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WHITHER CONFIRMATION?

In the nineteen seventies our church spent a good deal of time and money on liturgical revision.  Whether such revision was by popular demand or not is open to interpretation.

One of the problems of being a relatively small church is that we therefore produce relatively few “experts”. A few exert enormous influence on the many.  As the major and much larger Roman Catholic Church led the liturgical renewal movement, the task of Episcopalian scholars in the field took upon itself the robe of the interpreter. Yes Anglicanism worldwide raised up some notable liturgical scholars, such as Frere, Hebert and of course Dom Gregory Dix and their contribution should not be ignored.

The difficulty for Anglicans centered around an aspect of authority. Rome didn’t have that problem. The teachings of the Roman Catholic Church are not intimately bound up with liturgical texts as they are for us. Within limits what Rome does to liturgy has little effect on her teaching authority centered in the papacy.

Apart from a few notable evangelical Anglican liturgical scholars such as Bishop Colin Buchanan, the majority of our scholars came from the Catholic party.  It is little wonder that in 1979 TEC authorized the most “Catholic” Prayer Book in the Anglican Communion.  It did so at the expense of our Reformed tradition.  It is perhaps a good thing not to center our theological debate on the Reformation period.  It seems good, and indeed Anglican, to look to the Early Church for authority in doctrine and liturgy.  On the other hand those who ignore God’s hand in the events of history subsequent to the period of Creeds and Councils ignore the treasure of insights and warnings history presents.

At the time of the Reformation, Confirmation, although counted among the “seven sacraments”, had become a neglected rite. Children were admitted to communion at an early age. Bishops were often absentees from their dioceses.  Anecdotal stories abound of bishops stopping outside villages, and waving their hands over candidates for Confirmation before riding off. (Similar stories may be discovered in Anglican history before the Evangelicals rescued Confirmation in the late 18th Century.)

Cranmer in an extraordinarily bold step revived Confirmation and put teeth into it. He balanced the sort of emphasis revived in Continental Protestantism – Confirmation as an outward sign of a fully instructed baptized person affirming and embracing the covenant established in baptism – by retaining the laying on of hands by a Bishop in the Historic succession. Confirmation was to be “the ordination of the laity”, not merely an individual action, but an action of the church, for the church and for the world.  The Holy Spirit, who claims a child in Baptism, empowers those who reached the age of discretion to employ the gifts bestowed for “ministry” by the outward and visible sign of Confirmation. The company of Christians, set aside for mission, “Daily increases in the Holy Spirit more and more.”

Now did the Early Church draw a distinction between Baptism and Confirmation. No. But in an age when most converted as adults or as households, the logic of providing a rite which both signalled spiritual and physical maturity, and a conversion to ministry wasn’t needed.  It became needed as Christianity became less a missionary church, in the West, and more and more a pastoral church. If everyone is a Christian who does one evangelize?  Our Reformers, by the way, didn’t think otherwise. But as evangelicals they sought to tackle the problem of many not seeming to be devout by introducing the categories of elect and damned.  Evangelism in the sense of spreading the Gospel at home and abroad is an 18th. Century construct based on a new demand.

As we seek to empower the laity to become evangelists in a secular world, the case for Confirmation, as a legitimate pastoral development stemming from Baptism seems more and not less compelling.  To this day the rite survives among us, somewhat apologetically, because the bishops want to retain it.  It is, for our bishops, one of the few remaining pastoral/sacramental functions.  Their stubbornness on its retention may not be as ignorant as our liturgical boffins suggest. Perhaps it is an act of the Holy Spirit!

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