Following up from this past Sunday evening’s liturgy of baptism and confirmation, I thought it made sense to offer a few reflections on the this whole business of confirmation. One of my professors in seminary was fond of referring to confirmation as “a rite in search of a theology,” and while that might sound a wee bit dismissive what he was really saying is that confirmation has a bit of a complicated history.
First off, in the Book of Alternative Services—the more contemporary prayer/liturgy book of the Anglican Church of Canada—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 the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches), and reaffirmation as all 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 very far off in his comment about it being “a rite in search of a theology?”
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 of joining a particular denomination. The focus, rather, is on the bishop’s role as representing a church that is rooted right back to the apostles, such that to have the bishop “lay hands” is to symbolize our connection to something older and deeper than any single congregation. There is also an emphasis on the Holy Spirit, though in some ways that creates as many problems than it solves, 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!
Donald Schell, who was one of the priests who founded St Gregory of Nyssa parish in San Francisco—a very creative and decidedly out-of-the-box place—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 were people 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. 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 as much sense of things as just about anything else I’ve read on confirmation. It is a perspective remarkably free of any sign of “institutional” membership issues, in that it doesn’t put any emphasis on joining the an institution called “the Anglican church,” but rather on connecting through the bishop to something larger than just our own church community. Yes, that is expressed through this particular place along the continuum of the Christian tradition, but that is a different thing from signing on the proverbial dotted line of institutional membership. And Schell also does justice to the issue of the Holy Spirit, as “grace is always overflowing, always more, always beyond anything we need.” I like that.
All to say that while I don’t see confirmation as being in any way required in order to make us somehow more spiritual or fully Christian, I was delighted to present Bryan, Kyla, Andrew, Rachel, Norm, and Nadine for the rite of confirmation—a rite marked by the laying on of hands by the bishop, symbolizing our connection to something much bigger than ourselves. I’m with Donald Schell on this stuff… this is a “joyful and moving way to invite the Spirit to continue new work in your life and among us.”
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And as if that isn’t a sufficiently personal take on the whole matter, a few words on my own confirmation. I was confirmed in the early 80s, in the midst of my undergraduate studies at the University of Winnipeg. For me it was very much a point of rooting myself along a place along “the continuum of the Christian tradition.” Growing up I was formed in Westwood Presbyterian Church through my elementary school years, and at Church of the Way through junior high and high school. My high school education came courtesy of the Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute, and at the same time I was quite involved in Young Life (a ministry that shares some common ground with Youth for Christ, though certainly at the time it was a bit more on the maverick side of things). I also owe part of my formation to the two years I spent working at an old style home for young boys run by the Roman Catholic Sisters of Providence. There, under the tutelage of the rather mischievous Sister Rita Killeen, I not only learned some powerful lessons about putting faith into practice but I also came to a place of deep appreciation for Catholic Christianity.
With all of those influences—Protestant and Catholic, Anabaptist and Evangelical—where better to land than in Anglicanism? Yet that move hinged on the presence in my life of a very fine Anglican priest/mentor, who insisted that my university education was lacking because I was not studying literature, and so when I came asking for tomes on theology he kept handing me novels… the best thing he could have done.
In that era in this diocese confirmations were seen as diocesan events, and so people were gathered at the Cathedral from across parishes for special Sunday afternoon liturgies. There were probably fifty confirmands there that day, and while that might sound as if it must have been a bit of an assembly line, I had no sense of it being anything other than invigorating. I have a very vivid memory of kneeling before the bishop, and of the weight of his hands on my head as he prayed those words of invocation over me… over my life, really.
But the most vivid memory is of the family dinner that followed the liturgy. My grandfather had come from London, Ontario to attend the service, and as the supper drew to its close, he pushed his chair back from the dining room table and said that he very much respected the step I had taken. He then explained how as a young man he had been very drawn to the Anglican church, but had decided that he needed to stay on as a member at Elim Chapel, the church co-founded by his own father. There was no sense of regret in his words (my grandfather was not a man to harbour regrets!), but instead just a message of supportive understanding for how I had chosen to anchor my own spiritual life. His words, though, had about them something of a patriarchal blessing, complementary to the words of blessing spoken by the bishop a just few hours earlier.
Two and a half years later I was off to Toronto to study theology at Trinity College, and three years after that I was ordained in the Anglican Church of Canada. Next week I’m off to Toronto to mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of my graduation from Trinity, and I can honestly say that I cannot imagine myself having taken any other path. The rooting symbolized in my confirmation (and “confirmed” by my grandfather’s blessing) was the beginning of what has been a great adventure.
April 30, 2012