Male and female laypeople are leading baptismal liturgies in the Diocese of Basel, in Switzerland, in a turn-around to a job usually reserved to ordained ministers.

Driving the news

In early November, Bishop of Basel Felix Gmür gave permission to two laywomen pastoral agents to lead baptisms in the Pastoral Unit (UP) of Leimental, in the canton of Solothurn, as the Basellandschaftliche Zeitung reported last week.

As it turns out, though, the authorisation in Leimental is not an isolated case.

Laypeople have been baptising in Basel since July, when a new diocesan regulation came into force.

“Under certain conditions, pastoral workers, men and women, could already receive the mandate to baptise. The practice already existed”, diocesan spokesman Hansruedi Huber told Swiss Bishops’ website

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The Church’s Code of Canon Law provides for the possibility of laypeople conducting baptisms, but only in the absence of the regular ministers of deacons, priests or bishops.

The novelty of the new regulation in Basel is that lay parish leaders who possess a missio canonica – that is, an official ecclesial mandate of the bishop – automatically receive permission to celebrate the sacrament of Christian initiation, even without an ordained minister present.

Not only is the change designed to streamline the pastoral care of families in the diocese, explained spokesman Huber.

Elke Kreiselmeyer – one of the Leimental parish workers who has received the mandate to baptise – added that the new provision is a strong signal for women’s equality and a step towards their equal rights in the Church.

Why it matters

Spokesman Huber said that in entrusting baptismal liturgies to laypeople, Basel diocesan authorities had been inspired by similar directives in force in other German-speaking local Churches.

German Bishops’ website recalled that a similar provision was in force in the Diocese of Aachen under now-emeritus bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff (1994-2015), who allowed laypeople to baptise in between the appointments of parish priests.

Canon lawyer Thomas Schüller, however, told that in granting laypeople licence to lead baptismal liturgies the Bishop of Basel had taken “a very far-reaching step”.

Schüller predicted that although he couldn’t see any German bishops taking the step for now, the situation could change in a decade or so.

That’s as the German Church continues to deal with the decline in vocations and the growing demands of laypeople for more responsibility in the Church.

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