“This study will settle the debate once and for all: confirmation is not a sacrament in search of a meaning. It is an opportunity for a life-shaping encounter with the church.”
Theological uncertainty and inconsistency have surrounded the practice of confirmation in the Episcopal Church for decades. In fact confusion was enshrined in the text of the 1979 Prayer Book revision, the book that today serves as our denomination’s primary symbol of unity.
In the Anglican/Episcopal tradition we, who are many and diverse, come together in Christ through our worship, our common prayer. We take seriously (sometimes too seriously?) that how we worship reflects what we believe and shapes how we will live. Think: lex orandi, lex credendi. We are quick to point out that there was liturgical tradition before there was a common creed and before there was an officially sanctioned biblical canon.
The process of revising and approving the Book of Common Prayer is complex and lengthy. What is important for the purposes of The Confirmation Project, is to understand that the 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) accomplished extraordinary advancements for the liturgy of the Episcopal Church, but none as significant as its revision of the rite of baptism.
By moving baptism from “celestial fire insurance” to its proper place as the rite of “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church” (BCP, 298) a new baptismal ecclesiology was born, disciples were commissioned at the font, and the life of the church was reordered. Baptism was recognized as the single and complete initiatory act by which a person becomes a full member of the Body. This revised rite included the laying on of hands and chrismation (anointing with consecrated oil) of the candidate, the two ritual acts that had previously been assigned to a bishop at confirmation.
Most notably, neither recommended the language of “confirmation,” and with that stirred alarm among some bishops. “What will we do [when we visit congregations]?” was an emotional cry reportedly heard from the House of Bishops.
After more than twenty years of careful liturgical scholarship and extensive use of trial liturgies, it was the 1970 release of Prayer Book Studies 18 On Baptism and Confirmation and later Prayer Book Studies 26 on Holy Baptism that provided the language and form for the rite of baptism in the proposed Prayer Book revision. One study omitted any additional rite (of reaffirmation) at all and the other recommended a single, repeatable rite of reaffirmation of baptismal vows. Most notably, neither recommended the language of “confirmation,” and with that stirred alarm among some bishops. “What will we do [when we visit congregations]?” was an emotional cry reportedly heard from the House of Bishops.
Thus, under Pastoral Offices in our Book of Common Prayer today we find, “Confirmation with forms for Reception and for the Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows” (tragic) proof that the Episcopal Church’s tolerance for compromise can usurp its desire for unity. The insistence by a cohort of bishops that Confirmation be reinstated in the revised Prayer Book codified a fundamental theological dilemma: what is the relationship between baptism, agreed by all to be the preeminent initiatory rite, and confirmation as the subordinate pastoral rite?
It is in the wilderness of interpretation of the rubrics associated with this liturgical compromise that the Episcopal Church has wandered for the last 35 years:
In the course of their Christian development, those baptized at an early age are expected, when they are ready and have been duly prepared, to make a mature public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their Baptism and to receive the laying on of hands by the bishop. (BCP, 412)
Youth confirmation, or whatever we come to call a period of intentional adolescent discipleship, should be about the church equipping young people for lives of faithful purpose as followers of Jesus.
So, why does The Confirmation Project matter to the Episcopal Church?
I am deeply hopeful that a study of this scale can do more to elevate sturdy practices grounded in sound theology and history for the sake of unity than decades of scholarly and committee debate have accomplished. Good data can begin to heal the paralyzing insecurity about ‘what we are doing’ or ‘why we are doing it.’ Youth confirmation, or whatever we come to call a period of intentional adolescent discipleship, should be about the church equipping young people for lives of faithful purpose as followers of Jesus.
There is abundant evidence that an opportunity for a rite of intensification (Terry Holmes) or reaffirmation of baptismal vows makes good sense in the lives of North American teenagers today. Equally, Bishops have plenty to do as guardians of the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church and to be in all things a faithful pastor and wholesome example as evangelist and teacher. Their value need not rest on whether they administer the rite of Confirmation!
The Episcopal Church has much to gain from learning what is already working well in youth discipleship across sister denominations. And, as my research assistant and I have already discovered, we also have much to offer. There are some amazingly creative and transformative Episcopal models of youth confirmation in congregations and dioceses that prioritize mission. This study will settle the debate once and for all: confirmation is not a sacrament in search of a meaning. It is an opportunity for a life-shaping encounter with the church.