Further thoughts on Confirmation

Bishop confirmingIn my continuing series on the “Blue” Book for General Convention, I posted a bit yesterday about some resolutions related to Christian formation and education. A could of those resolutions deal with confirmation, so I made a few comments. This has generated further conversation on various blogs and on Facebook. I thought it might be useful to share a bit more, since I can ramble on here without worrying about covering lots of resolutions within the post.

Confirmation is  — as the prayer book calls it — a sacramental rite of our church. On that, we can all agree. Once we say more, people start to have wildly varied opinions. Back in the day, confirmation was required in order to receive Holy Communion and for full adult membership in the Episcopal Church. There are some folks who would like to return to this view. Others would like to toss out the whole rite of confirmation. This particular post didn’t cause reactions which touch either of those extremes, but some things have been asserted which merit a response.

For the record, I am a fan of confirmation. I have gladly presented youth and adults for confirmation, and if I am called to return to parish ministry, I will hope to do so again. It is enough, in my view, to take seriously what the prayer book says in the catechism, that confirmation allow us to “express a mature commitment to Christ, and receive strength from the Holy Spirit through prayer and the laying on of hands by a bishop ” What’s not to like?

I see no reason to get rid of confirmation or to diminish this function. There is also no reason for confirmation to mean more than this. Is it not enough to receive strength from the Holy Spirit through prayer in the laying on of hands?

Our current prayer book makes it clear that baptism is full initiation into the Body of Christ. There is no asterisk. Check it out on page 298. Nowhere is confirmation described as a necessary sequel to baptism.

In the 1928 prayer book, the teaching was that confirmation be required prior to receiving Holy Communion, and therefore, confirmation was understood to be the completion of initiation begun in baptism. But we do not live by the 1928 prayer book. In the canons of days gone by, confirmation was required for adult membership in the church, but we no longer live by those canons. Indeed, according to our canons, one becomes a member of an Episcopal Church by having one’s baptism recorded in the parish register. There is no need to meet the bishop to “become and Episcopalian,” though I continue to encourage people to do this.

Derek Olsen responded to my post, writing that “Baptism is full initiation into the Body of Christ; Confirmation is full initiation into the Episcopal Church.” I can find nothing which says this, either in or canons or in the prayer book. I think it is a thought-relic of the 1928 prayer book.

In the universal church, there is a wide range of practices and teaching around Christian initiation. Some catholic Christians maintain the unity of the rites by doing baptism and confirmation in one fell swoop. Others practice confirmation by bishops at a later age, requiring confirmation prior to reception of Holy Communion. Both of these are ancient and venerable traditions. But it seems to me that what our prayer book teaches is the most ancient, venerable, and scriptural tradition. Baptism is more than enough. 

There is a also bit of misunderstanding floating around about what has been proposed. Chris Arnold says that the passage of current resolutions would remove the requirement of confirmation for those seeking Holy Orders, which is not correct. Rather, resolution A044 would ask that the issue of confirmation and ordination be studied. I have mixed feelings about this, as I wrote in my first blog post.

Chris is also concerned about efforts to remove confirmation as a requirement for leadership in the Episcopal Church because he sees a connection to (unfortunate, in my view) efforts to remove the requirement of baptism to receive Holy Communion. I do not see a direct connection here. The work on confirmation would actually clarify our baptismal theology, which if fully realized prevents us from sanctioning practices such as communion without baptism.

In a time of anxiety such as the present one, I think we need to be careful not to let our fear of one thing spill over into the thinking about another. This is not a criticism of Chris so much as it is a reminder for myself and all others. There are, for example, conversations going on about our church that frighten me. But I should not let these conversations and the fear they create in me spill over into things to which they are not connected.

Let me be clear: I support and embrace the place of confirmation in the life of our church. But let us celebrate it as a gift of the Holy Spirit rather than as a check box in our raising up of leaders.

I am delighted to report that Forward Movement is now publishing Confirm not Conform. I hope lots of congregations will use this program — or others like it — to prepare youth and adults for confirmation. But when we are preparing them, we are preparing them to make a mature profession of the Christian faith. No more, and no less. That is more than enough.

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19 Responses

  1. John Sandeman says:

    Scott,
    I seems clear that the “we” and the “church” in this discussion is The Episcopal Church.
    That means that my concern that TEC may make this change without talking to the rest of us Anglicans very real.
    Do you think that removing confirmation from your canons will enhance and promote its use. I suspect that it will encourage desuetude.
    If you want to encourage confirmation, what amendment to these proposals would help?

  2. Scott Gunn says:

    John, sorry, I didn’t see that you were from Australia. Well, thanks for stopping by and commenting!

    I think confirmation has already undergone a shift in many provinces of the communion. In a some provinces, it is required for admission to Holy Communion, but not in others. One could say that this is a continued evolution.

    One always has to balance local practice against the wider church as one contemplates change. Clearly, if we waited to agree on everything, nothing would change. That sounds ideal until we remember things like slavery, which required prophetic change by a few in order to change the whole.

    I don’t have easy answers, but I think you raise good points.

    The problem now is NOT that confirmation is not widely practiced. The problem is that hardly anyone takes it seriously. I think.

  3. Steve Pankey says:

    Thank you for this Scott. When preparing people of any age for Confirmation, I always go to the prayer the Bishop offers while laying hands upon the Confirmand. Either the new “Strenghten, O Lord, your servant N with your Holy Spirit; empower him for your service; and sustain him all the days of his life.” Or the older (and preferred imo) “Defend, O Lord, your servant N, with your heavenly geace, that she may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in your Holy Spirit more and more, until she comes to your everlasting kingdom.”

    Ther is no mention of Anglicanism or The Episcopal Church, just an invocation of the Spirit. Therefore, I don’t teach Episcoalianism but instead try to develop Disciples of Jesus empowered for ministry by the Spirit.

  4. John Sandeman says:

    I was not a cradle Anglican, but I have seen confirmation greatly help my children. Taking it seriously, helps it work!
    It is a wonderfully inclusive rite. When my elder daughter was confirmed she was one of several people with a disability confirmed that day: it was a foretaste of heaven when some of the things that divide will be taken away.
    And greetings from Sydney….

  5. Chris Arnold says:

    Dear Scott,

    Thank you for your gracious words. You are absolutely correct to point out my mistake with regard to resolution A044, which only asks for study about the matter. I think my slip reveals my skepticism about General Convention and studies – when we seek to “study” something, I just assume that it’ll become the reality sooner or later!

    -Chris

  6. Steve Pankey says:

    Thank you for this Scott.  When preparing people of any age for Confirmation, I always go to the prayer the Bishop offers while laying hands upon the Confirmand.  Either the new “Strenghten, O Lord, your servant N with your Holy Spirit; empower him for your service; and sustain him all the days of his life.” Or the older (and preferred imo) “Defend, O Lord, your servant N, with your heavenly geace, that she may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in your Holy Spirit more and more, until she comes to your everlasting kingdom.”

    There is no mention of Anglicanism or The Episcopal Church, just an invocation of the Spirit.  Therefore, I don’t teach Episcoalianism but instead try to develop Disciples of Jesus empowered for ministry by the Spirit.

  7. Scott Gunn says:

    John, you are from Sydney? A lovely city. We should talk about conversations with the wider church before changing tradition sometime. *cough* lay presidency *cough* 🙂

    Thanks for commenting. I agree that confirmation is a wonderfully inclusive rite.

    Steve, thanks. You are spot on.

  8. David Cobb says:

    While I am glad to be corrected- like Chris I thought it was proposing removing confirmation from the list of expectations for ordinands, but like Chris, I doubt the study of conversation will be much more than a “wear out the resistance” sort of move. What problem does this solve? How does it move mission and sanctification or even just surivival forward? It seems one more thing to distance us from the larger communion and to remove another aspect of a pattern of shared formation. Whatever our problem is, it is not that we have asked too much of ourselves in in understanding the Baptismal Covenant (ie the Creed and the rest of it) or too much in normal disciplines of sacramental participation. I just don’t follow who benefits from this one- and I think it is deeply connected to the movement for Communion regardless of Baptism. Most of the time, I’m right with you – but this one I just do not understand.

  9. Scott Gunn says:

    Hi David,

    We actually agree on confirmation & ordination. I will support the study so long as the result is not determined before the study begins. While it could be argued (not by me) that making baptism the sole requirement establishes a theological coherence and primacy of baptism, I think this change would introduce far more problems than it solves.

    And to be clear, I want us to maintain a rich practice of confirmation. But it makes no *theological* sense for confirmation to be a requirement for, say, vestry membership. Let’s let confirmation be what it is. And let’s find a better way (as one of the resolutions suggests) to make sure vestry members know what they need to know.

    All better now?

  10. Elizabeth Anderson says:

    I don’t know, Scott. I don’t just want vestry members/General Convention deputies, etc. who are well educated in “structure and governance”…or even in theology. I want leaders who have made a mature commitment to Christ and to their baptismal promises. Now we could, of course, invent something that would establish that. But we already have something, this sacramental rite of confirmation, which both establishes their commitment and imparts some kind of grace from the Holy Spirit (however imperfectly or variously understood.) Indeed, if I had to choose one or the other, I would rather have uneducated leaders who had made a mature commitment to Christ than very well educated ones who for some reason were not willing to make that commitment! I certainly don’t think that confirmation makes one “more” a member of the church (any more than ordination does), and certainly God can call those who have not yet been confirmed to positions of leadership…but when that happens, we should confirm them! Yes, absolutely baptism is full initiation into the body of Christ, but I think it is completely reasonable to expect a person who feels called to leadership in the church to willingly affirm what their baptism first established, and I would be very wary if someone who felt called to leadership did *not* want to affirm that for some reason…

  11. Scott Gunn says:

    Elizabeth, OK, I hear what you are saying. But then how do we say that baptism isn’t good enough for some ministries, but it is adequate for others? Does it matter if people are confirmed at age 11 or age 17? And why stop at vestry or deputy? Shall we require confirmation for admission to Holy Communion? And what about, say, Roman Catholics who become Episcopalians? Do we make them be received? What’s the rationale?

    I’m grateful for the conversation.

  12. Elizabeth Anderson says:

    I’m wary of age requirements in general. In fact, if I had my preference, I would eliminate all of this language of “adult” (age 16) as a prerequisite for leadership in the canons. Admittedly, I would be asking some hard questions of any person under 16 who felt called to leadership in the church, but I don’t think there is any inherent reason that God could not call someone younger to serve.

    I would definitely not require confirmation to receive the Eucharist, no. I think communion is for all the baptized, and I’m one of those who favors giving it to infants and young children also. I think there is still some room to figure this out, but for me, I would require confirmation for anyone who felt called to a lay ministry that involved a leadership role, and encourage (but not require) it for all of the baptized when I saw that they were at a point in their life and ministry when they obviously had a mature commitment to Christ…

    I don’t think I would require confirmed Roman Catholics to be received, no. I think it’s a very nice thing, and meaningful to many people, but we already acknowledge the validity of their sacraments, and I don’t think there is any rationale in requiring them to make a commitment to Christ *again* as if the first time was not sufficient….The bigger question would be the Orthodox or Eastern rite Catholics, who are confirmed as infants at the same time as baptism. I lean towards accepting that and not requiring confirmation/formal reception, but I think that is far more open to debate…Personally, I don’t know if I would go so far as to *require* reception/reaffirmation of baptismal promises in that case, but I would certainly very strongly encourage it…But that’s an exceptional case where I could probably be persuaded by an argument on either side…

  13. Chris Arnold says:

    What if we just got rid of infant baptism? Wouldn’t that solve all these difficulties?

  14. Jared Cramer says:

    “Derek Olsen responded to my post, writing that ‘Baptism is full initiation into the Body of Christ; Confirmation is full initiation into the Episcopal Church.’ I can find nothing which says this, either in or canons or in the prayer book. I think it is a thought-relic of the 1928 prayer book.”

    I gotta disagree with you on this one, Fr. Gunn. In my view, the canons of our church are rather clear (if oft-ignored). Note the use of the phrase “all adult members.”

    Title I, Canon 17, Section 1(c), “It is expected that all adult members of this Church, after appropriate instruction, will have made a mature public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their Baptism and will have been confirmed or received by the laying on of hands by a Bishop of this Church or by a Bishop of a Church in communion with this Church. Those who have previously made a mature public commitment in another Church may be received by the laying on of hands by a Bishop of this Church, rather than confirmed.

    • Scott Gunn says:

      Jared, you are right. Everyone should do this. But you become an Episcopalian when you register your baptism. So if a Baptist joins your parish, they are not in limbo (heh!) pending confirmation. Rather, they become a full member — an Episcopalian — as soon as you record them in the register. And then they should be prepared for confirmation. But that sacramental rite should be about grace, not law.

      To put it another way, are you suggesting that baptism is not sufficient to make one a full member of the church?

  15. Jared Cramer says:

    What I think is that a distinction needs to be made between full membership and the expectations that exist for those who will take positions of leadership. Of course, full membership is based upon baptism (and that baptism being recorded in the rolls of one of our churches).

    However, the canons expect that all adult members will have undergone this rite. The question, to me, is whether or not being in a position of leadership should involve a member fulfilling the expectation of our canons for an adult member.

    It’s not a choice between grace or law, it’s a catholic synthesis of the grace of God as understood and practiced as people live out the expectations of the Church.

  16. John Sandeman says:

    Scott,
    after your coughing fit dies down 🙂 ask the question why did Sydney not proceed with lay presidency?

  17. Marc Kivel says:

    I note that in some communities (e.g. Presbyterians) that any elder with governance functions in a kirk is ordained in addition to the Minister of Word and Sacraments (or whatever professional ministers are called)…and so is required to have completed additional training over and above the regular Kirk member.

    Perhaps in light of assuming a formal leadership role in any level of TEC a candidate must be confirmed – if the confirmation process did not include sufficient learning in Church theology, history, structure, polity, and governance, then perhaps a series of workshops offered online through one of our seminaries could provide the remedial content?

    Thoughts?

  18. Bill Dilworth says:

    Jared makes an excellent point – why would we want to exempt leaders from the expectations that we have for everyone? Why would someone who had not publicly owned the promises made for them at their baptism and received the grace that comes through the sacrament of Confirmation be a good candidate for leadership? It’s not as if it’s a hard requirement to fulfill, after all.