Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Fresh Thoughts on Confirmation

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Fresh Thoughts on Confirmation

Article excerpt

This essay explores the theological, liturgical, and pastoral principles underlying the rite of confirmation in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and considers contemporary pastoral concerns, including the role of the bishop and the ritualization of a person's affiliation with the Episcopal Church. It argues that the rites introduced in 1979 should he understood in the context of the baptismal ecclesiology of the 1979 book, in which baptism is the basis for Christian mission and ministry. In this context, confirmation and the related rites of reception and reaffirmation of faith should be offered as pastoral responses to significant turning points in Christian life but should not be a requirement for lay or ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.

Among the myriad changes in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP), none are more profound, more far reaching, than those made in the rites and practices of what is frequently called "Christian initiation": baptism, confirmation, and admission to communion. Moreover, in the three decades since the book was introduced, none of the changes has resulted in more confusion and disagreement than the new rite of "Confirmation, with forms for Reception and for the Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows."

Changes to the national canons during the last twenty years have attempted to define and clarify understandings and practices of confirmation and related rites. Most recently, the Standing Commission on Ministry Development proposed to the 2003 General Convention a series of rexisions to the canons that would eliminate the requirement of confirmation for those holding elected or appointed office or seeking ordination in the Episcopal Church. The motions were defeated in the House of Bishops. Instead, the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops gave new attention to the theology of confirmation, leading to a series of papers forming the basis of a discussion at the House of Bishops meeting in March 2005. Among those papers, an article by Kathryn Tanner, published in the Winter 2006 issue of the ATR, proposes a new theology of confirmation. While I welcome her contribution to the debate, I believe that the 1979 BCP and the developments leading up to it offer a quite different approach to confirmation.

Full Initiation by Water and the Spirit

The 1979 Prayer Book makes what at the time was a startling claim: "Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ's Body, the Church."1 For most of the twentieth century, Anglicans had debated the work of the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation. Some adopted the position that A. J. Mason first articulated in the late nineteenth century and Gregory Dix then developed in the mid-twentieth century: baptism, the first stage in the sequence of Christian initiation, effects cleansing from sin but is wholly incomplete without the seal of the Spirit bestowed in confirmation.- Geoffrey Lampe, drawing upon many of the same sources from Scripture and the patristic church, countered that the Spirit is fully at work in the waters of baptism. For those baptized as infants, the effect of the Spirit is more potential than actual, and confirmation enables these Christians to realize and actualize what has already been bestowed in baptism.3

To underscore the work of the Spirit in baptism, the revisers included in the 1979 baptismal rite the classic prayer for the sevenfold gift of the Spirit, a prayer that had been part of confirmation in every Anglican prayer book since 1549.4 The formula that follows-"you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own for ever"-further emphasizes the Spirits action in baptism.5 Some locate the bestowal of the Spirit in the waters of baptism, while others insist that the prayer and the handlaying with signing and chrismation constitute a distinct sacramental action associated with the gift of the Spirit.'' Yet regardless of the nuances of interpretation, it is one rite, effecting full initiation by water and the Spirit. …

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