Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Confirmation and the Body of Christ

This post is meant to follow a previous post on Confirmation.

Alice Linsley wrote this in a comment:

"Numerous English church councils attempted to restore the connection between baptism and confirmation, but in reality few people were presented for confirmation. This led Archbishop Peckham to rule in 1281 that baptized persons who had not been confirmed could not receive communion. This was the rubric in the pre-Reformation Sarum rite in use at Salisbury Cathedral, considered the most significant influence on the first Book of Common Prayer (1549). This ruling was in effect in the American Prayer Books until the 1979 edition. The requirement was eliminated because it was regarded as a 'barrier to fellowship' with Christians of other denominations. This accommodation is now recognized as having a negative effect on the doctrinal and catechetical integrity of the Church."

What Alice Linsley has written is true, because such an accommodation was made alongside of sweeping changes to the substance of the Faith itself. Had it been considered in a previous era, say the 1920s, it may not have had "a negative effect on the doctrinal and catechetical integrity of the Church." That is, if as well, it had been considered for a better reason than merely to overcome a "barrier to fellowship." As it is, the ECUSAn sect now practices "open communion" in most places, which means that they let everybody receive, whether unbaptized, or even a Devil worshiper. But, does that mean that a decision dating back only to 1281is absolute and unalterable; or more to the point, that we can afford to let our people think that it is the main feature?

When I was growing up in the Episcopal Church, I remember that for several years I could receive only a blessing at the altar rail, until the day when I was confirmed at the age of 13. Because of the grace of God at work through his Church, my faith became very active during the time of instruction, despite the fact that it was done by an incompetent and Liberal, trendy 1960s priest. That is, the system worked in a sort of ex opere operato way. However, what I thought the whole time was that Confirmation was merely a ticket to Holy Communion. It meant a lot to me that I was now permitted to receive the Sacrament, but the Confirmation itself was something I failed to appreciate for its own sake. Several decades later, when I was a vicar in Arizona, serving as an APCK priest, I had a congregation mostly consisting of old former Episcopalians, who thought the same way about Confirmation that I had as a child.

The whole understanding of Confirmation needs to be taught more clearly among Continuing Anglicans, especially if we insist on keeping the Medieval rubric.

Most Protestants care little, if at all, about Confirmation, and it is treated as a "minor sacrament" even among Catholic Anglicans. Nonetheless, it is a sacrament that has very strong Biblical teaching behind it, with the scriptures supplying both demonstration and description, and thereby theological definition. In fact, nothing is more clearly presented in the Bible than Confirmation.

"Now when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John: Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost: (For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.) Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost." Acts 8:14-17

We glean these facts:

1. It was important enough that Peter and John traveled to Samaria.
2. These Apostles demonstrate Form and Matter by praying with the Laying on of hands.
3. They demonstrate Intention: "That they might receive the Holy Ghost."
4. The connection to baptism is obvious from the text.
5. That this is Apostolic ministry, in terms of "proper minster," is obvious from the text.

"And it came to pass, that, while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul having passed through the upper coasts came to Ephesus: and finding certain disciples, He said unto them, Have ye received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? And they said unto him, We have not so much as heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. And he said unto them, Unto what then were ye baptized? And they said, Unto John's baptism. Then said Paul, John verily baptized with the baptism of repentance, saying unto the people, that they should believe on him which should come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus. When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands upon them, the Holy Ghost came on them; and they spake with tongues, and prophesied." Acts 19:1-6

From this we glean a few more facts:

6. It was assumed that Christians were normally both baptized and confirmed.
7. As in Samaria, so here too, baptism comes first.
8. Confirmation is about receiving the Holy Spirit, specifically the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

In the Epistles of St. Paul we see lists provided of these gifts, but no two lists are identical.

First, let us look at what he wrote to the Church of Rome:

"Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; Or ministry, let us wait on our ministering: or he that teacheth, on teaching; Or he that exhorteth, on exhortation: he that giveth, let him do it with simplicity; he that ruleth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy, with cheerfulness." Romans 12:6-8

In this list we see a mixture of ministerial gifts and practical gifts, both of which are spiritual and equally charismatic.

Writing to the Ephesians, he gives a very different list of gifts, in which certain members of the Church become, by the Holy Spirit, gifts in and of themselves:

"He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." Eph. 4:10-12

Writing to the Galatians, he mentions gifts that are character and virtues formed within us:

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. " Gal. 5:22, 23

By far, the most developed text, theologically speaking, that includes a list of the charisms, is in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

"For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will." I Cor. 12:8-11

The reason I consider this list to be the most developed is because of what follows, where he builds on the idea of spiritual gifts, dispersed throughout the Church, in terms of the Body of Christ. This means that the Church is the extension of Christ's Incarnation, making the mission of the whole Church nothing less than Christ's own ministry through us all, laity included. In fact, to use a term loosely for a good cause, Confirmation has been called the "ordination of the laity." Obviously, this is something of a loose usage, since "ordination"and "orders' come from the same word. But, it is correct to day that Confirmation is of a kind with Holy Orders; for the sacrament of Confirmation imparts charisms, that is gifts, that empower individuals to serve.

"For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many." (12-14)

The gifts all seem to fall under the seven categories of gifts foretold by the Prophet Isaiah:

"And the spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD; And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the LORD." Isaiah 11:2,3a

(In the Book of Acts we see only two places where the Holy Spirit was given without the laying on of hands by the Apostles. Those two occasions are the Day of Pentecost itself, in the second chapter, and then in the tenth chapter at the house of Cornelius. The Jewish believers might not have felt free to lay hands on these Gentiles, even if they were "God-fearers." The Divine action we see in the house of Cornelius was meant to be a replication of Pentecost, so that the Church would know that God accepts the uncircumcised. This is stated rather clearly:

"And as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God? When they heard these things, they held their peace, and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life." Acts 11:15-18

When Peter said "as on us at the beginning," it was obvious that he was referring to the day of Pentecost. We learn from this that God acted in a special way at the house of Cornelius, and that we ought to consider the laying on of the Apostle's hands, with prayer, to be the valid way provided by God to receive the Holy Spirit.)

It may be wise to keep the 1281 Rubric as a general rule. Nonetheless, we must make clear this simple fact: Confirmation imparts its own grace as a sacrament. It is not simply a ticket to another sacrament, Communion; it is an essential part of living as a Christian and serving both God and his Church; and of being a witness to the fallen world.


Anonymous said...

There was a girl in my Confirmation class who believed that Confirmation was a kind of graduation ceremony, after which she would never darken the door of a church again.

Anonymous said...

There is no one that believes in
fellowship with other denominations more than myself. However,
fellowship doesn't have to mean receiving communion in one another's church; anymore than it has to mean organic/jurisdictional

We can fellowship through services
of the Liturgy of the Word, services of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, community "Hymn Sings", church camp, by not sniping at one another, showing respect for one another as Christian believers, and many other ways.

It just doesn't follow that one must take communion, in a church not your own, to have fellowship.

1928 BCP Supporter

Unknown said...

I'm certainly tracking with you on the importance of (re)accentuating the sacrament of confirmation; I'd just like to see it pushed forward a bit, like, to accommodate even the youngest affirmation of faith (e.g., five or six years of age?).

Anonymous said...

At what age do we generally confirm and why that age?

Canon Tallis said...

This and the previous post strongly remind me of the broadcasts of athletic constests when the broadcaster yells, "Father Hart scores again!" And so you have and that big time. I remember the care with which I was prepared for confirmation as well as the glory of the service with the bishop immediately celebrating and communicating us. It was no small time affair and I feel very sorry for those whom experienced it other than in such a fashion.
But I must also admit that while I am familiar with all of the material which you used in these last two post, I was really impressed with the freshness and vitality with which you presented the material. I am copying it out into one of my notebooks so that I will have it ready to use the next time I need to argue the crucial importance of Confirmation.
Thanks again.

Fr. Robert Hart said...


I am in favor of confirming them as early as possible. Since we teach first, it requires an "age of reason" at least. It seems that the average age for children has been between 11 and 13, but it has been done earlier still. Frankly, it is up to the bishops.

Anonymous said...


Forgive me if I ask a stupid question but.....

I can imagine the following as a "gotcha" from some of my low-church friends.

Why don't we confirm infants or two-year olds or whatever? Why does the sacramental definition you've given require an affirmation of faith or a certain level of Christian learning or an "age of reason?" Why isn't it treated like Baptism in this regard if confirmation "about receiving the Holy Spirit, specifically the gifts of the Holy Spirit" with a specific "Form and Matter?"

Is it again a matter of consistency with the Biblical pattern?

Fr. Robert Hart said...

That's not a "gotcha," but it is a valid question. If Confirmation was done as early as the Orthodox do it (chrismation), we could find another time for catechesis of our children, since the catechesis should take place in some structured way no matter what (not to replace what parents ought to teach at home, but simply to have the Church teach carefully and diligently).

We have inherited the western tradition in this matter, so the division of time between Baptism and Confirmation is not an Anglican idea per say. It is reasonable to discuss this theologically.