Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion

Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion:
The Prayer Book Tradition in Theological Perspective

By the Rev’d. Dr. R.D. Crouse

For well over a century now, questions about Christian Initiation – that is to say, about baptism, confirmation and first communion – have been matters of continuous and lively debate among historians and theologians. Various developments in the critical study of the Bible and the history of the Early Church, together with various hypotheses promoted by modern philosophy and social sciences, have engendered uncertainty in the minds of many about the theological and practical Justification of our traditional Prayer Book pattern of initiation; and in spite of the production of many learned volumes, and numerous reports of comittees and commissions, few of the questions have been settled in any very satisfactory way, and no consensus has really been achieved.Questions have been especially acute in regard to confirmation: about the meaning of the rite itself, and about its relationship to baptism and first communion. For instance, if confirmation means the bestowal of the Holy spirit through the Laying on of Hands, does that mean that he Holy Spirit is not given in baptism? Or, conversely, if baptism does involve the giving of the Spirit, what more can be expected in confirmation? And if baptism is a genuine initiation in the Christian fellowship, why should Holy Communion be restricted to those who have been confirmed? What is confirmation really all about? Is it simply a re-affirming of our baptismal vows? If so, why should that be a one-time thing? Shouldn’t we be re-affirming our vows on numerous occasions, perhaps especially whenever we participate in the service of Holy Baptism? Because of these, and other questions, confirmation is now often referred to as “a rite in search of a theology”.

Such questions have been with us now for at least a century; but in recent decades they have become particularly acute, because they have emerged from the studies of the scholars, and from the committee rooms, in the form of new liturgies for our parishes. The result of that is vast confusion; evident, for instance, in the treatment of baptism and confirmation in our Canadian Book of Alternative Services. The intention there is far from clear, and perhaps, indeed, intentionally unclear, because of disagreement among those responsible for the compilation. But in general, as far as I can make out, for the BAS, baptism, followed by first communion, is the full and complete rite of initiation.

It is normally administered by the Bishop, within the context of the Eucharist, and we are advised (p.807) that “the normative form of initiation remains the baptism of adults on their profession of faith”; but it is allowed that “initiation may also be extended to the children of faithful parents.” For “parents who have decided (for whatever reason is good to them) to defer the baptism of a child”, another kind of service, called “Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child”, is provided.

In the service of Holy Baptism, the baptism of adults and children is followed by the Offertory of the Communion service, and the assumption is that the newly-baptised (presumably infants as well as adults) proceed to their first communion as persons fully initiated in the Christian fellowship.

The place of confirmation in this scheme of things is very obscure indeed. Just at the end of the service of Baptism, before the Offertory of the Eucharist, there is a very brief ceremony, entitled “At Confirmation, Reception, or Reaffirmation” (p. 161), which begins with the Bishop saying: “Let us now pray for these persons who have renewed their commitment to Christ.”

This, clearly, does not refer to the newly-baptised adults or children, who have just now made their commitment, but to those who have “renewed” their commitment; that is, to the members of the congregation in general, who have, in the course of the service, re-affirmed their own baptismal vows. What happens, in effect, is that the Bishop blesses each member (or, at least, each adult member) of the congregation (except the newly-baptised) with the laying on of hands. This is a ceremony which would presumably be repeated as often as one were present at the service of Holy Baptism celebrated by the Bishop.

When the rites of Confirmation, Reception and Reaffirmation of Baptismal Vows are administered apart from the administration of baptism (presumably when the Bishop could not be present for the baptism), there is a special service, called “Confirmation” (pp. 623 ff), in which the Bishop lays hands upon those being “confirmed”, those being received from another denomination, and those reaffirming their baptismal vows.

What distinction there is between these three categories is very obscure: the meaning seems to be in each case the same, as the common prayer indicates (p.625): “Renew in these your servants the covenant you made with them at their baptism. Send them forth in the power of that Spirit to perform the service you set before them”. And since the whole congregation engages in the renewal of baptismal vows, presumably all receive the laying on of hands as often as they attend such a “Confirmation” service.

The readings from the Acts of the Apostles, which the Prayer Book uses to recall the Scriptural basis of the traditional confirmation rite, are, of course, omitted, and nothing is said to suggest that there is anything in this rite supplementary to baptism; nor is there any suggestion that confirmation should be regarded as a qualification for communion. It is simply the reaffirmation – perhaps frequently repeated – of baptismal vows, with the blessing of the Bishop. Actually, it seems to be a kind of ritual of community solidarity, centred in the Bishop.

What we have here is obviously something very different from, and certainly incompatible with, the Prayer Book pattern of baptism, normally in infancy; confirmation, once for all, normally at the age of discretion; followed by first communion. There can be absolutely no doubt that the new proposals represent a radical departure from Anglican tradition in these matters, and, indeed, from the tradition of the whole Church from Patristic times, through the Middle Ages and the Reformation, down to modern times. It is sometimes suggested that the new proposals are rather in line with the tradition of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, where baptism, confirmation and first communion are normally administered to infants; but even there, there has never been anything comparable to our newly proposed “confirmation” or reaffirmation rite.

The Book of Alternative Services bas been approved by General Synod, for purposes of study, experiment and evaluation. The questions involved are complex and difficult, and they involve historical and theological issues which many of us, perhaps, feel ourselves ill-prepared to judge. All of us, of course, have our tastes and preferences; but we’re also well aware that our likes and dislikes, our subjective preferences and feelings, are no sure guides to what is true and good. Somehow, if our judgement is to be responsible, we must understand the issues theologically, because the changes proposed are essentially doctrinal changes.

If we are really to make responsible evaluations and decisions in these matters, we must begin with some understanding of the doctrine of the Church as it underlies and is expressed in the Prayer Book pattern of initiation. And to understand that, we must understand at least a little bit about how and why it came to have the form with which Anglicans have been familiar. The history of that development is somewhat complicated, and at some points obscure, but I’ll try to give you the essence of it in a reasonably concise form.

In the New Testament, and the literature surviving from the first two Christian centuries, our evidence of the precise details of christian initiation is scanty. Between the Apostolic age and the beginning of the third century, there is silence, so far as distinct rites of baptism and confirmation are concerned.

Our earliest witnesses are Hippolytus, Tertullian and St. Cyprian; although one may suppose, of course, that they spoke for a longstanding and widespread tradition. In the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, immediately after baptism and the baptismal anointing, the Bishop lays hands upon the candidates, with prayer, and signs them with the Cross. Tertullian and St. Cyprian also attest to the existence, along with baptism, of the imposition of the Bishop’s hands, by which the soul is said to be illumined by the Holy Spirit. This double sacrament – baptism, and the laying on of hands, ministered to adult converts who had been thoroughly -instructed, and also, increasingly, to infants of Christian families – appears to have been the normal practice of the church in those earliest centuries.

During the fourth and fifth centuries, changing conditions made for substantial revisions of that primitive practice, which had presupposed, as the norm, the baptism of adult converts from Judaism and paganism, and had presupposed also the presence of the Bishop at all initiation ceremonies. To the changed circumstances, the Church responded in different ways in East and West. In the East, the double rite (baptism and confirmation together in one ceremony) continued, but now normally administered to infants, and delegated to the priest, using chrism blessed by the Bishop. That is still the practice in the Orthodox East. In the West, the two elements (baptism and confirmation) became separated, with the laying on of hands reserved to the Bishop, and delayed until such time as he could be present.

That Western separation of baptism and confirmation would be an obvious invitation to articulate more clearly the distinctive meaning of each of those two elements of initiation. Perhaps the earliest clear statement on that point which has survived to us is a Whitsunday sermon by Faustus, Bishop of Riez, in the mid-fifth century – a sermon which found its way into the Pseudo-Isidorian Decretals, and was much-quoted as an authority by Medieval and Reformation theologians, including our Anglican Reformers.

Faustus explains the matter this way.

“What now in confirmation of novices the imposition of the hand bestows on each, the descent of the Holy Ghost then (i.e., at Pentecost) gave to all. But because we have said that the imposition of the hand and confirmation is able to confer somewhat upon him who is already born anew in Christ, perhaps someone thinks within himself: ‘What good can it do me after the mystery of baptism to have the services of one to confirm me? So far as I can see, we have not obtained all from the font, if after the font we still need the addition of a new kind of thing’.”

Faustus responds with illustrations:

“Military discipline requires that when an Emperor has received a man into the number of his soldiers, he should not only put his mark upon the man, but also should equip him with sufficient arms for battle. So in the case of the baptised man, this benediction (i.e., confirmation) is a protection. You have found a soldier, find him the implements of warfare…And so the Holy Ghost, who came down upon the waters of baptism with his saving illapse, bestows at the font absolutely all that is necessary to restore innocence: in confirmation he grants a development for progress in grace.”

Thus, the Western Church, already in the Patristic period, had an idea of two distinct stages in Christian initiation: baptism was the sacrament of new birth in the life of Christ, restoring innocence; confirmation had to do with coming to maturity in the life of grace.That is the standpoint presented in the texts of many medieval authors, and it is the view of the great Scholastic theologians of the thirteenth century. Thus in the West the logic was that confirmation would be delayed until the age of discretion – even if medieval practice was not always and everywhere consistent with that logic. As a corollary of that position, the reception of communion, requiring penitence and faith, would logically also be deferred (as, in fact, it had generally been) to the age of discretion, and would logically follow confirmation. In the thirteenth century, we find John Peckham, a great Franciscan Archbishop of Canterbury, making a disciplinary point of that, in his Constitutions:

“Many neglect the Sacrament of Confirmation for want of watchful advisers; so that there are many, innumerable many, who lack the grace of confirmation, though grown old in evil ways. To cure this damnable neglect, we ordain that none be admitted to the Sacrament of the Lord’s Body and Blood that is not confirmed, except at the point of death, unless he have a reasonable impediment.”

The theology and practice of the English Reformers and the classical Anglican divines – that is to say, the theology and practice of Christian initiation embodied in the Book of Common Prayer – were consistent with Scripture and a thousand years of Western Christian tradition. In relating confirmation to an explicit profession of faith in the solemn reaffirmation of baptismal vows, they undoubtedly gave new prominence to the element of personal faith; but that, surely, was already implicit in the traditional regard for confirmation as a sacrament belonging to the age of discretion.Their claim that they were following Apostolic tradition in this system of initiation arose not from naivete, nor from misinformation: they understood perfectly well just how their practice differed from that of the earliest Christian centuries; but they understood their position as a faithful re-interpretation of Apostolic practice, under changed circumstances.

Here is how John Cosin, 17th century Bishop of Durham, closely following the argument of Richard Hooker, explains the matter to confirmation candidates:

… “The ancient fathers and bishops of the Church everywhere, in their learned, Godly, and Christian writings impute unto (Confirmation) those gifts and graces of the Holy Ghost which doth not make men and women Christians, as they were at first in their baptism, but when they are made such there, assisteth them in all virtue, and armeth them the better against all the several temptations of the world, and the devil, to resist the vices of the flesh. When Baptism was at first administered to them of full age who in their infancy were either Jews, or heathen, there was no reason to sever Confirmation from it. But when it was administered to infants (as it was to you), though they might very well be admitted to live in the family of Christ (as you have been), yet for as much as to fight in the Army of God, and to discharge the duties of a Christian man or woman, to bring forth the fruits of their religion and to do the works of the Holy Ghost, their time of ability was not yet come, their Confirmation was deferred till they arrived to riper years (as yours now is), that in the meantime they might be seasoned with the principles of true religion (as we hope well you now are), and a good foundation laid betimes for the better direction of your lives ever after.”

That seems to me to be an excellent statement of the theology of initiation as embodied in our Prayer Book system, and it seems to me a position thoroughly consistent with Holy Scripture and the tradition of the Church. The essential point, I think, is this: the completeness of our Christian initiation requires our conscious faithful response to God’s calling and God’s gifts; and the gifts of God’s grace are always related to our states of life, and the tasks which lie before us.The gifts of the Holy spirit in Confirmation mark that point in our Christian life when we are prepared to make for ourselves the solemn profession of faith which others made for us at our baptism. That is indeed a solemn moment, essential to the fullness of our initiation; and it seems to me that its force should not be diluted, nor its decisive character denied, by identifying it with occasional recalling and reaffirming of baptismal vows.

There remains the further question as to whether Confirmation is a necessary qualification for receiving Holy Communion. Our Prayer Book system makes it a normal, though not absolutely necessary prerequisite: communicants must be at least “ready and desirous” to be confirmed. That is to say, I think, that they must be sufficiently instructed, and prepared to make that solemn profession of faith which confirmation involves.

That requirement arises from our doctrine as to what is necessary on our side for reception of the Sacrament. We must be prepared by penitence and faith; we must be thankfully mindful of the sacrifice of Christ for our salvation; we must “feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving”. As Article xxviii puts it, “the means whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith”; we must recognise the difference between common bread and Eucharist; we must “discern the Lord’s Body”. That is to say, receiving the Sacrament belongs to that stage of conscious faith and commitment belonging to Confirmation, and most appropriately waits upon that strengthening by the Holy Spirit’s gifts which is the grace of Confirmation.

To sum up as briefly as possible: I believe that our traditional Prayer Book system of Christian initiation is consistent and cogent, historically and doctrinally. There are, no doubt, ways in which our practice of that system might usefully be improved but so far as I can see, current proposals for changes in Christian initiation (as, for instance, in our BAS) simply introduce confusion.

Critics of the traditional Prayer Book system are inclined nowadays to describe it as “folk-theology”, because it is so deeply seated in the minds and hearts of “ordinary” Anglicans; and I think we should thank God for that persistent loyalty; and, as it is also the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, of the English Reformers, and of the “learned and Judicious” Richard Hooker, I don’t think we need be much intimidated by the label.

Long live “folk-theology”!

Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion