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All may; some should; none must – looking again at confirmation

All may; some should; none must. It’s a well-known Anglican aphorism for the sacramental action of private confession (Reconciliation of a Penitent). I think, in our changing environment, it is also a helpful adage for confirmation.

I am firmly committed to the way our church has returned to the practice of the early church of giving communion to all the baptised. It is communion, not confirmation, which completes baptism as the sacrament of initiation. Communion is the repeatable part. Coming forward to receive Holy Communion is the ordinary sacramental way we reaffirm our baptism. Helping and caring for others affirms our baptism. Working to transform unjust structures affirms our baptism. And so on.

For some, private confession is a way that is helpful to affirm their baptism. And for some, confirmation affirms baptism at a particular stage in their life.

My context is that of being a chaplain at Christ’s College, an Anglican school for boys. In their five years they participate in about five hundred services. Every one of those has a reading from the scriptures, teaching, and prayer. They also pursue the academic study of scripture, theology, ethics, church history, and philosophy of religion. They receive credits in the internationally-recognised NCEA. In any year, students will, on their own initiative and implementation, raise over $50,000 to give away.

Within this context, some students decide to be part of a group to prepare for confirmation with students of our sister Anglican school, St Margaret’s College. Others in our community may be just as interested and committed as they are, but find and express this differently. We follow a catechumenal process, focusing on people’s questions, and companioning them on their faith journey. Those preparing for confirmation become one of the foci during the seasons of Lent and Easter. They are like leaven in the community.

Old boys who have been part of this group say it was one of the most significant experiences in their senior years. They speak keenly of the way this was an accepting environment in which they could safely discuss and explore beliefs and values. They form a community of close friends. Fun, food, friendship, faith.

One time, Bishop Kelvin Wright came up from Dunedin to present at a weekend retreat we had as part of confirmation preparation. He wrote about it on his blog: “I’ve had a great day. The best day I can remember for a long while. …As a group, they listened. They asked intelligent and perceptive questions. They made searching, and at times frank comments. They talked to each other with respect, enthusiasm and focus. They cracked jokes and clowned around. … At the end of the day they made a speech thanking me for being there, but it was me who was grateful, and it was me that gained most from the day….being in the company of young people who are faithful and intelligent about what they believe is a very invigorating and reassuring experience.”

I concur with Bishop Kelvin’s point. The process adds to my already-heavy workload, but is a highlight in my year.

Obviously there are parts of our confirmation rite that sorely need revising, just as there are parts of our baptism rite which are unusual in contemporary liturgy.

The congregation gathers to support those being confirmed. I wince again and again whenever our rite eccentrically has the bishop separate those who are baptised in the congregation from those students who are not. The unnecessary exclusion is an obviously preventable source of frustration and irritation.

Our canons continue to demand our ordinands be episcopally confirmed as if baptism isn’t full church membership, or confirmation by a priest or other clergy lacks something. Some bishops flout this. Does baptism make one a full member of the church or doesn’t it? It’s long past the time for the church to make up its mind on this one. The ridiculousness of our inconsistency is underscored by the way we accept those ordained in other denominations who are not epicsopally confirmed.

The church should also hear more from those who work with younger children. The persistence in some places (I think inappropriately) of the very 70s “admission to communion” leads me to wonder if we need another rite, with its own integrity and symbolism, for around that age group. And maybe another for the juncture into teenager hood. And one for a new stage in later life.

We need to work more at restoring the centrality of baptism. Baptism is still sometimes a private affair, or a preparation for confirmation, often all with a font that would struggle to be a comfortable bath for a sparrow. Maybe it is at baptism we should have all the pomp now reserved for the ordination of a new bishop. Ordination, in the early church, was tacked onto the normal Sunday service. Baptism should have the grand certificate – ordination could have the tear-out certificate from the diocesan pad.

Somewhere in that renewal, confirmation could settle into one way some people could witness to their faith in the presence of others. A way all may use, some should, and none must.

This article of mine was originally published in Anglican Taonga Easter 2012

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24 thoughts on “confirmation”

  1. I struggle with this. I vividly remember my confirmation at age 14 and finally being able to join the rest of my family at the communion rail. In those days everyone was confirmed, I think about 40 in my cohort. For me it was a very important rite in my Christian life. I obviously have no memory of my baptism at less than 2 months old. I only know the date because it was my sister’s birthday. However my Father, who was Methodist, did not take communion until the priest told him he was welcome at about the same time as I was confirmed.

    1. Thanks, Brian. You say you struggle with this, but don’t explain what the “this” is you struggle with in the post. Please can you clarify what you struggle with. Blessings.

  2. Christopher Nimmo

    I was confirmed earlier this year with a small contingent of others (twelve of us, maybe?).

    As far as I can tell, your last paragraph is already the case. I don’t think I know anybody who says that baptism isn’t when we become part of the church, but confirmation is a chance to say that we WANT to be!

    As for priests rather than bishops doing confirmation… no thanks! If a bishop won’t make room in their calendar to witness to a group of young (and slightly older) people publicly declaring their faith in Jesus Christ then what is the point of having a bishop?

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Christopher. I even still meet people who think ordination is when a person “joins the church”. As for what the point of bishops is – that’s a massive discussion isn’t it? Is a bishop a senior priest to whom we delegate the authority priests actually have (to confirm, ordain, etc) or is the bishop the primary ordained minister in the community who delegates authority to priests? Blessings.

      1. Brother David

        I believe that it is of course the latter, there being no priests or deacons without a bishop. 😉

  3. Brian Poidevin

    Growing up Catholic in the Roman tradition first communion generally long preceded confirmation. When I first placed my catholicism in an Anglican concept confirmation being needed before communion was a real curiosity. But so were people telling me about Sunday School. I remember my wife and I rejectinga sevice od admission to Anglicanism-“We have not changed our religion”. Anyhow my Parish now does not require Confirmation as a pre-condition to Communion.
    More significant is the debate in the Episcopalian Church on whether baptism is required before communion. As i remember the writings of Sara Miles and others at St. Gregory of Nyssa (San Francisco) reception of the body and blood of Christ for a period was art of preparing for baptism. While confirmation/baptism seems to me unimportant communion/baptism appears much more questionable and debatable.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Brian. Yes, there was a relatively brief period in the RC Church when first communion preceded confirmation – that, of course, is stopping. The Vatican wants confirmation prior to first communion.

      I totally agree that changing denominations is not changing religion. Nor, for most people, is it “conversion”.

      The discussion about receiving communion prior to baptism is interesting. I wonder if it is more a pastoral rather than theological question.

      Christ is risen.

  4. Sorry. I see young children running up to the rail and grabbing the wafer and obviously, and naturally, having no idea of its significance. I prefer them to receive a blessing until they have made their own commitment and understand what it is all about. I have 2 godsons, both baptised Roman Catholic. The older was confirmed in the Catholic church at about age 7 while the younger was confirmed Anglican (the family had changed denomination) at age 14. I felt the younger had far more understanding of its significance.

    1. What is it in the worship culture of this community, Brian, that you are seeing this? I’m struggling to remember if I have ever seen what you describe. All I ever see is children following the examples of others and reverently participating in communion.

      I’m not sure when one’s commitment and understanding would be “sufficient”? Who judges this? By what standard? Is my commitment and understanding “sufficient”?

      What I do see, from time to time, is adults who do not in their lives live the reality we celebrate receiving communion.

      If communion is delayed, why is baptism not delayed?


  5. Chris Darnell

    Good reflections thanks Bosco. As someone who has also worked with youth, there is nothing more beautiful than a group ready and willing to take a step of faith for themselves. I have also journeyed with young people of huge integrity who have wrestled with the confirmation process and have come back to me with a “I’m not ready for that commitment without being a hypocrite.” True inspirations.

    Out of interest, would you refuse communion to a Christ College boy who wanted to take communion but wasn’t baptised? I’m personally at the loose end of Anglicanism, and think that the inner and invisible grace at work often usurps our rules. (I’m thinking of a recent Acts reading of the events at the house of Cornelius.)

    And (in reply to Brian), for sure, some children will take communion without full understanding. But I realise that even now I do not take communion with full understanding… It is a mystery. I hope that in twenty years it will mean even more to me. The grace of God’s sacraments is beautiful like that… it meets us where we are and draws us onwards.

    1. Thanks, Chris. We have confirmation this Sunday, the Day of Pentecost, with about a dozen being confirmed.

      I have similar experience to you in inspiring integrity of young people.

      I repeat my previous point about dealing with communion pastorally. The important message to get through is the openness of our/Christ’s table – all the baptised, whatever their age, whatever their denomination are welcome/encouraged to receive communion. Certainly I wouldn’t inquire about baptism as they come to receive communion. My experience is that those keen to receive communion readily are prepared to be baptised. I would be very happy to discuss specifics more privately (by email) to be fair in relation to privacy.


  6. Brian Poidevin

    A late response as I was finishing an essay for a local publication.
    communion before baptism? while it may well be pastoral rather than theological The many, many debaters in the Episcopalian Church suggest that for many it is more than pastoral. The practice in the early churches of the catechumens being excluded before communion weighs heavily with many. I am inclined to go along with Father Donald Schell and the practise at ST. Gregory Nyssa- a church that fascinated me I attach a comment by Donald Schell-
    While I tend to argue baptism first and upholding the norm of the canon, I am struck by the counterpoint offered by St. Gregory’s, San Francisco. I don’t think their missional success is simply because they offer communion to everyone comes through the door. I think it is because they intentionally teach in every aspect of their ministry, from liturgy to service. How many of us are in communities that can say the same?

    then i read this by Ann Fontaine, I wonder if “we” – those in charge, don’t really want radical hospitality but want power and control. Pentecost is coming up – the ultimate out of control event – tongues of fire for everyone – baptized or not.

    1. To be clear, Brian, I certainly think that baptism and eucharist and their connection are important theologically. I value eucharist as the repeatable part of the sacrament of initiation. But also, while these interesting theological discussions are happening, we need to be sure that we are open, welcoming, inclusive, and offering God’s love to all however we hold to the relationship between baptism and eucharist.

      By the way, I went out of my way to go to St Gregory’s on my study leave in 2005.


    2. Brother David

      “Pentecost is coming up – the ultimate out of control event – tongues of fire for everyone – baptized or not.”

      Sorry, I see no evidence of this interpretation. Chapter two is a continuation of the narrative preceding and the topic is the Apostles. The narrative says the flames appeared in the upper room where they were gathered by their custom and landed on them. That’s a pretty small and deliberate group, not the “everyone, baptized or not,” that you imagine.

  7. Brian Poidevin

    re Brother David’s note i am surprised at the narrow interpretation 0f the work of Holy Spirit.
    By the way were any of those in upper room baptised?

  8. Cornelius was baptised AFTER receiving the Holy Spirit in Acts 10 – and he was a gentile to boot!

    My perspective is my eight year old is starting to find her own faith. Our practice is different in that our denomination doesn’t baptise infants, but young people choose baptism when they are at an age of understanding. My eight year old is now wanting to undertake baptism, and is starting to prepare for it.

    But it takes more than a rite to build a person of faith. I want to my child to learn how to dig her roots deep into faith, how to immerse herself into worship, prayer, and the presence of God. And I admit that after 20 years after my own (adult) baptism, I’m still learning myself.

    The journey of faith begins before baptism, and the learning continues after baptism, after communion and after confirmation. The learning and growing is incomplete until the day we are called Heavenward, and even then we may still find we have much much more to learn.

  9. Brother David

    “By the way were any of those in upper room baptized?”
    That is beyond the information available in any of the narratives of the lives of the apostles. However, since Jesus sent them into the world to baptize, many believe that at some point in following Jesus, they did receive what they were instructed to give, baptism.

    “i am surprised at the narrow interpretation of the work of Holy Spirit.”
    It is an understanding based on the language of the text. There is no evidence beyond what it states, that the disciples were in the upper room and the Spirt descended upon them. Period.

  10. Steve Benjamin

    Why don’t we just follow Eastern Orthodox practice and give our overworked bishops a break by licensing presbyters to administer confirmation at every baptism – infant or adult.

    Christian initiation in Eastern Orthodoxy for infants or adults is in three parts: the baptized receive three Mysteries, baptism and chrismation (confirmation), followed by holy communion at the same time or at the next Liturgy.

    I am dismayed at the US Episcopalian move to admit the unbaptized to holy communion. Yes, I’m sure it regularly happens through ignorance and misunderstanding. We cannot ‘spiritually vet’ those who present themselves at the communion rail. [I’ll never forget the foreign tourist who presented herself for communion at a North Island cathedral and on being presented with the Cup of the Lord, assumed the custom was to throw the wafer, which she had received, into the Cup!]

    Baptism is the Sacrament of spiritual regeneration. The Lord’s Supper is the Sacrament of spiritual nourishment. The spiritual order mirrors the natural order: birth first, then nourishment and growth. The baptismal rite and covenant is essential for anyone to participate or derive nourishment from the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

    There are many who wish to impoverish the Sacrament of Holy Communion and narrow its meaning to a fellowship meal. I sense this is where the US movement takes its impetus and from a confused exegesis of ‘table fellowship’ in the Gospels.

    The Pauline tradition on the Eucharist makes it clear that we must discern the body and blood of the Lord – both its collective embodiment in those gathered round the table – and its sacramental reality in the gifts of bread and wine received from the table. There are dire warnings to the Corinthian church community – and to us – about making light of so great a thing.

    1. Thanks for these helpful thoughts, Steve. I think in many ways what I describe is the restoration you seek. Baptism is followed by anointing with blessed oil and the newly baptised receive communion at the same service, if the baptism is in the context of a Eucharist (as it mostly is) or at the next Eucharist – whatever the age of the newly baptised.

      Confirmation, then, becomes an adult rite which all may, some should, none must participate in.

      It is, in fact, IMO what you describe as the overworked bishops who keep the rite (and some of its confusion) alive – seeking to confirm at their parish visitation. So that in some places the parish priest is putting energy into finding people to present for the bishop’s visit to satisfy the bishop’s hope/need and give the impression of parish vibrancy and growth.


  11. When I discussed some of these questions with my bishop( +Mark Santer) previously Principal of Westcott House,he said it was a pity the C of E hadnt digested some of the stuff on Christian Initiation in the RC /Orthodox dialogue ( this was the mid 80′). I dont think this is readily available..but it might be worth trying to dig it out Bosco and see what wisdom it contains.+Michael ramsey always used to say ..in a theological impasse its worth looking to the East.

  12. Richard Brown

    I was also confirmed this year
    (at the Easter Vigil) It was certainly a wonderful experience and gave me the opportunity to say ‘yes’ to god

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