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.
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It’s just come fully clear to me that, for the past week, I’ve been supporting the Great Britain team in every Olympic event I’ve seen. Without even a moment’s hesitation.
Now, I haven’t seen much basketball — apart from the classic Guardian Lego recreation — so I haven’t had to face the possibility of cheering against Mike Krzyzewski, but that’s the only case in which I would imagine having uncertain loyalties.
I can’t imagine that will make a difference to the Home Office when I submit our application to renew our visas, but it does suggest something.


During Margaret’s and my walk to Knockbrex Beach, I fell to reciting The Hunting of the Snark (for a reason I can’t recall). Because my memory isn’t what it once was, I resolved to make a good e-edition of it once I got back to high-bandwidth connectivity — but I (re)discovered this morning the University of Adelaide ebooks site, which includes the Snark and exemplifies several aspects of a point I’ve been making over and over to whoever will listen. Well done, Adelaide!



‘If the literal sense of these Scriptures is absurd, and apparently contrary to reason, then we should be obliged not to interpret them according to the letter, but to look out for a looser meaning.’ — John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, 4:337.