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Rachel Held Evans, adult conversion, and the necessity of confirmation

Influential evangelical writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans has gotten a fair amount of attention recently for leaving evangelicalism to become an Episcopalian (although she’s been attending an Episcopal church for some time now). In an interview with Jonathan Merritt of Religions News Service (RNS), Held Evans described a process of “finding [her] own way,” noting her attraction to practices that she “felt were missing in my evangelical experience,” including room for silence and the central place of the Eucharist.

Her soon-to-be-released Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church promises to tell the story of her recent journey. Structured around the liturgical year, the book has a chapter on each of the seven sacraments. Held Evans will also be producing a series of short films on the book’s liturgical themes through The Work of the People, an emergent-progressive evangelical film platform, whose founder, Travis Reed, also recently announced his own conversion to the Episcopal Church.

Online chatter about the announcement has swirled around whether we could we be seeing the beginning of a new installment of “Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail,” albeit from a more progressive/emergent direction. Others have quibbled about RNS’s headline, which seemed to assume that Held Evans’s evangelical conviction and experience had no real place inside the red doors of her new home.

In her interview, Held Evans was quick to assert that she didn’t dare to speak for all evangelicals (or millennials), but was making a deeply personal choice, almost a quintessential part of the American religious experience. “It’s common in young adulthood, I think, to seek out faith traditions that complement the one in which you were raised. It’s not about rejecting your background, just about finding your own way.”

The title and structural format of Held Evans’s book, as well as the book’s Pinterest page, covered in stained glass windows, rural sanctuaries, and candlelit icons clearly suggest that Episcopalianism, for her, is about “finding your own way” into a church. This has, of course, been one the most venerable and enduring traditions of American Episcopalianism. We are a place for refugees from our nation’s polyglot Protestantism to find a church, as adults, and in reaction to evangelicalism’s consistent tendency toward the ephemeral, slick, and heavy-handed. And, despite Held Evans’s attraction to the Episcopal Church’s progressive social witness, it is notable that her book is structured around the seven sacraments, not the millennium development goals.

The Prayer Book’s profound liturgy, the well-worn patterns of feast and fast, a worldwide communion, apostolic succession, (sometimes) a more patient and tolerant ethos: these are the treasures we have to share with the disenchanted.

You can trace this story back, at least, to 1722, when a group of young Congregationalist clergymen, led by Timothy Cutler, the rector of Yale College, decided to seek Episcopal ordination. Announcing their intentions by the scandalous act of a Prayer Book Blessing at the Yale Commencement, the “Yale Apostates” touched off quite a scandal in the intellectual world of colonial New England. Though, like Held Evans, their disenchantment was somewhat related to progressive ideas (in their case, John Locke’s epistemology), it was a more Catholic approach to worship and church life they were seeking. Cutler and his colleague, Samuel Johnson, went to England for ordination, and, after returning to the New World, became tireless advocates for an American episcopacy and laid the foundation of the High-Church “Connecticut churchmanship” that would culminate in the consecration of our first bishop, Samuel Seabury.

Though Americans have always switched religions at highly disproportionate rates, the Episcopal Church has long stood out on the American religious landscape as a “convert’s church.” There is, not, to my knowledge, a thorough study of the subject, but a quick glance through the biography section of David Hein and Gardiner Shattuck’s The Episcopalians (2005) reveals just how common a narrative like Held Evans’s has been, among many of our most influential clerical and lay leaders. Missionary bishops Philander Chase, James Otey, and Henry Whipple were all Protestant coverts, as were influential advocates for reform like William Augustus Muhlenberg, Thomas Gallaudet, and Absalom Jones. The famed neo-Gothic architect Ralph Cram was a devoted adult convert to our church, as was Frances Perkins, whose Anglo-Catholic vision for social reform played a crucial role in the creation of the welfare state. Roman Catholic converts have also been an important feature of church life, especially since the mid-twentieth century, and have included such controversial figures as Bishop James Pike and our current Presiding Bishop. Among the clergy and lay people I know, the phenomenon shows no sign of abating. A few years ago, I happened to ask at a vestry meeting how many of those present had grown up as Episcopalians. Only one hand was raised.

There are some ways in which this is an embarrassing phenomenon for us. The high status the Episcopal Church has often held in American society has arguably led to more “conversions of convenience” than we would like to admit. We have often been notoriously ineffective at forming faith in our own children, so that we have less “retention” than nearly any other American denomination. And from the Yale apostates onward, many of our converts have criticized their former churches with a stridency and volume that seems uncharitable and rather distasteful in this more ecumenical age. Held Evans has tried to be careful about this, which will hopefully make her audience within traditional evangelicalism more willing to listen to the new things she has to share.

I, for one, am intrigued by what Held Evans will say in her book’s chapter about confirmation. Because she probably has been or will be confirmed by a bishop. And she probably won’t be the only adult in her confirmation class. The Church’s most recent statistical tables (for 2013) show that more adults than youth were confirmed in that year (12,021 to 10,235), with another 6970 adults being received (mostly from Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches).

Adult confirmation has probably been more important and commonplace in our church than nearly any other, because of the denominational complexity of American religion and the tendency of so many Protestants to find church among us. Though many Protestant churches do have a rite of confirmation, these are almost invariably administered only to youth and by local pastors. Baptized adults, in these churches, have usually been received into a congregation through a rite of voluntary affiliation. Together with Roman Catholics, though, Anglicans have always insisted that confirmation be administered by a bishop, and as a normative part of Christian initiation — necessary for adult converts as well as youth.

The Yale apostates had to sail to England to be confirmed before their ordinations because of the lack of an American Anglican bishop. The proper administration of confirmation was often cited as a reason for seeking our own bishops, a particular necessity at a time when confirmation was also the canonical requirement for reception of Holy Communion. The energetic and influential John Henry Hobart, Bishop of New York, set a widely imitated standard for diligent administration of confirmation in the early nineteenth century. For Hobart, whose writings placed a great deal of emphasis on defending “apostolic order” against presbyterian and congregationalist polities, confirmation was essential precisely because it was churchly, reinforcing the necessity of the apostolic bishop. Hobart’s teaching and example played an indirect role in our church’s tendency toward relatively small dioceses, as confirmation needed to be administered regularly.

Earlier versions of the Episcopal confirmation rites were adapted from their English counterparts to reflect the fact that they were so often administered to adult converts from Protestant churches. The 1789 Prayer Book’s rite, for example, dropped the mention of candidates being presented by their godparents, because children were not assigned godparents in the baptismal practice of most Protestant churches. The 1928 Prayer Book also inserted Acts 8:14-19 as a Scriptural warrant for confirmation, a point further emphasized by describing the bishop’s laying of hands as “after the example of thy holy Apostles.” Though influenced by wider Anglican discussions about the role of the Holy Spirit in confirmation, the Episcopal decision to follow several other Anglicans in adopting this Scriptural warrant was almost certainly shaped by our experience as a place where Protestants found the church.

That particular innovation was firmly rejected in the preparation of the Confirmation rite in our current Prayer Book, as both bad Scriptural exegesis and insufficient baptismal theology. It was one thing to claim (as our current rite does only barely) that confirmation is an activation of the Holy Spirit, present since Baptism. It’s another thing entirely to suggest that a baptized Methodist who wishes to become an Episcopalian could be analogized to those ancient Samaritan converts. After all, the Samaritans had been baptized only in the name of Jesus, and, as for the Holy Spirit, “as yet he was fallen upon none of them.”

I assume that Rachel Held Evans would become an Episcopalian through confirmation, as this is the clear policy in my own diocese. Here in the Diocese of Albany, confirmed Roman Catholics and chrismated Orthodox are received; all other new Episcopalians are confirmed. But the “reception” category introduced by the 1979 Prayer Book is notoriously vague, and from conversations with friends around the church, it’s clear that in some places adult converts are normally received unless they “discern a need” for confirmation. In others, one becomes an “active member” of the local congregation and thus an Episcopalian, merely by showing up a few times for worship and putting a traceable donation in the offering plate.

A recent book of essays by some important Episcopal leaders, Signed, Sealed, Delivered (2014), seeks to bring a bit of clarity to our rather scandalous muddle in these areas by a draconian and shortsighted solution. Several essayists propose that we drop altogether the Prayer Book’s rubric “that those baptized as adults … are also expected to make a public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their Baptism in the presence of a bishop and to receive the laying on of hands” (214). They also suggest the removal of confirmation as a requirement for ordination and the practice of any lay ministry. The broad strokes of their argument focus on the tension between the Prayer Book’s advocacy of confirmation as an inherited, normative practice and the understanding of Baptism as “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church” (298). Apparently, we must make a choice between these two rubrics and the baptismal theology they represent, and, in line with wider ecumenical consensus and the clear thrust of the 1979 Prayer Book, the old theology of confirmation simply must go.

Ruth Meyers, professor of liturgics at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, feels, that confirmation should remain, but for those for whom it could serve as a “ritual expression of their renewed commitment and of God’s enabling Spirit …. But such a ritual is not essential to Christian faith and life” (38). Citing a 1991 Anglican liturgical consultation report, she advocates for “a ‘stretched’ rite, perhaps termed commissioning or affirmation, able to be repeated as different pastoral needs arise, and creatively adapted to various times and places.” Perhaps this “may bring new life to this distinctive Anglican heritage [i.e. confirmation]” (42).

At the 77th General Convention in 2012, the Standing Liturgical Commission proposed several resolutions (A042, A043, and A044) aimed at removing or reviewing confirmation as a requirement for church leadership. These were rejected by convention or referred to committee, but resolutions like them will almost certainly return at this summer’s General Convention.

The lack of rubrical clarity surrounding the administration is clearly scandalous for any church that claims to be administering Catholic sacraments. And the consensus within the church surrounding the meaning of confirmation has shifted since 1928, for some good reasons as well as some troubling ones. But almost entirely absent from the discussions at General Convention in 2012 as well as the essays in Signed, Sealed, Delivered was a serious consideration of the fact that we remain a church where the majority of confirmation candidates are adults, not youth, and that our witness and identity as a church is connected with being a place where people come seeking church. For many of those people (such as Rachel Held Evans), that deeper experience of church means gifts like historic episcopacy, inherited sacramental practices, and communion with the body of the faithful across time and space. These gifts are on ample display in our inherited practice of confirmation. Let’s not be quick to discard one of the best things we have been given to offer.

The Episcopal Church’s witness and identify is connected with a deeper experience of church, with gifts like historic episcopacy, inherited sacramental practice, and communion with the faithful across time and space.

The featured image of Rachel Held Evans is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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