Monday, June 01, 2015

What Confirmation sort of might be

A relatively casual post on my Facebook account stimulated several comments, one of which challenged me to articulate what Confirmation is, in a positive sense, rather than what it is not, which is what my post had done.

So, as briefly as I can, here's my take.

CAVEAT: Although the topic has been and is rightfully the subject of historical and liturgical scholarship, I am not an academician. I know enough about history and liturgy to be very annoying to actual scholars, but I am not completely "read up" in the fields, and the pros will be able to tell. Also, I'm lazy about attribution, and I'm a synthetic thinker, which is a dangerous combination. There's no desire or intent to purloin anybody else's work, but I absorb what I absorb, over a period of years, mash it up in my brain, and then what comes out is what comes out. I'll do my best about this.

In the beginning there was baptism, and it was pretty simple. You confessed your faith in Jesus, made some promises, and got dunked--or water was poured over you (not sprinkled, poured, so whether you were actually dunked or not, you got uncomfortably wet). In time (I'm going to say somewhere in the second century, but the scholars can check me out), the Bishop became the normative presider at this event, and the normative occasion was the Great Vigil of Easter.

Then there was some add-ons. Accretions or enrichments, depending on your perspective. After the bit with the water, there was the laying-on of hands, which became associated (simultaneously? sequentially?) with a prayer that invoked the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in the new Christian's life. And somewhere in this mix, anointing with oil (chrismation) got thrown in, and also got associated with the Holy Spirit.

So, by the fourth century sometime, we see a single rite of Christian initiation that is unified but segmented, presided over by the Bishop, and generally reserved to the Easter Vigil. (There are always exceptions and localizations and statistical outliers with pretty much everything, and, as I make my generalizations, I stipulate to that.) It included water, hand-laying, chrismation, and prayer invoking the Holy Spirit. One sacrament, several parts.

As the Church expanded beyond urban centers after Christianity became legal in the Roman Empire, the diocesan system evolved, and bishops delegated many of their functions to the presbyters whom they assigned to provide pastoral care and leadership in those smaller communities. Among these functions was that of baptizing. (Notice that, even today, in the 1979 Prayer Book rite for the Celebration of a New Ministry, the Bishop presents the newly-inducted rector with a pitcher of water and says, "Help me baptize ... ". It's a delegated responsibility, not an entitlement of the local pastor.) However, the West and the East took different directions here. In the East, the bishops tended to delegate all the segments of the one initiation rite--water, hands, Holy Spirit invocation, and chrismation. In the West, the bishops were stingier. They allowed presbyters to take the water element of the rite, but reserved to themselves the others. So you would be baptized in your village church on Easter eve, but then, sometime before Pentecost, travel to the urban center where the Bishop was to receive laying-on of hands, invocation of the Holy Spirit, and chrismation.

Understandably, with the passage of time, and human laxity being what it is, the interval between the "water rite" and the other elements tended to get longer and longer. Understandably, the perception evolved that this was not one initiatory sacrament in two segments, but two actual sacraments, the one involving the Bishop being styled Confirmation. And instead of making you come down to the county seat to get confirmed, the Bishop just took care of that sort of thing when he showed up at your parish. But bishops were not always that responsible about showing up at your parish, since your vestry was perpetually behind in its diocesan assessment, so the answer to the question, "When's the Bishop coming so my kid can get confirmed?" was "God only knows."

Yes, speaking of kids, with Christendom now established and everybody getting baptized in their local parish church as infants, the "Sacrament of Confirmation" (eventually elevated to the Big Seven conference) became understood as an adolescent rite of passage, a time when those who had baptismal vows taken on their behalf by their godparents, could step up and say, "Yeah. What they said back when I was baptized." Especially after the Reformation, the "rite of passage" understanding of Confirmation pretty much fully eclipsed the "completion of baptism" aspect, and among, say, Lutherans, as well as many others, to this day, that's what it's about.

In the Church of England, Confirmation--not understood by anyone to be a sacrament before the Oxford Movement--was administered haphazardly in most places, and among Anglicans in the American colonies, not at all between the 1607 Jamestown settlement and the consecration of Samuel Seabury as the first American bishop in 1783.

The Catholic revival of Anglicanism in the mid-nineteenth century rekindled an awareness of a connection between Confirmation and the sequence of Christian initiation. It became understood as the completion of Baptism, and, consistent with such a notion, became a prerequisite for admission to the sacrament of Holy Communion. In the Episcopal Church, this remained the case until 1970.

In the early years of the twentieth century, there began to be a flowering of historical scholarship about the liturgical practices of the early Church. Much that had been lost to the historical record became known once again. The desire to apply these new historical discoveries to contemporary Christian practice took shape in what became known as the Liturgical Movement. The Liturgical Movement gathered steam within both Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism. (Indeed, one of its most seminal works, The Shape of the Liturgy, was the work of the Anglican Benedictine monk Dom Gregory Dix.) It was the driving force behind the liturgical reforms emanating from the Second Vatican Council in the early-to-mid 1960s, and behind the development of what eventually became the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

As the drafters and compilers of the 1979 BCP considered what to do with the liturgies for Christian initiation, it is clear from the documentary record that their aspiration was to restore what they understood as the primitive initiatory sequence: water, hands, Holy Spirit, and chrismation in a segmented but unified rite. In effect, what they wanted to do was adopt the practice of the Eastern churches, in which the local parish priest presides over the entire sequence, on one occasion, and eliminate altogether anything called "Confirmation." But it was evident to them that, while this was historically and liturgically defensible, it was not politically feasible or pastorally sensitive. Bishops who caught wind of it complained that Confirmation was their only point of ordinary pastoral contact with lay people in a liturgical context, and they would be loathe to part with it.

So, instead of pressing the battle, the Standing Liturgical Commission (as it was then known), deftly enticed the bishops into a little semantic shell game. They went ahead and did what they wanted to do with Baptism. The BCP 1979 liturgy for Holy Baptism has all the ancient elements in place, with the local priest as the presumed presider. There is immersion in (or pouring of) water, followed by chrismation and laying-on of hands with both a formula that mentions the Holy Spirit and a prayer (either preceding or following) that explicitly invokes the Holy Spirit. At the same time, they created, pretty much out of whole cloth, a new rite and gave it the name Confirmation, and reserved it to the Bishop. So, phenomenologically--culturally and pastorally--the familiar "normal" (though not normative) sequence of infant baptism and adolescent (or thereabouts) "Confirmation" could be retained, while the baptismal liturgy itself was restored to its patristic era integrity. Win-Win.

This, at any rate, is one narrative. I've done a lot of research in this area, and I believe my narrative fits the historical (by that I mean recent TEC historical) facts most coherently. The problem is, that's not how most Episcopalians--laity, priests, or bishops--tend to look at the matter of Confirmation. Even as a generation or more of parish clergy tried to overlay their 1928-formed liturgical paradigm for the Eucharist on the texts of the 1979 Prayer Book (pretty much ignoring rubrics and other explanatory materials), thus creating a really impressive liturgical mishmash that has become accepted as normal in mosts parts of TEC, most Episcopalians, lay and ordained, have tended to overlay their pre-1979 perceptions of Baptism and Confirmation over the texts of the 1979 Prayer Book, resulting in a morass of confusion, especially as regards Confirmation.

So ... is Confirmation a sacrament, or not? I'm going to go out on a limb and say straight out: No. I know that messes with the perfection of the mystical number seven, but that's something we probably need to get over anyway. My 'No', however, is predicated on the validity of the narrative I have here set forth. Think of it this way: the sacrament of 'Confirmation' consists of the elements that were once married to the water part of Baptism. They got divorced in the early Middle Ages, and the hands/oil/Spirit elements took the name 'Confirmation.' Eventually, 'Confirmation' got hitched to 'Adult Rite of Passage,' and the happy couple kept the name 'Confirmation.' In the turmoil of the Liturgical Movement, the original (sacramental) 'Confirmation' got forcibly divorced from 'Adult Rite of Passage' and remarried its former spouse, 'Completion of Baptism.' But, in the divorce settlement, (non-sacramental) 'Adult Rite of Passage' kept the name 'Confirmation,' and has proceeded to enjoy the single life without really broadcasting the reality of the divorce. Must keep up appearances, you know. Not everybody around town has gotten the message about the divorce, and some still think the "sacrament" of Confirmation is hiding out in the back yard, when, in fact, it's now shacking up back with Baptism. In one unified but segmented rite. That one is a sacrament.

Maybe I've made things clearer with this. Maybe I've muddied the waters. Of course, it only applies in the micro-universe of the Episcopal Church. The whole question is still wildly in flux across the Anglican world, and while Roman Catholics think they understand their own theology and practice on this, my guess is they probably don't, but don't want to let on about their confusion. The Orthodox are the ones who seem never to have been confused.

Of course, there's also the issue of how too many Episcopalians (including priests and bishops) too casually treat Confirmation as if it were the "sacrament of becoming an Episcopalian." But that's another blog post.


David Bailey+ said...

Great post!

Unknown said...

Thank you for this illuminating synthesis, Bishop. I have to ask, however, what you would make of the fact that the use of chrism is optional in the 1979 baptismal rite? That has always made me reluctant to regard it as a full restoration of the ancient (and Eastern) practice, even though that was clearly what the Standing Liturgical Commission was going for.

And regarding your closing ecumenical comments, are you aware of a small but growing movement in the Roman church to restore the "proper order" of baptism, confirmation, and first communion (with the first given at infancy and the latter two around age 7)?

Bishop Daniel Martins said...

Matthew ... delayed response, as I haven't looked back at comments for a while. Yes, the optional chrism is an anomaly, probably some sort of political concession. But my guess is that it is used the great majority of the time. I am indeed aware of the small movement re "proper order." I would rather they adopt our practice, as I don't really think much of "first communion"; I'd rather kids grow up never remembering their first communion because it was on the day of their baptism. It makes no sense not to communicate those whom we baptize.