What the heck is Confirmation?

This past Sunday in our liturgy we celebrated baptism… and something called confirmation.  Given that the vast majority of our community comes from traditions other than Anglicanism – and most from non-liturgical and non-sacramental free church kinds of places – I thought it might be useful to back up and offer a bit of a reflection on this confirmation business.


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clipart-questionmarkhen I was doing my theological studies at Trinity College in Toronto, our worship and liturgy professor once referred to confirmation as being “a rite in search of a theology.”  While maybe not the most positive of characterizations, there is actually a good deal of truth in his remark.

In their original form, baptism and confirmation were effectively two parts of a single movement: the newly baptized person was “sealed” in the name of the Holy Spirit, and thus commissioned to live out a life in the Spirit as a member of the Body of Christ.  The two actions were done at the same time by the same presiding minister… and in the ancient church it was normally the bishop who presided at those rites of initiation.

Over the years and for a variety of reasons, in the Western church the two pieces became separated, and at some point confirmation also began to take on some of catechetical qualities.  In the modern age, and in various church traditions, confirmation gradually became something of an adolescent rite of passage; almost a churchly version of the Jewish bar mitzvah.  Unique to Anglicanism, the bishop’s role as the one who always presides at confirmation was maintained.

During the liturgical experimentations of the 1970’s and 80’s, there was a fairly strong movement toward doing away with confirmation as a separate rite, and to simply have the local pastor “seal” the newly baptized in the name of the Spirit.  While a “sealing” is actually now done in the context of the baptismal liturgy that we use (from the Book of Alternative Services, which is the more contemporary prayer/liturgy book of the Anglican Church of Canada), confirmation did survive as a separate rite.

Okay, with that whirlwind tour as the back-story, what will it mean when those folks were presented for confirmation this past  Sunday night?

First off, in the Book of Alternative Services, the rite of confirmation is framed as follows:

Confirmation, reception, and reaffirmation are various modes of response to baptism. Whether they involve making promises on one’s own behalf, seeking membership within a particular branch of the Church, or reaffirming promises made long ago, each is directly related to the covenant made in baptism. The liturgy of baptism is consequently the primary context in which these renewals of the baptismal covenant take place.

In other words the Canadian Church seems to understand these three adult actions of confirmation, reception (being formally received from another church which practices confirmation, such as Roman Catholicism) and reaffirmation as being cut from much the same cloth.  They cover a fair bit of turf, too:  1) making adult promises on one’s own behalf, 2) seeking affiliation within this particular Anglican branch of the church, 3) reaffirming the promises made long ago at an earlier baptism; possibly as an infant, though not necessarily so.   Was my professor so far off in his comment about it being “a rite in search of a theology?”

The text of the liturgy, which happens right after the baptisms, is as follows:

Then the bishop says,

Almighty God, we thank you that by the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ you have overcome sin and brought us to yourself, and that by the sealing of your Holy Spirit you have bound us to your service. Renew in these your servants the covenant you made with them at their baptism. Send them forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before them; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The bishop lays his hand upon each one and says,

For Confirmation

Strengthen, O Lord, your servant N with your Holy Spirit; empower him/her for your service; and sustain him/her all the days of his/her life. Amen.

Or this:

Defend, O Lord, your servant N with your heavenly grace, that he/she may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in your Holy Spirit more and more, until he/she comes to your everlasting kingdom. Amen.

The Church of England (which is our “mother church”) provides the following statements as to the meaning of confirmation:

What we now call confirmation was originally part of a wider ceremony of Christian initiation and only became a separate rite when bishops were no longer able to preside at all baptisms.

As a separate rite, confirmation marks the point in the Christian journey at which the participation in the life of God’s people inaugurated at baptism is confirmed by the bishop by the laying on of hands, and in which those who have been baptised affirm for themselves the faith into which they have been baptised and their intention to live a life of responsible and committed discipleship. Through prayer and the laying on of hands by the confirming bishop, the Church also asks God to give them power through the Holy Spirit to enable them to live in this way.

When confirmation is part of a combined rite including adult baptism it has a slightly different significance. In this case, as in the traditional Western service of initiation mentioned above, the confirmation element signifies the gift of the Holy Spirit following on from baptism in water. The biblical model for this is Christ’s own baptism in which, the gospels tell us, the Spirit descended on Him when He came up out of the water after having been baptised by John the Baptist (Matthew 3:16-17, Mark 1:9-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:32-33).

Interesting to note that there is no mention at all of confirmation being equated with “becoming an Anglican,” or joining a particular denomination.  The focus, rather, is on the bishop’s role as representing a church which is rooted back with the apostles, such that to have the bishop “lay hands” is to symbolize our connection to something wider and deeper and older than any single congregation.  There is also an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, though in some ways that creates more problems than it resolves, in that baptism is always understood as being the work of the Holy Spirit… a bishop doesn’t have the “power” to give you more of it!

Now, Donald Schell, who is one of the priests who founded a very creative church in San Francisco called St Gregory of Nyssa, had this to say when I asked him what they did with confirmation:

I’ve presented plenty of adults for Reaffirmation/Confirmation, and most of them people who were coming fresh to Anglican practice, some from other Christian traditions, some from no previous religious practice. When I was rector of St. Gregory’s and Bill Swing was our bishop, I’d tell them, ‘We’ll present you for the bishop to lay his hands on your head, prayer over you, and bless where you are in your journey into God [‘journey into God’ is Gregory of Nyssa’s language]. The bishop is our living connection to the worldwide church – he’s the one who welcomed Desmond Tutu here with a hug – and he’s also our living connection to continuity through time back through Bishop Kip (California’s Gold Rush bishop who was shipwrecked and swam to shore in San Diego and in the course of his episcopate went from riding the length and width of the state on horseback to riding the brand new train), back to a long line of public teachers and preachers (Irenaeus’ description of the Bishop’s work) that help us know our lineage (talk borrowed from Buddhists). We’ll pray for the gifts of the Spirit. You’ve already got those gifts, but grace is always overflowing, always more, always beyond anything we need. You don’t need to reaffirm your faith or be confirmed, but it’s a joyful and moving way to invite the Spirit to continue new work in your life and among us.

I have to say, that makes more sense of things than just about anything else I’ve read on this lately.  It is a perspective remarkably free of any sign of “institutional” membership issues, in that it doesn’t put any emphasis on “joining the Anglican church,” but rather on  connecting through the bishop to something larger than just our own church community.  It also does justice to the issue of the Spirit, as “grace is always overflowing, always more, always beyond anything we need.”  I like that.

The saint ben’s people who were confirmed  on Sunday had all wondered about it in terms of “locating themselves” more clearly within this Anglican tradition.  I think that a rite in which our bishop presides with the words printed above from the Book of Alternative Services fills that need/desire.

I  happily and confidently presented Chris, Suzanne, Amy and Charles  for the rite of confirmation – a rite marked by the laying of hands by the bishop, symbolizing our connection to something much bigger than ourselves – but I don’t see this as being in any way required for any of them – any of us – to somehow become more spiritual, more Anglican, or more Christian.  It is a public declaration of faith, and an intentional “locating” of that faith within something much larger than our own individual faith or our own local community.  And to return to Donald Schell’s reflections, “grace is always overflowing, always more, always beyond anything we need.”

That has to be worthy of a celebration!

Jamie Howison

One Response to What the heck is Confirmation?

  1. Pingback: Posts about Holy Spirit as of April 27, 2009 | PRAYtheREVOLUTION

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