Reconsidering a Bold Proposal: Reflections, Questions, and Concerns regarding a Theology of Confirmation

By Burnett, Joe Goodwin | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Reconsidering a Bold Proposal: Reflections, Questions, and Concerns regarding a Theology of Confirmation


Burnett, Joe Goodwin, Anglican Theological Review


The 1979 Book of Common Prayer restored the centrality of baptism to the church's sacramental economy. Since then an emerging "baptismal ecclesiology" has had positive and far-reaching implications for the church's unity, mission, and equality of ministries. Nevertheless, questions about the theology and practice of confirmation persist, especially with regard to the role of the bishop. This article affirms that "all that is involved in becoming Christian is signified in baptism," and thus any attempt to make more of confirmation inevitably ends up making less of baptism. While multiple opportunities for reaffirmation are appropriate, catechesis and formation-both for adults and for sponsors of infants being baptized-should be an ongoing and integral part of living into the baptismal promises, and should not imply the necessity of any further initiatory rite.

Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ's Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble. The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 298

Confirmation, according to the 1979 Prayer Book, is simply the first occasion of "mature public affirmation" of the baptismal commitments by "those baptized at an early age," in the presence of, and with the laying on of hands by, the bishop (BCP, p. 412). As such, the theology of confirmation is no more and no less than the theology implied and expressed in the recapitulation of those foundational baptismal commitments. Thus confirmation, so understood, confers no distinct sacramental character or additional status of membership.

In exploring this topic I will recall a pivotal chapter in the unfolding story of the evolution and development of the 1979 Prayer Book rites of initiation, and offer a brief overview of continuing responses to these rites during the last quarter century. I will also reflect briefly on my own and others' use of these rites and on the implications of what has been termed an emerging baptismal ecclesiology in the life of the church since the adoption of the 1979 Prayer Book. Finally, taking into account some nagging liturgical, theological, and canonical questions about the church's understanding and practice of confirmation, I will consider ways in which we might move toward a fuller recognition and appropriation of that baptismal ecclesiology.

In August of 1972 I drove several hundred miles home to Mississippi from the United Methodist Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas, where I was about to enter my middler year. The purpose of the trip was my confirmation in the Episcopal Church. It was a decision I had made after a long process of prayer and discernment, culminating in formal preparation in a class taught by a canon pastor at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Dallas. My confirmation took place in a small, rural mission where the Bishop of Mississippi made his visitation that Sunday. I recall very little about the details of the service, only that I was elated both to have reached this point, and to have the bishop then say to me immediately following the service that he was that day also making me a postulant for holy orders from the diocese of Mississippi.

At the time there was no question in my mind that what I was doing was joining the Episcopal Church, but at no point did I sense or feel or believe that what was happening in the ritual and ceremonial action amounted to any sort of completion of my baptism. I had been baptized as an infant in a small Methodist Church where my father served as pastor, and subsequently I had not only been confirmed in a class of fellow sixth graders, but had also on numerous occasions responded to the invitations to Christian discipleship and altar calls issued by my father and other ministers in revivals or other special worship services. Regularly rededicating my life to Christ was, at least where I came from, simply part of the piety of the "people called Methodist." Yet for me the defining reality of my life-since before I had any knowledge or awareness of it, and before I could even try to remember or give expression to it-was that in and through my baptism I had been primally owned and blessed and loved by a gracious God. …

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