Brief Thought on Confirmation

I’ve been thinking about Baptism and about bishops for two entirely different purposes. What’s common between them, however, is that both touch on the subject of Confirmation.

Confirmation has become something of an issue recently in the Episcopal Church. The more recent material on Baptism comes down hard on the prayer-book understanding of Baptism as “full initiation…into Christ’s Body the Church” and I would agree (BCP, 298). But then, these folks tell me that Confirmation no longer has an important place—or perhaps not any place at all—in Christian initiation. The phrase most commonly used is that it is a “rite in search of a theology.” After all, if Baptism is full initiation, what is there left for Confirmation to do?

I don’t buy it.

Principally, I think we’re coming at the question from the wrong direction. The bishop is the focus of unity and the sacramental center of the diocese. The bishop’s blessing is literally present in Baptism through the Chrism that, if used, must be blessed by the bishop (BCP, 298). Confirmation, though, is the rite that reifies the sacramental relationship between the bishop and the laity of the diocese. We are baptized into Christ’s Body the Church—the invisible Church—but we are Confirmed into our diocese and the obligations of local incarnate church life. It’s our connection into the basic administrative and sacramental unit of the Church’s life—the visible Church.

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About Derek Olsen

I'm a layman within the Episcopal Church with a PhD in New Testament and an interest in most things medieval, monastic, and liturgical. My chief job is keeping up with my priestly wife and our two awesome kids. In addition to that, I earn a living, run the St Bede's Breviary, listen to loud goth/industrial music, and do some stuff for the church. I currently serve as Secretary to the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music where I'm also co-chair of the Calendar committee and chair of the Digital Publications committee.
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14 Responses to Brief Thought on Confirmation

  1. bls says:

    Simple: change the name. “Confirmation” is just one of those long Latinate words that make the eyes glaze over – and at this point it has a connotation of “joining,” as you might “join” any other organization – like the YMCA or a country club.

    For the Orthodox, I believe, “Confirmation” is “Chrismation,” and happens at Baptism. (Right?) If we had “Chrismation” instead, we’d also point to the “sacred mystery” aspect of it, reflected through the use of Chrism. It would point more to the “Sacramental” than to the “Organizational.”

  2. Christopher says:

    Derek,

    A couple of things I would add or perhaps nuance.

    The bishop is not our focus of unity in a simple way, that is far to much on the bishop and far too little for our Anglican sacramentalology, which has been and remains often at odds with our Roman kin in these matters as F. D. Maurice spotted point on over a century ago–Rahner notes similarly for his own tradition those matter Maurice gave to us a century prior. That way of framing the episcopal office without care has been one of my chief christological objections to the way the Covenant “scheme” was presented in this regard: too Roman, not enough catholic. It is also one of the problems in some of the early Oxford movement framings of the office and Church, which Anglo-Catholicism has not fully dealt with as Michael Ramsey and A.M. Allchin both point out.

    The bishop represents to us our only focus of unity, indeed, our only unity, Jesus Christ, not in a substitutionary or vicarial sense, that is in place of or instead of, but rather as the one-in-the-many who in her or his person is representative, who presents to us the whole, our unity we only have in Christ, and who represents in Christ the whole or unity we are as Christ’s Body. This one is called to guard this unity in liturgy, teaching, and life. It is because we are baptized into Jesus Christ through, with, in (dare I say “as” to quote Alvin Kimmel’s insight of Luther on the Eucharist) his Body, the Church, and made members of him therein as one of Christ’s Community, that we are connected and made one, and the bishop is she or he who represents this to us in time and place. We Anglicans have gotten sloppy christologically here, and tended to drop the “into Jesus Christ” (be it into Christ’s death and life if drawing on St. Paul or his rebirthing us if drawing on St. John) in our discussions of Baptism, so that we grow in danger of an ecclesiology that can suggest the vicarial rather than the representative, and therefore, does not live up to our incarnational christology. It is a serious sacramental matter. As Rahner spotted for his own tradition, it tends to lead to the swoop-in God on the altar (or at the font) and pipeline notions of grace for the laying on of hands (both for confirmation and for consecration to the episcopate) that are in a sense a form of catholic “memorialism” that has implications for ecology and our relationship with our Jewish roots as well as our own sense of bondedness in Christ. It is not incarnational enough.

    The complex history in Western Catholicism of how the oil rites of confirmation become separated from the water rites in Baptism leads us to this place. Not because the rite of confirmation did not or does not have theologies, but because when Baptism, with which the oil rites were initially associated in the content we have from Rome and North Africa, is reclaimed as full initiation, either we need to seriously consider reconnecting the two (including the second post-baptismal “exorcistic” oil rite as it is with our Orthodox kin), or we need to reshape confirmation anew as ongoing post-baptismal catechesis with profession of the faith for oneself and as one’s own as a maturing of the baptismal life (which is largely how in my read Anglicans have traditionally utilized the rite in practice) confirmed in the laying on of hands and oil by the one in this time and place who represents the One in Whom we are one “indissolubly” by water, word, and Holy Spirit.

  3. AKMA says:

    Quite right, Derek — in Confirmation, the Bishop (representing the Church catholic to the local congregation) physically encounters the baptised disciple and affirms what has been accomplished in baptism, and the confirmand meets the face of the Church catholic and affirms her commitment to living as a disciple. Most members of the Body of Christ need never otherwise have any truck with a bishop or with the existence of a Church beyond the confines of the local congregation; in confirmation, the two meet, confirm their mutual involvement. To that extent, I’d see a warrant for the disappearing tradition of bishops quizzing confirmands; the Church legitimately would like to be confident that this person knows what he’s getting into. (Though I would sympathise with the sponsor who coached the confirmand to take Father Jack’s cue when stymied, and respond ‘That would be an ecumenical matter’.)

  4. johndavidbassett says:

    I am sure that if we made confirmation a canonical prerequisite for signing a pledge card everybody in the Episcopal Church would be baptized and confirmed. Our liberal clergy would make sure of it.

  5. It’s not clear to me why the traditional understanding of confirmation as the reception of the Holy Spirit for ministry is incompatible with Baptism as full initiation. What am I missing? This is one of those sacraments which seems to have univocal support from Scripture and pretty clear as to what it’s supposed to accomplish.

  6. Christopher says:

    Derek, I have followed up on your concern here:
    http://contemplativevernacular.blogspot.com/2012/04/reconnecting-confirmation.html

    This, like CWOB, presents issues of catholicity to my mind.

    I added a correction to my comment above. That should be pre-baptismal exorcistic oil rites…that is what no coffee does at 7 in the morning

    I might note that in the Roman tradition as it is today, a priest can confirm as part of the full rites of initiation and with the permission of the bishop. For example, I was baptized, confirmed, and communed by my parish priest at the Easter Vigil. This was fully accepted when I made my lateral transfer to TEC and was received by the bishop. And in the East, priests often do the chrismation. There is not absolute here historically for the bishop to be directly involved. Now of course, the priest is representing the bishop in this matter as in all other sacramental matters.

    • BillyDinPVD says:

      “And in the East, priests often do the chrismation.”

      Not just “often” – they are the normal ministers of Chrismation. Nor do they need special permission like RC priests do, AFAIK.

  7. Christopher says:

    Billy, yes. I was trying to qualify. Perhaps usual rather than normal given how quickly normal becomes normative…they do so always as representatives of the bishop.

  8. John Robison says:

    One of my first things I did as an EFM mentor was, quite accidentally, cause a near riot when I pointed out that there were those who wished that there was no “Confirmation” as such in the 1979 BCP and would work to have it removed as “superfluous” since baptism was “full membership” in the Church.
    Over half of the group were all people who, like me, had joined TEC after being raised something else. One woman had been raised Christian Scientist and was quite eloquent about how being Baptized at Easter and then Confirmed on Pentecost had meant to her sacramentally. She was quiet clear that she became a Christian in full at Easter, but became a part of the Catholic faith, one with all the people in the windows as one man put it, when the Bishop laid his hands on her head.
    For me, coming as it did while attending a Presbyterian seminary, was not so much about renouncing my past as engaging in a future that was far more connected to the “one Holy catholic and Apostolic Church” I had been professing my faith in since I memorized the Apostles creed in 4th grade. I came under the authority of a Bishop, and joined the Tradition of the Catholic Faith (even if it is a “Hyphenated Catholicism”).
    Just my rambling thoughts as I pause from polishing the silver.

    • C. Wingate says:

      John, I have something of the same history: I was raised Presbyterian, went through communicant’s class around fifth grade or so, and then went off to an Episcopal boarding school as a not-lapsed-but-not-active kid. Eventually I knew I needed to be an Episcopalian, so I went to one of the chaplains, and shortly I was lined up for the next confirmation. I don’t think a response of “well, just send a letter to your old church and have them send us your church letter” would have had the same weight. For me at least, confirmation marked my really taking responsibility for my own faith. And I don’t see the blurring of the boundaries of our church represented in the current pattern as being that positive; in the end it slops over into CWoB.

      I have to add that Hatchett’s utter neglect of the rite in the BCP commentary is beyond unhelpful. If he hasn’t got anything he can say about it, who does?

  9. Pingback: More and more | episcotheque

  10. Christopher says:

    Catholicity is in Baptism as much as in Confirmation…

  11. BillyDinPVD says:

    It occurred to me this week that our present definition of how one becomes a member of the Episcopal Church – which at its most basic is simply having your Baptism “duly recorded in this Church” – probably results in some people becoming Episcopalians without taking ownership of or responsibility for Christian teaching at all. Confirmation involves vows to renounce evil and follow Jesus as Lord, as well as a renewal of the Baptismal Covenant, and usually comes at the end of a period of instruction. Just letting anybody come on board by registering their Baptism seems to be asking for trouble down the road.

  12. Pingback: Akma » Hermeneutics of Confirmation

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