Confirmation: A Rookie Anglican Guide

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What is Confirmation?

Confirmation is a church practice that falls into the category of what the Anglican Catechism calls “rites and institutions commonly called sacraments.” Along with Confirmation, there are four others like it: Absolution (confessing one’s sins and receiving forgiveness in the presence of a priest), Ordination, Marriage, and Anointing the Sick.

These practices, or rites, are deeply charged “sites” of God’s grace. They are “commonly called sacraments” (and for some Anglicans, they are considered sacraments) because they are visible signs that confer an invisible grace. But we distinguish them from the two primary sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist because those two are “commanded by Christ as necessary for salvation.”

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While many Protestants shy away from calling Confirmation a sacrament in the strict sense, the church’s witness throughout the ages, especially in the Anglican wing, has seen fit to uphold them as a vital means through which God mediates grace to us.

Where did Confirmation Come From?

Confirmation arose from the early church’s reflection on Scripture concerning how one became a Christian. It was first used to describe what happened when a bishop would lay hands upon, pray for, and anoint the forehead of the newly baptized with oil, signifying the gift of the Holy Spirit. The newly baptized/confirmed would then proceed to receive their first Eucharist.

Over time, Western churches gradually separated Confirmation from Baptism, unlike Eastern Orthodox churches which still promptly confirm infants post-Baptism. In Anglican churches, the common practice involved infant baptism followed by undergoing extensive instruction (catechesis) during adolescence, which readied individuals for Confirmation. Once again, Confirmation stood as a prerequisite for Communion reception. It’s also worth noting the distinctiveness of Confirmation – although baptisms could be performed by priests, Confirmation typically remained within the domain of bishops.

Puzzling over Confirmation Today

In recent history, the church has ignored questions about few things more than Confirmation. A few concerns:

  • The Church connected Confirmation to Baptism very early. But does that mean that if you’re not confirmed, Baptism is insufficient?
  • The Church has often linked Confirmation to the Holy Spirit. Is the Spirit missing in Baptism?
  • And what if there’s no bishop around to offer Confirmation (as there wasn’t in America for the first 200 years)?
  • Today, Confirmation is no longer a prerequisite for receiving Communion. If it’s not necessary for salvation and not needed for receiving Communion, why bother at all?

First, we would probably do well to begin with different questions. Maybe the question isn’t just about salvation—am I “in” or “out”? Why not ask: What more does God have in store for us? What kind of life in Christ is God calling us to enter into more deeply?

If we ask these sorts of questions, we can better see what Confirmation is and why we should incorporate it more into the church’s life.

Clearing Up Confusion: Confirmation as Maturity and Mission

At its most basic, Confirmation refers to the rite in which, after a believer has been baptized, they make a mature commitment to the faith and receive increased gifting of the Holy Spirit through the bishop’s prayer, laying on of hands, and anointing. Once again, the Catechism puts it beautifully. When asked, “What grace does God give you in confirmation?” the response is, “In confirmation, God strengthens the work of the Holy Spirit in me for his daily increase in my Christian life and ministry.”

To clear up some of the confusion generated around Confirmation, I want re-work some of the questions about Confirmation and suggest that we think of Confirmation in terms of two key emphases: maturity and mission.

Growing Up: the Sacrament of Maturity

First, Confirmation is the sacrament of maturity, representing a deepening or strengthening of the Christian life. This connects it closely with Baptism. But whereas Baptism highlights one’s birth into the body of Christ, Confirmation stresses growth.

In both Baptism and Confirmation, the Holy Spirit is present. (It’s a rule of Trinitarian theology that wherever there’s one person of the Trinity, all three are present.) But in Baptism, the Spirit washes away our sin, cleanses our guilt, and regenerates us into new life. In Confirmation, on the other hand, the Spirit deepens and strengthens that life so that we grow up into more mature Christians.

The great medieval theologian Peter Lombard nicely described the Spirit’s presence in Baptism and Confirmation: “The virtue … of the sacrament [of Confirmation] is the gift of the Holy Spirit for strength, who is given in baptism for remission.” In other words, the Holy Spirit’s gift of forgiveness in Baptism is only the beginning of a work that is strengthened and enriched in Confirmation.

Some Anglicans have debated whether Baptism is a “complete sacramental initiation.” The logic is: if Baptism does the trick, why bother with Confirmation?

This is a slippery question. If someone means by this that Baptism is somehow insufficient for salvation, then no: Baptism is sufficient. Baptism makes Christians. Full stop!

But if by “initiation,” one means that we are always ever being initiated deeper into life with God, then yes, we can say that Baptism is “incomplete,” if only because all of life is incomplete until we see God face to face.

Confirmation, then, is a sacramental practice uniquely related to the Holy Spirit’s ministry of maturity and strengthening—literally, withfirming, being made firm with (Latin, con-)—the power of the Spirit. In this, we seek to live out what St. Paul writes in Ephesians about growing up into the full measure of Christ (Eph. 4:13).

Growing Out: the Sacrament of Mission

Second, Confirmation is the sacrament of mission. By this, I mean that Confirmation “marks” a person for undertaking the vocation to which they have been called.

In this regard, Confirmation is sort of like Ordination: it marks you out for a specific calling. But unlike Ordination, the Church confirms both lay people and priests. And this is because every Christian’s vocation is to proclaim the Gospel and live a holy life.

This is also why Confirmation is linked to the bishop’s presence. As Ordination into the priesthood requires the bishop’s presence, so too, in Confirmation, the bishop’s presence signifies that the person being confirmed is now charged with the duty of carrying on the apostolic mission.

One area where thinking about Confirmation has gone wrong is to see it as a kind of graduation from Christian education and formation rather than a commencement. Too often, we have thought that once a person is confirmed, it’s the end of the journey. I’ve been baptized, catechized, and confirmed. What else is there? Well, quite simply: everything!

So far from being the end of the road, Confirmation marks a new beginning. It is a new, more profound sense of vocation. Confirmation marks you out for a life on mission.

Why Should I Pursue Confirmation?

If Confirmation is like being ordained for a life of Christian mission, where’s the mission field?

Mission doesn’t just happen overseas. It happens everywhere: in our neighborhoods, homes, and the ordinary places of our everyday existence. Mission is right where we are, right now.

To reinvigorate and renew the practice of Confirmation is one of the most critical tasks for the church today because renewing the practice of Confirmation means renewing the mission of the church.

It means well-equipped, well-trained missionaries going out into the mission field of life, proclaiming the Gospel in all they do.

It means further equipping all the saints for the work of God’s kingdom.

And, finally, it means a rising generation of Christians who have dedicated their lives to the glory of God in every area of life.

So why should I pursue confirmation? Why not?


Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash 

Published on

March 8, 2018

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