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Where Does Confirmation Fit In?
Some introductory comments from John Hartley
I write this article because we are struggling with this question at the moment. Here we are, with a website aimed at presenting all the most up-to-date thinking on the subject of Christian Initiation, and there is little recent published material . Where are the Articles which will explain what Confirmation is, how it fits into the scheme of becoming a Christian, and will help both the theologically clued up and also the casual surfer? Guess how many of us have these sorts of articles up our sleeves?

We all know what confirmation is! It’s that do when the Bishop comes and lays hands on the candidates, zapping them with the Holy Spirit. It’s based, so we are told, on ... ah? ... oh yes: Acts 8:17, following the pattern of Peter and John laying their hands on the disciples in Samaria, who (good Anglicans all) had been baptised but had not yet received the sign of reception into the universal church. At the laying-on of the Apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit comes upon them. So likewise in today’s confirmation service: the Holy Spirit comes at the laying-on of the bishop’s hands, and the effect is so marked that the modern-day Simon Maguses rush up the aisle and offer the bishop substantial donations to the Restoration Fund if he will give them the power to do likewise. Ah?... perhaps not?

Or maybe (so says p38 of the 1955 “Baptism and Confirmation To-Day” report for the Convocations of Canterbury and York) it’s based on Acts 19:6? The bishop arrives and discovers that the local vicar has been doing baptisms all wrong, and not teaching the whole counsel of God to the candidates. So he sets to and baptises them all again (I wonder what he writes in the register?), and lays his hands on them for good measure, after which he confirms them, and they speak in tongues and prophesy to prove that the Holy Spirit really did come this time. Again, Acts implies that the Spirit’s presence is obvious to everyone around.

Or (final suggestion) confirmation is in Hebrews 6:2, which “links baptisms (note the plural) and laying on of hands as the second of three pairs of things regarded as foundations or first principles” (ibid). Aren’t you glad I picked up this useful publication in a second-hand sale years ago?

It’s a lot easier to poke fun at the mess we are in than to write a serious constructive outline of how we might emerge from such chaos! And so I appeal to you, dear reader. Do you have anything positive which we could put on our website as a way forward? We are, after all, in grave need of it - if we are seeking integrity in one area of Christian Initiation, we will not be helped by rank confusion in another. Maybe it’s up to us to try to inject some sense into Anglican thinking?

Professor Paul Bradshaw, in a talk to a Midlands Liturgical Network training day in 1998 (reported in Update 34 page 14) said that Confirmation, in his view, was not so much a “rite in search of a theology” as a rite with too many theologies. He identified the following stands, which perhaps needed disentangling:
• a blessing at the end of baptism,
• a completion of baptism,
• grace to strengthen the believer,
• a puberty rite,
• personal affirmation of promises,
• the ordination of the laity,
• an Anglicanization.

To these one might be tempted to add others (both real and potential):
• a passing out parade for youth,
• admission to communion,
• entry on the membership roll,
• entry to the universal church,
• the gift of the Holy Spirit,
• a rite to end the catechumenate.

Paul then continued by saying it is time we gave up trying to make one rite bear all these different meanings, that it was unfair of us to expect liturgists to write decent words when there was no consensus on meaning, and that the trend in other parts of the Anglican Communion was to split up these emphases into several different rites.

Roughy speaking, the devil with this approach lies in the detail: which emphases go where? On theological grounds the strands to do with initiation go firmly into the baptism service: so baptism is now about being incorporated into the universal church (as well as into the local church), admission to communion, the ordination of the laity, and membership rights (such as the electoral roll). Other strands go into the “Pastoral Services” volume marking such things as the affirmation of personal faith, the commissioning for particular ministries, reconciliation after absence from church or heresy, protection as one faces a new stage of life, and so on.

The problem here is that one has begun from the theological premise that baptism must be “complete sacramental initiation”, and ended up by ascribing to infant baptism a weight it cannot support. In particular, it flies in the face of the WCC “Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry” document, which for me contains one of the most important statements about confirmation: “When one who can answer for him/herself is baptized, a personal confession of faith will be an integral part of the baptismal service. When an infant is baptized, the personal response will be offered at a later moment in life. ... In the case of infants, personal confession is expected later.” (underlinings mine).

It was clearly part of Cranmer’s intention, when he specified that “none should be confirmed unless he could say the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments”, that Confirmation should be this opportunity for personal confession. At confirmation (in the BCP) the bishop is given discretion to approve whether the persons are fit to be confirmed or not, and he asks them in the service to renew the solemn promise and vow that was made in their name at their baptism. It is also quite clear that Cranmer intended that Holy Communion should only follow the personal confession of faith - not necessarily in the act of confirmation but certainly in the being “ready and desirous” of it.
The WCC document recommends paedobaptist churches such as ours to make it clear that baptism in infancy is followed by a later profession of faith. There’s an obvious problem when parts of our church want to affirm that “(infant) Baptism is full sacramental initiation into the body of Christ”, and I suggest there needs to be a stand against such an unqualified assertion. Although the laying-on-of-hands part of confirmation could be downgraded from an “initiation” to a “pastoral” service, it would seem wrong to downgrade the “personal confession of faith” aspect of confirmation in this way.

So, while seeing the point of the present trend of dividing up the strands of meaning entwined in the confirmation service, perhaps one of the tasks of Baptismal Integrity in the future should be to take a closer interest in confirmation, and enter a plea for the retention of the mandatory personal affirmation of faith in whatever the liturgists propose next for Christian Initiation. Along with this should go some serious thinking about the question of admission to communion before confirmation, which has been touched on before in this magazine.

Finally, we could perhaps take a more proactive line on “confirmation courses”. In my last church I once wrote in the parish newsletter that the qualifications for confirmation were (i) church attendance, (ii) having done an Alpha course, and (iii) doing a “faith refresher course” (which was my catch-all for “what Anglicans believe in addition to Alpha”. But what should be the syllabus for this latter course? Maybe we ought to be giving this some thought? Write in and let us know your views, for Update or for the website.

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