There is no shortage these days of crises and semi-crises with which Episcopalians and other varieties of Anglicans can amuse themselves. The sexuality wars seem to have ebbed — sadly, not through reconciliation, but through one side achieving commanding victory. Continuing shrinkage of attendance and membership periodically sounds fresh alarms. The legitimacy of offering Holy Communion to the unbaptized is sure to raise hackles well into the future. Conversation around liturgical revision is continuing to grow in intensity.
In the midst of all this ferment, the subject of the “sacramental rite” (per the 1979 BCP) of confirmation remains an enduring presence, though it rarely achieves top-tier status. Lots of Episcopalians, lay and ordained, seem to think they know what confirmation is, but our canons and liturgical forms are, at best, ambiguous, and there’s nothing approaching broad agreement about how to interpret them. If one were pressed to describe a practical consensus on the issue, it would probably be something along the lines of “Confirmation is the sacrament of becoming an Episcopalian.” I suspect nobody would actually ever teach such a thing formally, but as we actually go about our life together as a church, that’s what it appears we believe.
Confirmation — along with its liturgical-sacramental cousins, reception and reaffirmation — does deserve to be talked about. The quest for clarity — just among ourselves, to say nothing of ecumenical partners — is a worthy one. Is confirmation a proper sacrament in its own right, one of the seven? If not, what is it? What is its relation to baptism? To the Holy Spirit? (These questions are certainly raised if one overlays onto the conversation the theology of confirmation in the 1928 Prayer Book, with its appeal to Acts 8:14-17.)
However, I don’t intend to answer such questions in this post! Rather, I want to lay what I believe is some historical groundwork necessary to give the questions a coherent context. As one who is in what might be described as “early old age,” having come into the Episcopal Church — and, indeed, gotten confirmed — in early adulthood, there are some aspects to the confirmation debate that are still a living memory for me, but which are in danger, I fear, of being overlooked, if not mostly forgotten.
The liturgical forms that are labeled “Confirmation” in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (which has been authorized for use since Advent 1976) are the result of a very particular narrative that was developed and embraced by those who were responsible for compiling and framing the rite. This narrative, which is probably most fully articulated by the booklet Prayer Book Studies 26 (published in 1973 by the Standing Liturgical Commission, now styled the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music, and authored by member Daniel Stevick), is roughly as follows:
In the beginning there was baptism. The epicenter of baptism involves, normatively, the immersion of the candidate in water “in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Fairly early on, the rite of baptism was built out with various appurtenances: laying aside of clothing, renunciation of evil, adherence to Christ, anointing with oil (both preceding and following the baptism itself), laying-on of hands, invocation of the Holy Spirit, clothing with a white robe (alb), and so forth, the details varying from place to place and time to time. The presumptive principal minister was the bishop, and baptism was generally reserved for the early hours of Easter morning, as part of the celebration of the Great Vigil.
Baptism, then, was a single rite, but with clearly discernible segments. It testified to a complex of meaning — cleansing, forgiveness, regeneration, initiation, bestowal of the Holy Spirit — that was rich, but unified. Moreover, it was integrally associated with the Eucharist. The neophyte, who until this point had been dismissed from the liturgy following the homily, was now welcomed to join the assembly for the Prayers of the Faithful, the Sign of Peace, the Eucharist proper, and to receive Holy Communion for the first time.
As the life of the church developed, it was no longer deemed feasible, as a practical matter, to reserve all baptisms to the cathedral Easter Vigil liturgy. In the East, bishops tended to delegate the entire rite to the presbyters serving the outlying parishes. In the West, bishops tended to delegate the water rite, and any pre-baptismal anointing, but to continue to reserve to themselves the post-baptismal anointing, laying-on of hands, and particular prayers associated with the gift of the Holy Spirit. The assumption was that, sometime during the Great Fifty Days, those baptized in the parishes would make their way to the cathedral church for the bishop to administer these deferred segments of what was still seen as a unified baptismal rite.
It is not difficult to imagine, then, how such a separation of the segments led inexorably to the perception that each was a distinct liturgical-sacramental occasion in its own right. The bishop “confirmed” what had already happened in baptism, adding his own distinctive contribution, with chrismation, hand-laying, and invocation of the Spirit. This is where we get the language (overtly eschewed in the BCP ’79) of confirmation being the “completion” of baptism. Eventually, the temporal separation between baptism and its “confirmation” became a matter of months and years, rather than weeks, and we see the emergence of a “sacrament” that has baptismal overtones, but which has its own identity, a distinctive “outward and visible sign” which is then duly theologized with its own “inward and spiritual grace.”
The new and reconfigured ecclesial communities that emerged in the sixteenth century added an additional layer of meaning onto confirmation — that of rite-of-passage (a sort of “Christian bar mitzvah”), mature confession of faith, taking responsibility for one’s own baptismal vows, etc. — that had nothing at all to do with the segments of the single baptismal pattern that were its antecedents. In England, confirmation became a prerequisite for admission to Holy Communion (which is still canonically the case there and in many parts of the Anglican Communion), thus fostering the notion that one must “understand” the meaning of the sacrament before partaking of it. The subtitle of the prayer book form for confirmation indicated that the intended recipient of the ministration was someone who had been “baptized, and come to years of discretion.”
We come now to the fecund turmoil occasioned by the Liturgical Movement, germinating theoretically in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and coming to a head practically in the 1960s and 70s, with the Second Vatican Council and, for Episcopalians, the adoption of the most radical revision of the Book of Common Prayer in the history of the genre. The primary impetus behind this movement was a flowering of scholarship that unearthed a rich collection of ancient documentary sources that shed great light on the sacramental and liturgical life of the first several generations of Christians. Both baptismal and eucharistic practices were stunningly (some would say refreshingly; others had a more sober assessment) recontextualized by these historical discoveries. The formative liturgical experience of nearly all western rite Christians today is noticeably different from what it was fifty and sixty years ago precisely because of these historical discoveries. (It should be noted that historical scholarship continues to evolve, and some of what became standard narrative forty years ago is now disputed. Nonetheless, the rites that are most widely in use still bear the mark of that era.)
So, the members of the Episcopal Church’s Standing Liturgical Commission faced the question: What do we do with confirmation? The hermeneutic employed by earlier iterations of the BCP (Acts 8) seemed untenable in light of the most recent research. Their opening gambit, prior to the 1970 General Convention, was to simply reunify all the segments of the ancient baptismal liturgy, with the bishop as the presumptive presider, but, in the absence of the bishop, a priest being authorized to preside at the entire rite (i.e., including chrismation, hand-laying, and invocation of the Holy Spirit).
The volume authorized by that convention, Services for Trial Use, contained a single liturgy styled “Holy Baptism with Laying-on of Hands,” in which the rubrics authorized a presbyter to preside. There was no separate service of confirmation. However, we can infer that some robust conversations took place at convention between the bishops and representatives of the SLC, because the enabling resolution specifies that no person will receive the laying-on of hands who is “under the present age normal for confirmation.” Conspicuously left unanswered is the question whether a person who does qualify to receive laying-on of hands by a presbyter in that context is expected at some future time to be presented to the bishop for confirmation.
It was during the interim between the General Conventions of 1970 and 1973 that Prayer Book Studies 26 was issued, which presaged the new trial-use volume issued in 1973, Authorized Services. This new book contained two quite significant developments from its predecessor. First, the baptismal rite preserved all the elements of the liturgy contained in Services for Trial Use, but without the previous age restriction about receiving laying-on of hands. Second, it added a clearly cognate but separately-titled service with the unwieldy name “A Form for Confirmation, or Laying-On of Hands by the Bishop, with the Affirmation of Baptismal Vows.” The prefatory material to this form includes the language about confirmation by a bishop being a normative expectation of everyone “in the course of their Christian development” as we now find on p. 412 of the BCP.
What does this all mean? It plausibly means, I would suggest, that the SLC played a sort of semantic shell game with the House of Bishops! The oral tradition indicates that the bishops were exercised at the early trend that would simply have removed confirmation as a discrete event and restored the ancient segmented unity of the baptismal rite. They complained that confirmation was their only routine pastoral connection to lay people, and they did not want to be bereft of it. So, the SLC mollified the bishops by including in their proposal, which eventually became the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, a separately-named service bearing the name “confirmation,” but all the while retaining what they had sought the whole time: a unified baptismal rite that, in addition to the baptism per se, includes chrismation, laying-on of hands, and a prayer calling forth the gift of the Holy Spirit, all of which may be administered by a presbyter, if the bishop is not present.
What does this say, then, about the sacramentality of confirmation? In the larger Anglican and Catholic world, perhaps, it arguably says very little, certainly nothing definitive. It is a rather idiosyncratic facet of the Episcopal Church’s history that can possibly nudge but not bend the shape of intra-Anglican and ecumenical conversations. Among Episcopalians, however — in a context where the Catholic wing of the church has long contended that confirmation is, in itself, a discrete sacrament — it seems to indicate that the “sacramental guts” of confirmation are now located in the liturgy of holy baptism, and a priest is the normal, if not normative, minister. It implies that what we call confirmation was created more or less from whole cloth by the Standing Liturgical Commission, which gift-wrapped it and presented it to the General Convention in 1976. The convention then duly received and incorporated it into the liturgical praxis of Episcopalians, all, so to speak, without missing a beat. “New” confirmation, as it were, has the “look and feel” of “old” confirmation, and while it might be regarded as sacrament-like, there is no basis for thinking of it as a sacrament. The liturgy for confirmation might begin on p. 413 of the prayer book, but the sacrament of confirmation is found on p. 308.
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Martins is the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Springfield.