Saturday, June 2, 2012

Confirmation in the Anglican Tradition

This post is intended to set the stage for a further discussion of Christian initiation in the Episcopal Church.  It builds on previous posts dealing with Confirmation such as "A Theological Portrait of the Old High Churchmen".

I rely heavily on a study conducted by Robert Cornwall about the practice of Confirmation in the eighteenth century for the source material in this piece.  
Confirmation in the Anglican Tradition
Confirmation is one of those rites maintained by the Church of England at the Reformation that "confirms" our intent to maintain our catholic heritage, by maintaining those rites and ceremonies which do not contradict the Word of God.  However, much like episcopacy, there has never been a coherent, Anglican understanding of what confirmation is and its relationship to baptism; this can also apply to confirmation, in general, as it has often been termed "a rite in search of a theology."  I wish to explore here, briefly, the historical practice of confirmation in the Church of England, as well as historical approaches to understanding the theological nature of the rite.  In addition, I will explore the rite in the historic Prayer Books to a certain degree.  

To begin the discussion, let us approach the manner in which the historic prayer books have dealt with the rite of Confirmation.  In the category of "historic prayer books" I include the 1549, 1552, 1559, 1662, and the 1928 Prayer Book, although the latter is a later development in the Prayer Book tradition, I felt that a representation of American Anglicanism was necessary.  
Consider the title of the rite in the various books:

"Confirmacion, Wherin is Conteined a Catechisme for Children" (1549 & 1552)

"The Order of Confirmation, or laying on of hands upon children baptised, and able to render an account of their Faith, according to the Catechisme following" (1559)

"The Order of Confirmation, Or Laying on of Hands upon Those That Are Baptized and Come to Years of Discretion" (1662 & 1928)

The tension in understanding about confirmation in Anglicanism has polarized between a logocentric and sacramentalist approach.  Briefly (to be explore below in the "theology" section in detail), the logocentric approach centers on the role of catechism in the rite to prepare children (and converts) for the reception of the Lord's Supper.  This involves completion and mastery of the Catechism and Articles of Faith, such as the Creed, Lord's Prayer, and Commandments.  The rite itself is merely a public recognition of the internal, spiritual maturity of the child.  The other approach is the sacramentalist approach, which assigns some spiritual value to the act of laying on of hands in the rite, which can occur in two forms.  The centrist or moderate form acknowledges a strengthening of the Spirit while the more advanced form acknowledges that the Holy Ghost is received completely in Confirmation as opposed to Baptism.  

The title of the rite in the various books gives an indication as to how the rite is treated in said volume.  In the 1549-1559 books, a logocentric, catechetical rite is assumed, explicitly in 1559 by linking the rite to the Catechism in the title.  Later rites, tend to imply a more sacramentalist understanding by including a reference to the laying on of hands in the title.

The structure of the rite has also changed over the years.  The 1549 rite retained the sign of the cross associated with the medieval rite, which was later removed in the 1552 rite (and never returned).  The later rites utilize the laying on of hands, a more primitive and biblical practice.  The introductory section is shortened in 1662 and a lesson from Acts 8 is added to the 1928 American version, a text long associated with confirmation, which also strengthens the sacramentalist understanding to the 1928 Book, although it is not explicitly outlined as such.

Another important aspect of the place of confirmation in the historical Prayer Books is its connection with the Lord's Supper.  Historically, Anglicanism has required confirmation as a pre-requisite to the reception of Holy Communion.  However, this is an over-generalization, as we shall see later.  Moreover, the rubrics for this have changed since 1549:

"And there shal none be admitted to the holye communion: until suche time as he be confirmed." (1549)

" And there shal none be admitted to the holy Communion, until suche tyme as he can saye the Catechisme, and bee confirmed." (1552)

"And there shall none be admitted to the holy communion; until suche tyme as he can saye the Catechisme and be confirmed." (1559)

"And there shall none be admitted to the holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed." (1662 & 1928).

Obviously, you can see the progressing laxity in the relation between Confirmation and Holy Communion, beginning with an absolute rubric and ending up with a "loophole" of being "ready and desirous" as substituting for the rite itself.  It is interesting that the 1552 and 1559 tie the Catechism to the reception of Communion, while the 1549, 1662, and 1928 books do not.  
Confirmation in the REC
I wanted to include a brief mention of the practice of the Reformed Episcopal Church, formed in 1873 in response to the rising Anglo-Catholicism in the Protestant Episcopal Church.  In the Catechism contained in their 1930 edition of the Book of Common Prayer, there are contained the following questions and answers related to Confirmation:

What is confirmation?
Confirmation is not a Sacrament, but an ancient rite of the Church, derived from the custom of the Apostles of the laying of hands on those who had been baptized.

Why is this rite called Confirmation?
Because therein the Candidates ratify and confirm the vows made on their behalf by those who brought them in infancy to be baptized; and, Secondly, because it affords opportunity to those who have been baptized in riper years to renew and confirm the vows they themselves made at their Baptism.

What is the further significance of Confirmation?
That therein the persons, in open confession before men, avow Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as their Lord and Saviour.  

The REC, at least in earlier Prayer Books, was committed to a non-sacramentalist understanding of the rite, assigning it a role as a public and mature commitment to Christ as Lord and Savior.

Practice of Confirmation 

After (briefly) examining the confirmation material in the historical prayer books, I wish to address (again, briefly) the actual practice of confirmation in the historical Church of England.  Even though the Prayer Book required, to some extent, confirmation before receiving Holy Communion, in actuality, many Englishmen lived their lives unconfirmed.  Cornwall describes the practice of the rite in his book, pointing out that many bishops, who would otherwise be zealous in performing Confirmations, but due to geographic and time limitations were not able to tour their dioceses to perform Confirmations.  "Perhaps the most important obstacle was the small number of bishops charged with ministering to an expansive English church. Twenty-six bishops were expected to minister to a church of almost ten thousand parishes. Some dioceses, such as Lincoln, had more than one thousand parishes. Canon law required bishops to make triennial visits to each parish in their diocese. Parliamentary duties and the size of many dioceses, however, often kept them from fulfilling this requirement. Even the most diligent bishops found this duty difficult to fulfill." (Cornwall, 361)  In addition to huge dioceses, Cornwall also points out that English bishops had parliamentary duties, because the twenty-six bishops of the Church of England served in the House of Lords as lords spiritual of the realm.  This additional, political, duty, limited English bishops from performing the rite of confirmation.  In addition to difficulty in finding time to perform the rite, bishops also faced difficulties when they had managed to perform it, "The disparity between the number of parishes and dioceses meant that when the bishops did administer confirmation they dealt with numerous candidates. During one three-month period in 1709, William Wake, then bishop of Lincoln, confirmed 12,800 candidates in twenty-four centers. Three years later he confirmed more than eighteen thousand people in twenty-eight centers during a period that lasted approximately two months. The sheer size of the crowds presented the bishops with many problems, including the presence of what S. C. Carpenter has called "gate crashers," people who presented them-selves for confirmation without the authority of the parish priests. Another problem the bishops encountered was the habit of some to be confirmed more than once".  (Cornwall, 361)  Although bishops made infrequent tours to confirm, many bishops agreed that the rite was essential and should be performed more frequently by the bishops, "There seems to have been common agreement, however, that this was not proper. White Kennett, a latitudinarian bishop, called on his clergy to assist him in fulfilling his duty to confirm and noted his intention to hold frequent confirmations. He even suggested that at times between visits, members of the congregations could come to the cathedral and receive confirmation. He hoped that there would be no impediment to one's ability to receive confirmation and that everyone would have the opportunity to be confirmed. Charles Wheatly, a High Churchman, echoed this sentiment, suggesting that since bishops alone could confirm, the church enjoined "frequent administration of it by these reverend fathers." Wheatly pointed out that although canon law required confirmations to be done at the triennial visitations, the Reformatio Legum "seems to appoint, that Confirmation be administered every year." (371)

Theology of Confirmation 

Roman Catholicism held confirmation to be one of seven sacraments; the Church of England, along with other Protestant churches, limited the number of sacraments to two, consequently denying Confirmation as a Sacrament.  However, the rite was essential for Anglican life, as it was the normative means to gain access to Holy Communion.  It was also a "badge" of catholicity for the Church of England, because it was an act reserved for bishops.  A few extreme High Church-men, including Nonjurors such as Thomas Deacon and Henry Dodwell, broadened their understanding of sacrament further and included confirmation, but they were not representative of the whole of High Church theology. Thomas Deacon, taught that confirmation was a sacrament that could be administered to infants following their baptisms. Henry Dodwell gave confirmation a role on par with baptism, describing baptism as a preliminary rite, one that was beneath the dignity of an apostle to administer. Therefore, a second rite was required, a higher baptism that would seal with oil instead of water to secure eternal life for the recipient.  These latter positions were well beyond the limits of the Church of England, according to her formularies.  More representative of the view of the Established Church were the views expressed by Zacheus Isham in a sermon preached at Coleshill during the visitation of the bishop of Coventry and Litchfield.  Isham wrote: "[W]e neither make it a sacrament; nor retain the chrism, or anointing, which came in after the time of the Apostles."  Others noted that the Church of England had removed all "popish superstition" from the rite and denied it sacramental status (362).

Various explanations were given as to exactly what happened to the believer in the rite.  The more logocentric model affirmed that the rite was a manner in which the believer could publicly express their intent to follow Christ.  In this manner, Confirmation was, "looked upon as a solemn form of prayer (as St. Austin calls it) for youth, who being beyond childhood made a profession of their faith, and thereupon were thus blessed"(365).  Stress was laid upon the need to renew the vows made at baptism on behalf of the infant.  The necessity of doing so revealed that the person was a Christian by choice and not solely relying upon the faith of their parents and godparents.  This paradigm would have been affirmed by Low Churchmen and all those churchmen of a more reformed stripe.

High Churchmen assigned further significance to the rite, generally adopting the sacramentalist approach.  The more advanced of this opinion affirmed that Confirmation was the means whereby God conferred his Holy Spirit upon believers, thus "completing" their baptism.  Reflecting on the gifts of the Spriit, Nathaniel Ellison says, "the common and saving graces of the Spirit for those on whom they laid their hands, so we have reason to believe that our bishops (who are the Apostles Successors) have now the like power and privilege to derive to us the ordinary graces of God's Spirit, in the same way that the Apostles communicated the extra-ordinary operations."  Thomas Wilson adds, "sent down his Holy Spirit to be communicated by the laying on of hands (Acts 8: 17), to all such as are disposed to receive him."  The passage from Acts 8 has a strong connection with the rite of Confirmation and was added to the 1928 liturgy due to this connotation.  

Kennett, the latitudinarian, and Wheatly, the High Churchman, agreed that confirmation should precede admission to the Eucharist and that confirmation allowed those baptized as infants to confess their faith. High Churchmen, however, went further with their defini-tions. They insisted that confirmation be also the place where God conferred the Holy Spirit on the believer. Nathaniel Ellison, looking back to the apostles' experience with the Samaritan believers, raised the issue of miraculous gifts. Like most Anglicans of his age, he insisted that the gifts attending the conferral of the Spirit had ceased with the death of the apostles. Yet, even as the apostles had been given the authority to impart "the common and saving graces of the Spirit for those on whom they laid their hands, so we have reason to believe that our bishops (who are the Apostles Successors) have now the like power and privilege to derive to us the ordinary graces of God's Spirit, in the same way that the Apostles communicated the extra-ordinary operations."26 Thomas Wilson wrote that Jesus had "sent down his Holy Spirit to be communicated by the laying on of hands (Acts 8: 17), to all such as are disposed to receive him." This endowment of the Spirit would enable recipients to subdue their enemies, including lust, and have their souls purified, so that "when you die, you will be fit to be carried to the quiet and happy regions of paradise, where the souls of the faithful enjoy perpetual rest and happiness."  Wheatly summarizes this sacramentalist position, "[B]aptism conveys the Holy Ghost only as the spirit or principle of life; it is by Confirmation that he becomes to us the Spirit of strength, and enables us to stir and move ourselves."

As explored above, Confirmation was seen as the necessary prerequisite to receiving Holy Communion in the Church of England, even when difficulties made it impossible for the bishops to provide Confirmation regularly to their dioceses.


Cornwall, Robert, "The Rite of Confirmation in Anglican Thought during the Eighteenth Century."  Church History, Vol. 68, No. 2 (Jun., 1999), pp. 359-372

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