionally ready for baptism.” (p. 114). These disciplines are not mentioned in the 2018 instructions.
The 1988 BOS addresses “a fourth period [that] immediately follows the administration of Holy Baptism” (p.114) but it does not name the period. Many catechumenate ministers have used the term “mystagogy,” in reference to this period. Perhaps, in recognition of confusion that use of the term “mystagogy” brings to many in our congregations, step four is now named “Reflection on the Sacraments.”
The 1988 version provides assistance in maintaining a separation in the celebration of rites for catechumens and for those already baptized. It provides “The Calling of the Baptized to Continuing Conversion” (i.e. those to be confirmed or received) on Ash Wednesday (pp. 133 & 137-139). The 2018 BOS includes a Rite of Enrollment on the First Sunday of Lent for those being confirmed, received or who are reaffirming their baptismal vows. The baptized are to enroll their names after the catechumens. I suspect this change recognizes what is taking place in many congregations. In general, there is less of an emphasis on ritual separation of the catechumens and the candidates for Confirmation, Reception and Reaffirmation. The consistent instruction is to celebrate Welcoming and Enrollment after welcoming and enrolling catechumens.
The 2018 Additional Directions (p. 136) provides prayers of dismissal if the parish dismisses the catechumens following sermon. It also provides rubrics and prayers if the parish custom is to have catechumens remain in the Assembly for the Holy Communion. These rubrics and prayers are very helpful, as most parishes do not practice dismissal of catechumens.
As noted at the beginning of this article, the rites for catechumens remain substantially the same in the two editions. The 2018 edition includes a rite of “Recognition of Ministries in the Church and the World.” (pp. 154-155). This replaces the 1988 “Commissioning for Lay Ministries in the Church.” (pp. 175-191) There are three significant differences. First, the new rite is a recognition, not a commissioning. Second, the new rite is more inclusive; it recognizes ministries in the church and the world. Third, the new rite is placed immediately after the “Rite of Enrollment for Confirmation,….” This suggests that this rite might be used in similar fashion to the Lutheran rite “Affirmation of the Vocation of the Baptized in the World.” Both are appropriate celebrations on Pentecost Sunday.
Jared Cramer, an Episcopal priest and blogger (“Care with the Cure of Souls”), notes that the 2018 version of the catechumenate materials has an “extremely helpful and entirely re-written introduction.” There are no significant changes to the process, but the introductory explanation “is now much easier to understand and the language and ideas surrounding each stage are helpfully simplified.” (Blog entry of June 6, 2018). Hopefully this simplification will make the catechumenate more attractive for an increasing number of our congregational leaders.
References to the 1988 BOS are to the Second Edition, published by The Church Hymnal Corporation.
References to the 2018 BOS are to the edition found at episcopalchurch.org/what we do/liturgy and music.