Hermeneutics of Confirmation

(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.

5 thoughts on “Hermeneutics of Confirmation

  1. I fully agree, and would like to add that the significance of Confirmation is increased by its close association with the Catechism. I think the old BCP Catechism — little changed since 1549 except for the addition of the statement on the Sacraments — is the most overlooked little gem in the Prayer Book: though brief, it does a wonderful job of instructing young people (and older people) in the essentials of the faith in a way that draws directly from our regular worship, and therefore feeds back into it.

    In my parish we’ve developed a slightly modernized form of it that has proved to be an excellent teaching tool, and has also helped to make Confirmation more valuable for confirmands and their parents alike. (And maybe also for the bishop?)


  2. One would think, in fact, that liturgists – and actually church geeks of all kinds – would be terrifically eager to examine the various meanings Confirmation has taken on over the years.

    I mean, if it’s a “rite in search of a theology” – why doesn’t somebody actually do some searching for the theology? That’s the puzzling thing to me; here’s a Sacrament that’s actually in flux; it’s a two-thousand-year-old tradition of the church that’s apparently just sitting there, waiting be mined for new meaning.

    One would think that theological and liturgical adventurers would eagerly grab hold of Confirmation, hoping to find something as-yet undiscovered there.

    Strange to me that instead people are so flummoxed about it that they’d rather just throw it out….

  3. I am in substantial agreement. However Confirmation has mutated in the western Church, few today would defend what became the traditional linkage between Confirmation and admission to Communion. Christian initiation is complete in Baptism, which a Presbyter/Priest, Deacon, or lay person may administer in the absence of the Bishop. But there remains theological and pastoral value in the Bishop affirming – and confirming – lay people as they begin to take adult responsibility for the baptismal promises which (in most but not all cases) were made on their behalf by parents and godparents, and assume the responsibilities of the laity within the Church.

  4. Dear AKMA,

    The thing that seems to be left out of the debates about Confirmation in relation to Baptism and admission to Communion is how formation is supposed to fit in. We’ve all talked and thought about whether or not there is a proper age for Confirmation (because our parishes need to have some idea of what this might be), but what is left out of discussion so often is the formation that needs to take place between Baptism and Confirmation. To celebrate the sacrament or sacramental rite of Confirmation without having done a creditable job of formation means that the age of the confirmand and whether or not a bishop does it are both really beside the point.


  5. As newly ordained and consecrated Episcopal bishop, I have been doing some thinking about why the most public act of my office is presiding at services of confirmation. As a child of the ’79 prayer book, I have been fully immersed (no pun intended) in the theology of baptismal initiation as that sacramental act whereby we are fully incorported into Christ and His Church.

    I do think it is both theologically indefensible as well as pastorally unhelpful to talk about confirmation somehow “completing” something that baptism alone does not provide. Confirmation as we now describe it is a rite unknown in the New Testament. Even post baptismal “fillings” of the Holy Spirit do not entirely correspond to what we think of as confirmation.

    So, why confirm?

    I’m not sure whether or not I could fully answer why “we” should confirm; but at the risk of sounding unbiblically local (rather than catholic) I can say why “I” confirm and enjoy doing so immensely. Below are a cursory offering of my reasons, and not in order of importance.

    1. Confirmation provides a opportunity for organized instruction that most (if not all) parish churches would not provide were confirmation no longer regular in church life. Scripture, church history, theology, church governance, the nature of personal commitment to Christ, and teaching on the sacraments are the typical outline. All of these are both worthwhile, but necessary if church members are going to be involved in any meaningful role of leadership in the local church that is theologically informed. As TEC has affirmed at General Convention the expectation that vestry members and other officers be confirmed, confirmation as preparation for leadership is vital.
    2. Confirmation, in the person of the bishop, visually and intentionally connects candidates and their parishes both to the diocese and the wider church. While this is certainly true of baptism, local baptisms rarely take only that kind of intentionally international character. I make a point of saying to the candidates (and in the hearing of the congregation), “You have fellow confirmans in Nairobi, Singapore, London and Cairo.” I also make a point of saying that as bishop, I am acting on the part of the whole and global church.
    3. Confirmation provides an opportunity for a clear and public “Yes” to Christ. Given the growing hostility to Christianity in some quarters and the clearly post Christian nature of much of our western culture, I do not think the importance of a prayerful and informed public affirmation of faith can be overestimated. This is especially true when the baptismal vows are used as a framework for talking at a realistic level what it means to be a Christian: how faith informs human relationships, finances, and missional servanthood.
    4. Confirmation sets up an expectation of Christian commitment, learning and personal involvement that is life long. Confirmation cannot be seen as “graduatlion” from Sunday School. This is precisely the opposite from what it means to “live out our baptismal vows” and confirmation preparation should clearly establish and model that expectation.
    5. Confirmation liturgically expresses a profoundly important Christian truth- that the Christian life must be fueled by the grace and power of the Holy Spirit. Confirmation preparation must be grounded in the disciplines of spiritual formation.

    There is more to be said about each of these points and I could make others. I am not unaware of the burden I have placed creating an instructional process that includes all of these elements. To put this weight on confirmation requires time, energy and the understanding the confirmation is not a requirment but an invitation by the Church into a deeper life of discipleship.

    Well informed, prayerful, gracious and generous Christians are sorely needed in this hour; and confirmation is precisely the place where both the training and the liturgical celebration of such Christians can be provided.

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