This post on confirmation is something of a companion piece to my post from two weeks ago: “How radical a revision?” See also last week’s post by Stewart Clem: “Feed the children.”

One of my students sent me an email to get my thoughts on the short “Preface Concerning the Confirmation Liturgy Draft Text Proposed by the Bishops Review Committee” of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). It’s not clear whether this is the preface to a liturgy already written, or if this was meant to be a summary statement regarding the committee’s approach that they first put to the bishops for their approval before beginning their task. Either way, it’s worth reading the statement to see where our ACNA brethren are thinking regarding the hotly debated question of Confirmation.

I should say that I write this as one who has read ACNA’s “Texts for Common Prayer” with some real appreciation. It seems that their approach has been (1) to begin with the 1979 Book of Common Prayer currently authorized in the Episcopal Church, (2) to read it with some of its American and English antecedents in mind, and then (3) to adjust and amend it accordingly. And the results have been quite wonderful in many ways. The revised forms of the Daily Office, for instance, are a great example. They restored some items that were lost from the first American BCP:

  1. the use of the collect, “Grant to your faithful people … ” after confession if there is no priest;
  2. the use of “O God, make speed …” at morning prayer in addition to, “O Lord, open thou our lips” (though they oddly retain the later at Evening Prayer);
  3. the restoration of the Kyries in the Preces and the final Response in the last of the suffrages, “And take not your Holy Spirit from us.”

I certainly have my quibbles with various edits in the Communion liturgy, however, particularly their grammatical and syntactical attempts to contemporize the hieratic language of the older BCPs.


To properly examine the Preface regarding Cofirmation, it is worth noting at the same time that the report from a few years back of ACNA’s Prayer Book and Common Liturgy Task Force speaks of the 1979 BCP as an expression more of liturgical “revolution” than “revision.” In fact, it goes even further and says that the 1979 revision was an “intentional rejection of the prayer book tradition.” They suggest a substitution of the term “evolutionary” in place of “revolution” as a more fitting way to describe proper liturgical development.

The text of the Preface regarding Confirmation is brief enough that I’ll print the text of the first three out of four paragraphs as I go, one paragraph at a time, followed by a few comments. The statement begins like this:

Anglicanism requires a public and personal profession of the Faith from every adult believer in Jesus Christ. Confirmation by a bishop is its liturgical expression. Confirmation is evident in Scripture: the Apostles prayed for, and laid their hands on those who had already been baptized (Acts 8:14-17; 19:6).

I keep toying with this first sentence in my mind. If they mean this to be an accurate description of how the majority of Anglicans think about confirmation, I think they may be correct. But if this is meant to be descriptive of Anglicanism in any historical sense, than it is certainly misleading and probably just flat out wrong. Why?

At least one implication of the practice of requiring both baptism and Confirmation before reception of Holy Communion in the English and American BCPs (until 1979) is that God administers something in Confirmation (as opposed to it being simply a ritual acknowledgement that one is now mature enough to willingly give themselves to the Christian faith). Or at least that there is a sacramental encounter with God in that moment (which, by definition, would mean that it is an encounter unique to that sacrament). Otherwise, why does the bishop pray not only for a strengthening of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation, but for the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit? The petition that the candidate be defended “with thy heavenly grace” is also interesting, as it has no parallel in the baptism rites (that is, it’s not a repetition of something already requested in that ritual). In short, what the bishop petitions on behalf of the candidate are things not requested at baptism.

The rest of the ACNA statement reflects in many ways the tension that persists around this controverted rite, a tension that began in the twentieth century and endures into the twenty-first. While the adage that Confirmation is a “rite in search of a theology” is maybe a bit too cavalier, it is true that the intention of Confirmation and its relationship to baptism remain hotly contested. The English BCP certainly reflects the recognition of many sixteenth-century reformers that there is a real pastoral benefit from a rite that allows for a more mature public affirmation of faith for those baptized as infants or young children. But it is also difficult to read the Confirmation rite in the historic English books and conclude that this pastoral concern is the only purpose of the rite. But the language in the ACNA statement that “Confirmation by a bishop is its liturgical expression,” could indicate a more pragmatic view of Confirmation (as opposed to anything actually sacramental). That it, it seems to advocate a anthropocentric rather than theocentric view of the rite. We should recall that the Catholic Church has maintained the traditional Western conception of the three sacraments of initiation: baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist. They “lay the foundation of every Christian life,” the Catechism explains. “By means of these sacraments of Christian initiation, they thus receive in increasing measure the treasures of the divine life and advance toward the perfection of charity” (CCC, par. 1212). This approach was maintained in many ways in the English and American BCPs. In spite of the fact that Confirmation gets no mention in the early Catechisms’ discussions of the sacraments (despite the Catechism being appended to the Confirmation rite), baptism and Confirmation were both required before reception of Holy Communion.

While the desire to ground ritual practice explicitly in scripture is understandable, the claim that confirmation is grounded on the practice in Acts chapter 8 and 19 is historically untenable. The 1962 Canadian BCP (which ACNA’s liturgy position paper also mentions favorably more than once) makes this same Scriptural claim and then directs that both passages be read (see page 557-558). Nonetheless, the evidence is simply not there. Confirmation as Western Christians practice it did not arise through a reading of Acts that they then translated into a ritual practice.

In Confirmation, God, through the bishop’s prayer for daily increase in the Holy Spirit, strengthens the believer for Christian life in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Grace is God’s gift, and we pray that he will pour out his Holy Spirit on those who have already been made his children by adoption and grace in Baptism.

This paragraph indicates some openness to a view that Confirmation is more than simply an act of the individual. In the first sentence, there is a belief expressed that the bishop’s prayer for an increase of the Holy Spirit is necessarily effective, but this approach appears to be weakened in the second sentence.

At the direction of the Bishop, and after public reaffirmation of their baptismal promises, those having made adult professions of faith in other Christian traditions (including those confirmed in other traditions) are received into the Anglican Church with prayer and the laying on of hands by a bishop.

This is maybe the most interesting claim, as it follows the very novel claims made in Canon I.17 in the canons of the Episcopal Church. If we were to summarize the positions of those canons, it would go something like this:

Every person in this church should have episcopal hands laid on their head, whether in baptism administered by the bishop (with the laying on of at least one hand, as described on page 308 of the ’79 BCP), Confirmation, reception, or reaffirmation of baptismal vows.

Those canons allow that a person baptized as an adult in another tradition (unfortunately, it doesn’t specify whether or not this be a church with bishops whose succession is recognized by the Episcopal Church) is to be received “by the laying on of hands by a Bishop of this Church, rather than confirmed” (Canon I.17.(1).c).

This raises a number of questions:

  • Does this assume that reception is not normally administered with the laying on of hands, but by some other gesture (something more like a handshake, the bishop clasping the candidates right hand with both hands, as is the practice in some places)?
  • Is there a theology that underlies the practice that every person should have episcopal hands laid on their head, or is this merely a weak sign of being connected to the wider church joined to an act of an individual Christian? This would be similar to the way than many free-church Protestants view baptism — as a public affirmation of something God has already done.
  • What does it mean that the intentions of the various prayers that are joined to the action of the laying on of hands in each of the four possible contexts where this could take place are not the same?

What is most interesting in the context of the ACNA statement is that they are following precisely the approach of the 1979 BCP revision on one of its most revolutionary points (I referred to this more generally, and the explication of Colin Podmore in his essay on the 1979 BCPs baptismal ecclesiology, in my earlier post, “How Radical a Revision?”).

The radical and revolutionary nature of the 1979 BCP was precisely one of the things that ACNA wishes to stand against, both in their liturgical rites and in general. Even more, it appears to be in tension with the position of GAFCON’s Jerusalem Declaration, which affirms a particular doctrinal importance for the 1662 English BCP. This 1662 focus, it is important to note, is itself at odds with the ACNA position paper on liturgy cited above, which never mentions the 1662 BCP, but speaks quite favorably of 1549 English rite and the 1928 American BCP.

While a proposed baptism rite for the ACNA is already floating around, what will be most instructive is to see whether the confirmation rite they ultimately produce really does stand in the 1979 BCP’s trajectory of “radical revolution” or whether it is more akin to the pre-1979 rites of the historic books.

How Anglican will they ultimately be?

The featured image is a detail of Roger van der Weyden’s “Seven Sacrament’s Altarpiece” (1445×1450). It is in the public domain. 

About The Author

The Rev. Matthew S. C. Olver, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of The Living Church Foundation and Publisher of The Living Church Foundation.

Related Posts

6 Responses

  1. Stewart Clem

    This is a great analysis, Matthew. In response to this post (as well as to your previous “How Radical a Revision?”), I’d like to propose a test case: Should we adopt an approach to confirmation that mirrors that of the Eastern churches? That is, when we baptize infants, should we administer confirmation as well? I know that some on this blog have implied that confirmation is “implied” in the current baptism rite (via chrismation), but I’m talking about an explicit rite of confirmation (with no redundant laying on of hands by the bishop at a later date).

    It seems that going this route would help do away with some of the problems associated with the dominant “psychological” understanding of confirmation in TEC and, as you suggest in this post, in ACNA.

    Of course, the problem with this approach is that it’s also not very “Anglican,” if we’re measuring by precedent.

    I’d love to hear your further thoughts.

  2. Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver

    Thanks for your comments, Stewart. This is a great question. No doubt, Eastern liturgical practices were quite influential in ’79 and show up all over the place (suffraes B at Evening Prayer; Trisagion in the Eucharist; Eucharistic Prayer D; the Easter Antiochene/West Syrian Structure used in the Rite II prayers (except for Prayer C, which is somewhat modified Alexandrian, which is a Western form). Certainly the Eastern practice was in the background in the ’79. The composers were pretty clear that they saw this as an interim move–to have oblique Confirmation in the Baptism rite and a Confirmation rite that wasn’t really confirmation, historically-speaking.

    I am honestly unsure what’s exactly the best move here:
    – A pastoral rite that allows for mature affirmation of faith is certainly a good thing and shouldn’t be excised.
    – I think the rejection of the laying on of Episcopal hands is unwise
    – My thoughts at this point are that the current Roman practice seems worth following, which is: a) something like the current ’79 rite, but with an exhortation to the parents and godparents a la the older BCPs and the new ACNA liturgy; b) water bath, with giving of light and baptismal garment; c) post-baptismal anointing by the priest with chrism; d) Confirmation at a later point when older with laying on of hands, prayer for the Holy Spirit and the seven-fold gifts, anointing with Chrism. When the baptism is of an adult, they should be confirmed in the same rite by the bishop and receive Communion immediately.

    – I also think that a more explicit exorcism at baptism is important. Cranmer included a humdinger in 1549, and then is disappeared. I used it once with a family whose Godparents couldn’t be present for the baptism. We did the pre-baptism rites with the family and soon-to-be-absent godparents, minus the water-bath. After we were done, the mother said: Why wouldn’t we pray that for my others kids?


    I COMMAUNDE thee, uncleane spirite, in the name of the father, of the sonne, and of the holy ghost, that thou come out, and departe from these infantes, whom our Lord Jesus Christe hath vouchsaved, to call to his holy Baptisme, to be made membres of his body, and of his holy congregacion. Therfore thou cursed spirite, remembre thy sentence, remembre thy judgemente, remembre the daye to be at hande, wherin thou shalt burne in fyre everlasting, prepared for thee and thy Angels. And presume not hereafter to exercise any tyrannye towarde these infantes, whom Christe hathe bought with his precious bloud, and by this his holy Baptisme calleth to be of his flocke.

  3. Stewart Clem

    Thanks, this is really helpful. And I’m all for restoring the 1549 exorcism in the baptism rite!

    I do have a question about what you suggest here:

    “c) post-baptismal anointing by the priest with chrism; d) Confirmation at a later point when older with laying on of hands, prayer for the Holy Spirit and the seven-fold gifts, anointing with Chrism. When the baptism is of an adult, they should be confirmed in the same rite by the bishop and receive Communion immediately.”

    First: Is this, in fact, RC practice? I was under the impression that there is nothing like (d) in current RC practice, at least in cases where (c) has already been performed. I thought that the only barrier to communion for baptized/confirmed children was that they need to reach the “age of reason” before receiving. That is, their initiation rite is simply “First Communion,” with no episcopal laying on of hands required.

    Second: I don’t really see how the process you suggest is all that different from what we do now in TEC. The problem that keeps coming up in our discussions on this blog is that we DO have both (c) and (d), which makes it unclear what each one is supposed to be. For example, if (c) is really confirmation (even though it’s not stated as such in the BCP), then why do we have (d)? If the answer is that we still need an episcopal invocation of the Spirit and the seven-fold gifts, then why do we do (c) at all? It sounds like we have two distinct “confirmations” which isn’t very, well… Catholic.

    Another question (perhaps the main question) I have is: Why does (d) need to be performed at a later point when the child is older? Doesn’t that just perpetuate the “psychological” understanding of confirmation that you rightly disdain? If it’s simply a matter of practicality, i.e. the Bishop can’t be available at every baptism, thus there will be an interim period… well, okay, but that’s not the current rationale for why wait to have children confirmed. We do it because we think there needs to be a certain degree of assent.

    I agree with your assessment that “a pastoral rite that allows for mature affirmation of faith is certainly a good thing and shouldn’t be excised.” But it seems like having this rite intertangled with confirmation is causing confusion.

    I guess my main quibble with the sequence you suggest above is that it eliminates the possibility of infant communion (if we’re assuming that confirmation is a prerequisite for communion). That might just be an issue we disagree on, and that’s okay. But I would still want to see greater clarity around what’s actually going on in (c) and (d).

  4. Todd Granger

    Matt, I have to admit that this hits me where I live, because I was received – rather than confirmed – from Presbyterianism, having been baptized at nine years old in the Baptist church in which I grew up and came to faith. As a matter of fact, I distinctly recall sitting in Timothy Kimbrough’s office (he was less than three months into his rectorship at Holy Family), his showing me the canon that permitted my being received rather than confirmed. This he had done after I had expressed some concerns about confirmation, which I understood in functional/psychological terms, my views on baptism and confirmation having been influenced by Dunn’s book on the baptism of the Holy Spirit as well by much of the stuff circulating around Episcopalian theological circles in the late 1980s. Why undergo that, if I had already functionally made the sort of public and personal profession, both in baptism and in subsequent reception into the Presbyterian Church, that confirmation was supposed to represent? (I have grown to be by no means so sanguine about this view of confirmation.) And so, both Jill and I were received into The Episcopal Church (i.e., into a Church in the catholic apostolic tradition) by the laying on of hands by Bishop Gordon Charlton, a retired bishop of Texas who lived in Fearrington at the time and who apparently took some episcopal duties for +Bob Estill from time to time. I confess that I have wondered in later years whether I should be formally confirmed; the de facto answer thus far is “No” – but only thus far.

    That confession made (!), I do see the value in a sacramental understanding of confirmation that gets away from the merely functional and psychological, but that is firmly grounded in Scripture (and there’s the rub, isn’t it?) and a firm connection to baptism. Is such a thing possible, though, if the premise that baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church” (BCP, 298) be correct – which Scripture teaches and the earliest practice would confirm? (Parenthetically, it is interesting to note that a controversy grew up among English Particular Baptists in the late 17th century over whether the Scriptures required the laying on of hands after the immersion in water.)

    Finally, as regards the exorcism at baptism, there is a document on the internet (whose provenance I cannot verify, as it isn’t linked at ACNA’s “Texts for Common Prayer” webpage), which permits this exorcism near the beginning of the (proposed? working?) baptismal rite:

    The Celebrant may anoint each Candidate with the Oil of Catechumens, saying to each

    May almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness and evil and lead you into the light and obedience of the kingdom of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

  5. Todd Granger

    Didn’t finish my thoughts.

    Does a theology and liturgical practice of baptism as “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit,” understanding that this includes not only the water bath but chrismation and the laying on of hand(s) drive us toward an abandonment of the Western practice of confirmation, given its history as an accident of Western polity, into an embrace of the Eastern practice of baptism, much as Stewart Clem asks (and the revisers/revolutionaries of 1979 intended)? And if not, then what are our catholic and scriptural reasons for mainntaining historic Anglican practice? (Understand that I’m not necessarily staking ground here, but simply asking the questions I’ve been asking for twenty years, without satisfactory answers.)

    Off the topic of confirmation, I appreciate what you have to say about the Texts for Common Prayer. I’m generally positive, but as I think I’ve shared with you in conversation, I regret some of the “tin ear” character of the language of the eucharistic rite (when we have such euphonious historical liturgy to maintain), and I am deeply disappointed that the Antiochene/West Syrian structure of the eucharistic prayer (a hallmark of the American liturgy since 1789) has been abandoned in favor of the “Western” position of the epiclesis.

  6. Caleb Congrove


    Your description of the conventional Roman Catholic practice seems accurate to me. For the past hundred years or so, most of the faithful in the Latin Church have been initiated in precisely that way. Nevertheless, I would not propose it for emulation. Most importantly, I think Stew’s quibbles really do identify a critically important problem: redundancy. Moreover, I would say that that problem only gets worse when Confirmation becomes dislodged from its proper place in the sequence. Once you’ve put it after Communion, what’s it really for? The answer will necessarily diverge from its historic and received meaning. And then, is it still really the same mystery we’ve received?

    It’s worth pointing out that there is a substantial push away from this widespread pattern within the Roman Catholic Church. Many dioceses have revised their normative practice to conform it with the proper sequence of the ancient church. Accordingly, it is increasingly common for kids already baptized to be confirmed at the same time that they receive their first communion, still at the ‘age of discretion.’ I suppose this approach might represent Roman Catholic initiation’s ‘best practices.’ As I understand it, this state of affairs corresponds more exactly to the original intention of those turn of the century papal directives that sought to make possible communion at an earlier age (but still after having been confirmed.)

    Moreover, another pattern of initiation altogether has become normative for adults in the Roman Catholic Church. This Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) attempts to revive elements of the ancient catechumenate, culminating in the sacramental initiation at the Easter Vigil. Unbaptized adults receive all three mysteries in their unity, while most baptized Christians are received into the Catholic Church through Confirmation and Eucharist. RCIA is often criticized by conservatives, but I think their criticisms are usually misplaced. Problems in contemporary catechesis are real, but they really are problems in catechesis, regardless of its setting. Most importantly, the manner of administering the sacraments of initiation in the RCIA ‘process’ conforms to the practice of the ancient Church. I should point out too that in this pattern the priest is the usual minster of confirmation. This same basic approach is now also being used to initiate non-infant children. I wish very strongly that they would make the same thing possible for infants, at least if the parents wanted it.

    I agree very strongly with Stew that making possible the communion of infants and other children younger than the ‘age of discretion’ is a good and desirable thing. Whether administered immediately after baptism as in the ancient Church and the Eastern Churches today, or separately and later though still in infancy or early childhood, as in the Medieval Church of the Latin West, Confirmation should be restored to its proper place in the sequence: before Communion and as early as possible in the life of every believer. If the earliest moment possible remains the ‘age of discretion,’ then I would suggest doing it then (right before and along with Communion.)


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.