In our last Epistle, I wrote about Baptism and noted that our understanding of Baptism in the Episcopal Church has changed over time. Changes in our understanding of Baptism, particularly since the 1979 Book of Common Prayer was adopted, have required changes in our understanding of Confirmation, since much of what was bestowed on a person at Confirmation before 1979 is now seen as bestowed at Baptism. So, questions arise about Confirmation today. What does it mean? Is it necessary? Is it meaningful? Should we even include Confirmation among the Sacraments and Rites of the Episcopal Church?
As described in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, there are two great sacraments of the Gospel: Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist. These are the two sacraments in which Jesus participated during his earthly ministry. Confirmation is described as a sacramental rite (along with ordination, holy matrimony, reconciliation of a penitent, and ministering to the sick). Thus, Confirmation is not considered in the same category as Holy Baptism and Holy Eucharist, but is still considered a sacrament.
Both in the past and today, Confirmation has been seen as the time when a person makes a mature commitment to Christ – affirming the promises made on the person’s behalf by parents and godparents at Baptism.
Before 1979, Confirmation was also seen as the moment when a person became fully a part of the Church – Christ’s Body on earth. Consequently, only those who had been confirmed were allowed to receive Holy Eucharist. In addition, Confirmation was seen as the moment when the Holy Spirit descended fully on the person – through the process of the laying on of hands by a Bishop.
In described in Scripture, after his Resurrection, Jesus bestows the Holy Spirit on the apostles by breathing on them. Later, the apostles bestow the Holy Spirit on others by laying hands on them. The Apostle Peter (considered the first Bishop of the Church) consecrated Bishops in the early church by laying his hands on them. Those Bishops then consecrated other Bishops by laying hands on them, and so forth during the two thousand years of the Church (this is called Apostolic Succession). Consequently, when our Bishop lays her hands on someone – as she does at Confirmations and Ordinations – what she imparts to that person had its beginning with Jesus breathing on the Apostles.
Since 1979, Baptism has been seen as the time when a person becomes a full member of the Church (which is why all the baptized can now receive Holy Eucharist.) In addition, the Holy Spirit is seen as being within every person from the beginning of life. Consequently, Confirmation is no longer required to be a full member of the Body of Christ or to be filled with the Holy Spirit. So, what is its purpose?
Perhaps we can consider this question in two parts: membership in the Church and the experience of the Holy Spirit. Before a person is confirmed, a period of study and personal reflection is required. The Episcopal Church notes that this study should “help the candidates discover the meaning of Christian commitment in their lives and explore ways that their Christian commitment can be lived.” Studying to understand more clearly what Christian commitment is, and then reflecting on how, specifically, God is calling a person into a life with Christ, can certainly make that person a better Christian and better person.
As Alex Fogleman writes: Baptism is a beginning; Confirmation is a deepening. Baptism is one’s birth into the Body of Christ; Confirmation represents one’s growth within the Body of Christ. The Holy Spirit is present both at our Baptism and at our Confirmation. At our Baptism, we are born into a new life through the Holy Spirit; at Confirmation, the Holy Spirit strengthens us in that life that began at our Baptism.
It is notable that only a Bishop can lead the sacramental rite of Confirmation. In the same way, only a Bishop can lead the sacramental rite of Ordination. Perhaps there is some meaning in this. Ordination marks a person as having a special mission and role within the Body of Christ. Perhaps we can think of Confirmation as having the same purpose: it is a time when a person – through study and reflection; through consultation with clergy, family members, and others; and through laying on of hands by a Bishop – accepts that he or she also has a vocation within the Church, a role to play, a mission to fulfill.
Go with God,