Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Confirmation is Not About Membership

Even though the current Book of Common Prayer has been in use for thirty two years, one occasionally still hears Episcopalians talk about confirmation as the way to "join the church." For example, I recently came across this statement on a parish website:

"Confirmation is also the official vehicle by which a person joins the Episcopal Church."

In light of 1979 Prayer Book's theology of baptism, this is not accurate. Note, for instance, this sentence at the top of page 298 (emphasis added):

"Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ's Body the Church."

"Full initiation" means that nothing else is required for membership. A valid baptism is sufficient.

I note also the following statement from the Prayer Book's catechism:

"Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ's Body, the Church ..." (p. 858, emphasis added).

It's hard to imagine a clearer statement of how one becomes a member of the Universal Church.

Moving from membership in the Universal Church to membership in the Episcopal Church, the following canon is crystal clear:

"All persons who have received the Sacrament of Holy Baptism with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, whether in this Church or in another Christian Church, and whose Baptisms have been duly recorded in this Church, are members thereof." ~ Title I, Canon 17, Sec. 1 (a)

The Episcopal Church maintains that all persons baptized with water in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit are members of Christ's Body the Church. And all such persons whose baptisms are duly recorded in an Episcopal parish register are members of that one part of Christ's Body called the Episcopal Church.

So confirmation is not about membership. Instead, as the catechism puts it, "Confirmation is the rite in which we express a mature commitment to Christ, and receive strength from the Holy Spirit through prayer and the laying on of hands by a bishop" (BCP, p. 860). Or, to put it another way, confirmation is about those who were baptized at an early age making a mature public affirmation of faith and receiving strength to take on the commitment to the responsibilities of their baptism (cf. BCP, p. 412).

This is all clearly laid out in the Prayer Book and the canons. So it's surprising when Episcopalians don't seem to know it!


Anonymous said...

Bryan I am surprised that you are surprised at anything any more!

Peter Carey+ said...


Thank you for this concise and helpful post...I may be reposting it nearly verbatim...we are certainly confused about Confirmation these days. Your exposition of the BCP and Canons is just spot on!

Thank you!

Peter Carey+

Bryan Owen said...

Hi George. Your point is well taken!

To be fair, some of the folks I've heard equate confirmation with membership grew up with the 1928 Prayer Book. Under that model, you couldn't take communion in the Episcopal Church unless you were a confirmed Episcopalian. So you weren't a member of (in communion with) the Episcopal Church unless one of our bishops had laid hands on you with prayer. Even though the change with the 1979 Prayer Book seems to me to be crystal clear (and, quite frankly, more in line with the biblical understanding of the significance of baptism), I can see how it could be very difficult to make such a huge shift in theological gears given such a different liturgical/sacramental background.

On the other hand, I've been astonished to hear the "joining the Episcopal Church means getting confirmed" line from much younger folks (lay and clergy) whose formation is mostly if not exclusively from the 1979 Prayer Book. Same thing holds for folks who make that equation who've come from other denominations into the Episcopal Church a long time after the current Prayer Book became official. If they've been to seminary or gone through an Adult Inquirers' Class, how can that be?!

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the high praise, Peter!

Back when I was doing my Anglican Studies work at Sewanee, Neil Alexander (before he became a bishop) said in liturgics class that confirmation is a rite in search of a theology. Of course, he fleshed that claim out historically (especially in relation to the disruption of the unitive rite of initiation within the Western Church). So I'm sure there's much more that can and perhaps should be said about confirmation.

But when it comes to what's required for membership in the Episcopal Church, the 1979 Prayer Book and the canons are very clear.

Joe Rawls said...

In my parish people are chrismated--regardless of age-right after being baptized. How does this tie in with confirmation as you discuss it in the post?

Ann McCarthy said...

I went through Adult Inquirer's Class in a parish in the Diocese of Chicago in the early '90s and was taught that I had to be confirmed into ECUSA, despite having been baptized and confirmed in the Methodist Church. My husband, former RC, was received into ECUSA. He didn't have to be confirmed, according to what we were taught in Inquirer's class. In the Methodist Church it was about membership (as I was taught) and as I just saw with my nieces. Thanks for this article, it is clarifying on a couple of fronts for things currently under discussion in our parish.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Joe.

Imposing the oil of chrism after administering the water of baptism is an optional part of the baptismal rite. The rubric on page 308 makes it clear that the bishop or a priest "places a hand on the [newly baptized] person's head, marking on the forehead the sign of the cross [using Chrism if desired] and saying to each one":

N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever.

As I understand it, these words and the accompanying ritual action affirm the meaning of what has just happened in baptism. And so chrismation is connected to baptism, not confirmation.

However, when my bishop baptizes an older child or an adult, he considers them both baptized and confirmed because they have made a mature affirmation of faith. Having made such an affirmation, it does, indeed, seem redundant to have to do it all over again.

But questions remain. If oil of chrism is used after the baptism - regardless of whether or not a bishop administers the water bath and the oil - there is still an episcopal connection because only bishops consecrate chrism. So if a priest baptizes an older child or adult and administers oil of chrism, one might ask: why is the mature affirmation of faith and the chrismation not sufficient to count as confirmation in this case, too? It is sufficient if a bishop does it, but not if a priest does it.

Perhaps this is another sign that confirmation is a rite in search of a theology?

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ann.

Confirmation vs. reception turns on whether or not the person coming into the Episcopal Church has been confirmed by a bishop ordained in apostolic succession. We recognize bishops in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches as having been so ordained, but not Methodist bishops.

There's an additional complication on the Methodist front. In the United Methodist Church, confirmation is not an exclusively episcopal function as it is within the Episcopal Church. When I was about 12 years old, for instance, I was confirmed by the pastor of my Methodist church. So Methodism has severed the connection between bishops and confirmation.

Jim Liberatore said...

You blog states the truth and is well stared. I might add that with newer, non-christian, long-ago-Christians, the explanation may be too churchy. I have a very young parish of mostly folks who had not been to church in year if ever. To catch their attention in a blog meant for them or a website, "membership" and other non-Baptismal words work. My belief (if we are to attract non-churchgoers) is that we need to invite in words others understand and then educate. Expecting a person to be educated misses a large audience of unchurched. Educated words are for the insiders and very valuable. Both ways are needed. Thank you for your thoughtful post.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jim. You wrote that "we need to invite in words others understand and then educate." I think that's an excellent point!

Fr. J said...

I'm not sure I totally agree. From the standpoint of the 1979 revision of the BCP, there's no question that Baptism leads to full inclusion on the Church. And yet, we do still confirm people into the Church, which has to mean something. Historically, I think the Anglican ethos towards Confirmation was much healthier than it is today. Confirmation was an affirmation of one's Baptismal vows. The Office of Instruction in the 1928 BCP even talks about it as a "completion" of Baptism. While I'm not sure I would want to go that far, I think the spiritual benefit of Confirmation is that it puts us in a kind of tangible communion with the whole Church throughout time by way of the bishop, in succession, laying hands upon us and calling down the Holy Spirit. Minus that action, it seems to me that something is lacking in our connection with the Church as a unified whole. Given that, I think it's entirely appropriate for certain offices--Parish vestry for instance--to be reserved only for those who have been both Baptised and Confirmed (or received, which would mean a recognition of a Confirmation that already happened).

Now, as is hinted at in one of the above comments, one could argue that the introduction of Chrismation into the Baptismal rite changes the game here, because we do already accept those so chrismated who come to us from Orthodoxy as being confirmed. That said, I think that there is something to be said for the Reformers' desire to make Confirmation the event in which a young person who has been baptized can be catechized and tutored to faithful maturity.

Bryan Owen said...

Hi Fr. J. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Perhaps it's a question of emphasis, because in reading your comments I find myself mostly in agreement with you. Yes, confirmation does need "to mean something." And I do believe that confirmation continues to be an important means for persons to publicly affirm their faith and their commitment to living into the vows of baptism. But that's not the same thing as membership in the Church.

Perhaps an analogy can be made between membership in the Church and citizenship in the State. I was no less a citizen of the United States of American before I turned 18, even though I could not vote. Likewise, I was no less a member of the Church before I was confirmed. But I could only exercise certain "rights" after confirmation (such as voting for vestry members at the annual meeting, etc.).

Membership/citizenship is not the point at issue, but rather what the Church/State deems necessary for a mature exercise of the "rights and responsibilities" of membership/citizenship.

C. Wingate said...

Bryan, thinking further about your voting analogy, I think it is weak in telling way: that one does not in fact simply get to vote merely by becoming eighteen. One does have to take a positive action first: one has to register. This does relate, it seems to me, to Fr. J's reference back to 1928 and the view then of confirmation as an affirmation (I would prefer to call it assumption-- that it is, one takes up responsibility for them) of baptismal vows given for one at birth.

BTW, there is something in this to be said for reserving adult baptisms to the bishop, and combining them with confirmation in a single rite.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comments, C. Wingate. I think your point about having "to take a positive action" is correct, and that it complements what I was trying (perhaps with insufficient clarity) to say with the voting analogy: that exercising the "rights and responsibilities" given in baptism does, in fact, require persons to publicly affirm the faith of the Church and to publicly vow to live the way of life to which that faith commits us (summed up in the Baptismal Covenant).

The positive action of confirmation, however, does not make us members of the Church. We're already members by virtue of baptism. But confirmation does show that we take that membership seriously enough to publicly commit ourselves to what membership in the Church entails in terms of faith and practice.

C. Wingate said...

I'm sorry; I didn't mean to give the impression that I meant to disagree with you remain point at all. My intent was to look for the place that confirmation fits into the overall scheme.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks, C. Wingate. I didn't receive your prior comments as disagreement but rather as helpful clarification. And I appreciate that!

Anonymous said...

I've always regretted that phrase, "confirmation is a rite in search of a theology" as unnecessarily flippant (as Episcopalian teachers can often be).
I'm not sure, but I think Urban Holmes used that phrase before Neil Alexander did in your classes.