Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On Confirmation

(Note: This is NOT part of my promised four-part series on General Convention issues. It's just lagniappe, as they say in Louisiana.)

There are resolutions coming before General Convention that will remove Confirmation as a condition for eligibility for any status or ministry or leadership position in the Episcopal Church. Indeed, Confirmation has a tortured history, in both ancient and modern times ... and medieval times as well, for that matter. 

Baptism in the pre-Constantinian church was, speaking generally and in broad strokes, a unified but segmented rite. The bishop was the normative presider at every point. It included water, chrismation with hand-laying, and prayer for the gift of the Holy Spirit.

In time, for obvious practical and pastoral reasons, presbyters were deputized to preside on the bishop's behalf. In some cases (mostly in the east) this meant the entire process. In others (mostly in the west), it meant only the water portion, with the oil/hands/Holy Spirit part reserved for the bishop at some near-future occasion. Eventually, "near future" morphed into "whenever," and the event took on an identity of its own, apart from baptism. It became known as Confirmation.

In the late Middle Ages and through the Reformation era, some extra cultural baggage got laid on confirmation: a coming-of-age celebration, a sort of Christian bar mitzvah, along with the attendant expectation of instruction and absorption of what is taught. 

More recently, in a religiously fluid society, Confirmation was laden still further, as the way an "episcopal" (small-e intended) church regularizes the status of those who "join" (we have adopted the peculiarly American categories of voluntarism) but who have never come under the hands of a bishop (which our corporate memory tells us is a critical part of the initiatory process).

Attention to the politics of TEC in the 60s and 70s will reveal that those in the forefront of liturgical reform wanted to scrap Confirmation altogether, and reunify the initiation rite under the title Holy Baptism, and allow presbyters to preside over the entire process. They got blowback from the bishops, who felt like this would deprive them of their principal pastoral contact with lay people. So the 1979 BCP represents a compromise. What we might call the "original sacramental guts" of Confirmation were indeed restored to Holy Baptism, with priests permitted to preside. This was done somewhat on the sly, but look at the liturgy: there is chrismation, hand-laying, and multiple prayers calling down the Holy Spirit. Then the other baggage that had accumulated over the centuries was bundled together and given existence as a separate rite with the name "Confirmation," together with the nebulous language of "expectation" that everyone will in one way or another acquire that status of "confirmed communicant."

I would venture to say that most Episcopalians, lay or ordained, do not "get" the dynamics of this relatively recent history. Even if one is fully aware of all this, the matter is still confusing; much more so if one is not. I certainly count myself among the confused. I have been long of the mind that we should "receive" from Rome and Orthodoxy, and "confirm" everybody else who comes from another Christian communion. But I realize that such a position is predicated on the assumption that those from Rome and Orthodoxy have had tactile sacramental contact with a bishop, and this is manifestly not necessarily the case with either. 

I would suggest that the important norm is testimony to one's faith in the presence of a bishop, who is by nature an icon of the universality of the church across both time and space. 

In my limited experience (15 months) in episcopal ministry, I find that the formula for Reception is quite weak and unsatisfying. In fact, the whole concept is weak and unsatisfying. Does it really make a person any more an Episcopalian than they already were? When I was in parish ministry, if someone began attending and communicating regularly, I would ask for the basic information regarding the date and place of their baptism, and I would record that information in the Parish Register. As I read the canons, that makes them fully members of "this church." I would still then hold out the expectation of coming under the hands of the bishop at an opportune time. I really do wish we could get away from thinking of Confirmation as "the sacrament of becoming an Episcopalian," because it's not that at all. Perhaps I will more toward using the Reaffirmation formula as a way of welcoming anyone who has already made an adult profession of faith, in whatever tradition. Perhaps.

1 comment:

C. Wingate said...

I have to say that I'm glad that the current reception policy was not in place when came over from the Presbyterians in 1977.