A Conversation Opener: Dan Martins Comment on Confirmation in The Episcopal Church
There’s been a fascinating email discussion recently on the practice of confirmation. Dan Martins provided a cogent comment on the historical background to confirmation and I’m posting it with his permission—although also with his caveat that because of the need for brevity, he has opined only in broad brushstrokes.
. . . here are my thoughts on the subject, for whatever they may or may not be worth. No doubt, they reflect when and by whom I was trained in this area ... i.e. by Louis Weil at Nashotah House in the mid-to-late 80s.
I’m comfortable with saying that Confirmation is “sacramental,” but not so much with saying that it is “a sacrament.” Of course, what I’m talking about is the rite that bears the name “Confirmation” in the 1979 Prayer Book, which is not to be confused with what used to be referred to, under the 1928 (and earlier) regime, as “the completion of baptism.” Basically, the narrative is this:
In the ancient church, baptismal initiation was a single but segmented rite, presided over by the Bishop at the Easter Vigil. The segments included immersion in water, anointing with oil, and prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
As dioceses grew, and bishops found themselves unable to multi-locate, they delegated to presbyters the ministry of the water rite. In the East, they also delegated the chrismation and invocation of the HS, but in the West, the bishops reserved these things to themselves. This separate service became the germ of what was later called Confirmation.
Since Confirmation came to often be administered in early adolescence, at the time of the Reformation, it took on the meaning of an adult rite of passage, a sort of “Christian bar mitzvah.”
In the runup to the revisions of the 1970s, there was a desire in TEC to re-unify the entire rite (water-chrism-HS) and allow presbyters to preside. This is indeed what the “Green Book” (1971) proposed. But there was pushback from the Bishops, who protested that Confirmation was their only regular form of pastoral contact with the faithful in their dioceses.
So the Standing Liturgical Commission (as it was then known) pulled a sort of semantic shell game on the bishops, proceeding with a re-unified baptismal rite (look at the liturgy ... it’s all there) but creating ex nihilo a new rite that retains the “rite of passage” baggage (and, to be cynical, the “rite of becoming an Episcopalian” baggage) and slapping the label “Confirmation” on it just to keep the bishops happy.
Of course, this account only applies to TEC. As for other Anglican provinces (and beyond), it needs to be judged on a case by case basis.
But I’m fairly certain that what we call Confirmation in TEC has little if anything to do with what was once part of the Church’s initiatory practice.
Take note also, for this conversation, of Rob Eaton’s interesting post on the nature of confirmation, from which the below is excerpted—make sure you check his fisk of a Canadian Anglican newsletter’s reasons for confirmation:
Our Church needs to (among other things) engage in an across the board study and discussion on the sacrament of Confirmation. Attempts since the 1950′s have been paltry, and short-winded. The perfect time would have been when the House of Bishops forty years ago deemed reception of Holy Communion not dependent upon the sacrament of Confirmation. A robust discussion, study, reflection and teaching (and not a simple and short statement or book as was published) should have commenced for several years. The charismatic renewal shares some of the blame in this lack; but otherwise the failure just means the Church as a whole had no idea there WAS a profound meaning other than as a rite of passage.
Time to make it right.
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