This post on confirmation is something of a companion piece to my post from two weeks ago: “How radical a revision?” See also last week’s post by Stewart Clem: “Feed the children.”

One of my students sent me an email to get my thoughts on the short “Preface Concerning the Confirmation Liturgy Draft Text Proposed by the Bishops Review Committee” of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). It’s not clear whether this is the preface to a liturgy already written, or if this was meant to be a summary statement regarding the committee’s approach that they first put to the bishops for their approval before beginning their task. Either way, it’s worth reading the statement to see where our ACNA brethren are thinking regarding the hotly debated question of Confirmation.

I should say that I write this as one who has read ACNA’s “Texts for Common Prayer” with some real appreciation. It seems that their approach has been (1) to begin with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer currently authorized in the Episcopal Church, (2) to read it with some of its American and English antecedents in mind, and then (3) to adjust and amend it accordingly. And the results have been quite wonderful in many ways. The revised forms of the Daily Office, for instance, are a great example. They restored some items that were lost from the first American BCP:

  1. the use of the collect, “Grant to your faithful people … ” after confession if there is no priest;
  2. the use of “O God, make speed …” at morning prayer in addition to, “O Lord, open thou our lips” (though they oddly retain the later at Evening Prayer);
  3. the restoration of the Kyries in the Preces and the final Response in the last of the suffrages, “And take not your Holy Spirit from us.”

I certainly have my quibbles with various edits in the Communion liturgy, however, particularly their grammatical and syntactical attempts to contemporize the hieratic language of the older BCPs.

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To properly examine the Preface regarding Cofirmation, it is worth noting at the same time that the report from a few years back of ACNA’s Prayer Book and Common Liturgy Task Force speaks of the 1979 BCP as an expression more of liturgical “revolution” than “revision.” In fact, it goes even further and says that the 1979 revision was an “intentional rejection of the prayer book tradition.” They suggest a substitution of the term “evolutionary” in place of “revolution” as a more fitting way to describe proper liturgical development.

The text of the Preface regarding Confirmation is brief enough that I’ll print the text of the first three out of four paragraphs as I go, one paragraph at a time, followed by a few comments. The statement begins like this:

Anglicanism requires a public and personal profession of the Faith from every adult believer in Jesus Christ. Confirmation by a bishop is its liturgical expression. Confirmation is evident in Scripture: the Apostles prayed for, and laid their hands on those who had already been baptized (Acts 8:14-17; 19:6).

I keep toying with this first sentence in my mind. If they mean this to be an accurate description of how the majority of Anglicans think about confirmation, I think they may be correct. But if this is meant to be descriptive of Anglicanism in any historical sense, than it is certainly misleading and probably just flat out wrong. Why?

At least one implication of the practice of requiring both baptism and Confirmation before reception of Holy Communion in the English and American BCPs (until 1979) is that God administers something in Confirmation (as opposed to it being simply a ritual acknowledgement that one is now mature enough to willingly give themselves to the Christian faith). Or at least that there is a sacramental encounter with God in that moment (which, by definition, would mean that it is an encounter unique to that sacrament). Otherwise, why does the bishop pray not only for a strengthening of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation, but for the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit? The petition that the candidate be defended “with thy heavenly grace” is also interesting, as it has no parallel in the baptism rites (that is, it’s not a repetition of something already requested in that ritual). In short, what the bishop petitions on behalf of the candidate are things not requested at baptism.

The rest of the ACNA statement reflects in many ways the tension that persists around this controverted rite, a tension that began in the twentieth century and endures into the twenty-first. While the adage that Confirmation is a “rite in search of a theology” is maybe a bit too cavalier, it is true that the intention of Confirmation and its relationship to baptism remain hotly contested. The English BCP certainly reflects the recognition of many sixteenth-century reformers that there is a real pastoral benefit from a rite that allows for a more mature public affirmation of faith for those baptized as infants or young children. But it is also difficult to read the Confirmation rite in the historic English books and conclude that this pastoral concern is the only purpose of the rite. But the language in the ACNA statement that “Confirmation by a bishop is its liturgical expression,” could indicate a more pragmatic view of Confirmation (as opposed to anything actually sacramental). That it, it seems to advocate a anthropocentric rather than theocentric view of the rite. We should recall that the Catholic Church has maintained the traditional Western conception of the three sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist. They “lay the foundation of every Christian life,” the Catechism explains. “By means of these sacraments of Christian initiation, they thus receive in increasing measure the treasures of the divine life and advance toward the perfection of charity” (CCC, par. 1212). This approach was maintained in many ways in the English and American BCPs. In spite of the fact that Confirmation gets no mention in the early Catechisms’ discussions of the sacraments (despite the Catechism being appended to the Confirmation rite), baptism and Confirmation were both required before reception of Holy Communion.

While the desire to ground ritual practice explicitly in scripture is understandable, the claim that confirmation is grounded on the practice in Acts chapter 8 and 19 is historically untenable. The 1962 Canadian BCP (which ACNA’s liturgy position paper also mentions favorably more than once) makes this same Scriptural claim and then directs that both passages be read (see page 557-558). Nonetheless, the evidence is simply not there. Confirmation as Western Christians practice it did not arise through a reading of Acts that they then translated into a ritual practice.

In Confirmation, God, through the bishop’s prayer for daily increase in the Holy Spirit, strengthens the believer for Christian life in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Grace is God’s gift, and we pray that he will pour out his Holy Spirit on those who have already been made his children by adoption and grace in Baptism.

This paragraph indicates some openness to a view that Confirmation is more than simply an act of the individual. In the first sentence, there is a belief expressed that the bishop’s prayer for an increase of the Holy Spirit is necessarily effective, but this approach appears to be weakened in the second sentence.

At the direction of the Bishop, and after public reaffirmation of their baptismal promises, those having made adult professions of faith in other Christian traditions (including those confirmed in other traditions) are received into the Anglican Church with prayer and the laying on of hands by a bishop.

This is maybe the most interesting claim, as it follows the very novel claims made in Canon I.17 in the canons of the Episcopal Church. If we were to summarize the positions of those canons, it would go something like this:

Every person in this church should have episcopal hands laid on their head, whether in baptism administered by the bishop (with the laying on of at least one hand, as described on page 308 of the ’79 BCP), Confirmation, reception, or reaffirmation of baptismal vows.

Those canons allow that a person baptized as an adult in another tradition (unfortunately, it doesn’t specify whether or not this be a church with bishops whose succession is recognized by the Episcopal Church) is to be received “by the laying on of hands by a Bishop of this Church, rather than confirmed” (Canon I.17.(1).c).

This raises a number of questions:

  • Does this assume that reception is not normally administered with the laying on of hands, but by some other gesture (something more like a handshake, the bishop clasping the candidates right hand with both hands, as is the practice in some places)?
  • Is there a theology that underlies the practice that every person should have episcopal hands laid on their head, or is this merely a weak sign of being connected to the wider church joined to an act of an individual Christian? This would be similar to the way than many free-church Protestants view baptism — as a public affirmation of something God has already done.
  • What does it mean that the intentions of the various prayers that are joined to the action of the laying on of hands in each of the four possible contexts where this could take place are not the same?

What is most interesting in the context of the ACNA statement is that they are following precisely the approach of the 1979 BCP revision on one of its most revolutionary points (I referred to this more generally, and the explication of Colin Podmore in his essay on the 1979 BCPs baptismal ecclesiology, in my earlier post, “How Radical a Revision?”).

The radical and revolutionary nature of the 1979 BCP was precisely one of the things that ACNA wishes to stand against, both in their liturgical rites and in general. Even more, it appears to be in tension with the position of GAFCON’s Jerusalem Declaration, which affirms a particular doctrinal importance for the 1662 English BCP. This 1662 focus, it is important to note, is itself at odds with the ACNA position paper on liturgy cited above, which never mentions the 1662 BCP, but speaks quite favorably of 1549 English rite and the 1928 American BCP.

While a proposed baptism rite for the ACNA is already floating around, what will be most instructive is to see whether the confirmation rite they ultimately produce really does stand in the 1979 BCP’s trajectory of “radical revolution” or whether it is more akin to the pre-1979 rites of the historic books.

How Anglican will they ultimately be?

The featured image is a detail of Roger van der Weyden’s “Seven Sacrament’s Altarpiece” (1445×1450). It is in the public domain. 

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

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This is a great analysis, Matthew. In response to this post (as well as to your previous “How Radical a Revision?”), I’d like to propose a test case: Should we adopt an approach to confirmation that mirrors that of the Eastern churches? That is, when we baptize infants, should we administer confirmation as well? I know that some on this blog have implied that confirmation is “implied” in the current baptism rite (via chrismation), but I’m talking about an explicit rite of confirmation (with no redundant laying on of hands by the bishop at a later date). It seems that… Read more »

Thanks, this is really helpful. And I’m all for restoring the 1549 exorcism in the baptism rite! I do have a question about what you suggest here: “c) post-baptismal anointing by the priest with chrism; d) Confirmation at a later point when older with laying on of hands, prayer for the Holy Spirit and the seven-fold gifts, anointing with Chrism. When the baptism is of an adult, they should be confirmed in the same rite by the bishop and receive Communion immediately.” First: Is this, in fact, RC practice? I was under the impression that there is nothing like (d)… Read more »

Todd Granger

Matt, I have to admit that this hits me where I live, because I was received – rather than confirmed – from Presbyterianism, having been baptized at nine years old in the Baptist church in which I grew up and came to faith. As a matter of fact, I distinctly recall sitting in Timothy Kimbrough’s office (he was less than three months into his rectorship at Holy Family), his showing me the canon that permitted my being received rather than confirmed. This he had done after I had expressed some concerns about confirmation, which I understood in functional/psychological terms, my… Read more »

Todd Granger

Didn’t finish my thoughts. Does a theology and liturgical practice of baptism as “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit,” understanding that this includes not only the water bath but chrismation and the laying on of hand(s) drive us toward an abandonment of the Western practice of confirmation, given its history as an accident of Western polity, into an embrace of the Eastern practice of baptism, much as Stewart Clem asks (and the revisers/revolutionaries of 1979 intended)? And if not, then what are our catholic and scriptural reasons for mainntaining historic Anglican practice? (Understand that I’m not necessarily staking… Read more »

Matthew, Your description of the conventional Roman Catholic practice seems accurate to me. For the past hundred years or so, most of the faithful in the Latin Church have been initiated in precisely that way. Nevertheless, I would not propose it for emulation. Most importantly, I think Stew’s quibbles really do identify a critically important problem: redundancy. Moreover, I would say that that problem only gets worse when Confirmation becomes dislodged from its proper place in the sequence. Once you’ve put it after Communion, what’s it really for? The answer will necessarily diverge from its historic and received meaning. And… Read more »