(Public health warning: I am not a liturgical scholar, I am oversimplifying at almost every turn, and I make no promise that there isn’t an argument out there that could make me change my mind. People who adhere to churches that do not practice Confirmation, or that don’t care what Episcopal churches do, are invited not to worry about this.)
Starting before the Episcopal Church US&’s General Convention this summer, then particularly in discussion at Convention, and in various more recent conversations, the rite of Confirmation has been widely characterised as ‘a sacrament searching for a meaning’ (see Derek’s blog here, here, and here, and elsewhere). How does this pique my interest? I can’t even count the ways.
First, some culpably oversimplified background: the rite of Confirmation arose at a point when bishops could no longer get around to conduct all the baptisms for congregations under their charge. The sacramental action of immersion/cleansing/sprinkling/what-you-will was devolved to presbyters, and the laying-on of episcopal hands (at first an integral part of the baptismal rite) was deferred to a later time, when it was convenient for the bishop to confirm the initiation of newly-baptised members of the church. The Orthodox still practice Confirmation as part of the baptismal rite (though the authority to confirm, chrismate (anoint) has been devolved to the presbyter). The Roman Catholic Church also permits presbyters to confirm, though (if I understand correctly) this permission is restricted to specially-designated clergy.
Now, the story of Confirmation is the story of a series of changes. Once separated from baptism (in the West), Confirmation became regarded as the completion of baptism. People began to think of Confirmation as the prelude to admission to communion. Churches of the Reformation, those that continued the practice at all, treated Confirmation as an occasion for the mature affirmation of baptismal vows or of confessional belief. On all these understandings, there’s no obvious connection with the necessity of a bishop’s participation.
The Anglican traditions have maintained a consistent emphasis on the bishop’s role in Confirmation. I remember being told, in seminary classes, about bishop-groupies who would follow the bishop around as he made his rounds of the diocese, getting confirmed several times in different congregations. To an extent, this role continues the historic connection with the bishop-as-baptiser; to an extent, it perpetuates the bishop’s role as the paterfamilias of the diocese, greeting and welcoming his scattered children; to an extent, it reflects the English church’s polity by reserving full participation and prerogatives of church life to those who have been confirmed . But the Roman tradition shows that one can have a strongly episcopal tradition without requiring the bishop to confirm.
More recently, as the Episcopal Church US& has re-emphasised the unique, decisive importance of baptism (in its appropriately-named ‘baptismal theology’), liturgists have argued that the raison d’être of Confirmation has evaporated. Baptism is full and complete initiation of the initiate into the Body of Christ, and the baptisand is anointed with episcopally-blessed chrism as part of the liturgy. There’s nothing left for a bishop to do: baptism is full and complete initiation, and any old presbyter can receive the affirmation of adult faith. Thus, it is argued, Confirmation is a sacrament in search of a justification.
The preceding account neglects some important hermeneutical and liturgical-theological questions, though. Starting with hermeneutics, at what point does the consensus of liturgical scholars achieve the authority to assure the rest of us that such-and-so really was the original meaning of a liturgical gesture? And what if that consensus shifts? Do we then change the liturgy every few years to accommodate the very latest scholarship? Who adjudicates which liturgical scholars get a say in this process? The presuppositions of the historiographic hermeneutics seem resolutely modern, and I mean that in a not favourable way.
The liturgical impulse to realign worship according to an ancient model has misfired before, and it seems possible to misfire in the future as well. Moreover, that impulse neglects the role of lived tradition, Wirkungsgeschichte, in informing and defining a liturgical practice. A ritual derives its meaning not only from some moment near its origin; it also receives its meaning from the people who participate in it, and from the pracices of those who administer it. And all of these can change over time, and that change is not always a departure from a pristine, infallible, pure moment of origin — sometimes liturgical meaning changes for the better. (Those in favour of extending marital privileges to same-sex couples are pretty much committed to that premise, and even ‘reasserters’ probably believe that the meaning of particular rites has changed in positive ways over time, in at least some cases.) If over the years the meaning of Confirmation has changed, then the fact (which I’m not disputing here) that it no longer reflects its original meaning, and that the Anglican tradition no longer needs a rite to ‘complete’ baptism or to credential believers as members of the church polity, then Confirmation has no remaining justification except as a strictly optional pastoral office for people who feel the need to profess their faith formally.
And liturgically speaking, is Confirmation really ‘meaningless’? Hasn’t the distinctively Anglican emphasis on the bishop’s necessary role in Confirmation sustained an intuition that there’s something vital about the intersection of episcopal recognition and personal affirmation?
As the bishop’s office is a ministry of teaching, of maintaining the faith and unity of the church, and of pastoral oversight over the diocese, is it not entirely sound theology to submit that there is sacramental significance when the bishop (who embodies the world to the diocese, and the diocese to the world) formally recognises and acknowledges the member, and acknowledges that the member now also has a claim on the attention and allegiance of the bishop?
Q: What is the sacramental effect of the rite of Confirmation on your account?
A: In Confirmation, the Church acknowledges the baptised member. Confirmation does not finish anything hitherto left incomplete, but it adds a formal affirmation of what was hitherto not recognised (viz, Alexandria and Sydney and even Glasgow don’t know of a new member in Kirkcudbright; in Confirmation, the new member meets the Church as a whole, instantiated in the bishop, and the Church as a whole meets, and confirms, the new member).
Q: But this isn’t what Confirmation meant at its origin!
A: That’s not a question! But it wouldn’t bother me, even if you restated your objection in the form of a question. Meanings change. The question isn’t ‘Is it different?’ but ‘Does it differ in a way that departs from sound theology and liturgical practice?’ I don’t see that it does. Certainly it doesn’t mark a radical disruption of church life and practice — which abolishing, or minimising, episcopal Confirmation manifestly would.
Q: But what you’re proposing isn’t something that the churches have ever explicitly stated about the purpose and effect of Confirmation. Aren’t you just substituting your own personal theology of Confirmation for the Church’s?
A: If this were simply some oddball suggestion of mine, I would readily concede this point. But I take it that the theology I propose here has lain implicit in the practice of Confirmation for ages. It’s certainly congruent with the evolving role of Confirmation.
Q: Aren’t you just rationalising the perpetuation of a practice that has no more intrinsic meaning?
A: Nothing has an ‘intrinsic’ meaning; and if by ‘rationalising’ you mean something slightly disreputable, I respond that the Church has made most of its best decisions in retrospect, rationalising a pattern into which it had fallen — or ‘been led by the Spirit’ — and if I’m offering a rationale for continuing the practice of Confirmation, I happily plead guilty. Why abolish, or radically reconfigure, a sacrament when there’s no urgent need so to do, nor benefit from so doing? — especially if there’s a fully coherent rationale for continuing the practice at hand.