By Calvin Lane
What will it add? she asked me. I was enjoying a brunch with a delightful retired couple who had relocated to our area and had joined our parish about a year ago. They hadn’t been Episcopalians before and the only worship they knew with us was “pandemic grade.” So I was explaining that certain long-suspended aspects of our worship are now returning, aspects like the cup, and how we’ll be needing more lay ministers to help administer the cup.
For two years we’ve gone without offering the cup in my parish, a restriction laid down by our bishop in 2020. In other words, only the celebrant was receiving in both kinds; everyone else received only the consecrated bread. In fact, it’s been so long that said bishop retired, an acting bishop upheld the restriction, and (third time’s the charm) our provisional bishop upheld it too. However, the bishop lifted the restriction on offering the cup this March.
Add to this the fact that, over the pandemic, our parish leadership decided that whenever the chalice is returned, we will add “intinction cups” to mitigate against the vile and unsanitary practice of dipping in the chalice, a practice proven to be less hygienic than simply drinking from the chalice, and we’ve got a lot of chalice-adjacent considerations on our hands.
Long story short: we need to get the “band” back together — and we need more band members (two chalice bearers plus two intinction cup bearers, and twice each Sunday; you can do the math and see how many folks we need).
As we chatted about all this over brunch, I simply blurted out, “You both should consider serving in this way; we really need folks to administer the chalice and these new intinction cups.” Then, mid-sentence, likely with food in my mouth, it dawned on me: there is a canon (somewhere) which requires lay ministers at Communion to be confirmed. So I paused, and (again without thinking) blurted out, “Oh wait, yeah, we need you to be confirmed. It’s a rule.” These two baptized Christians, one of whom had been a pastor in an evangelical tradition, tilted their heads to the side. Wondering why the requirement, why this extra burden on baptized and very active Christians, she asked, “What will it add?” Granted, I should have been more calculating, but I really like these folks and was probably less “on point” in that moment (some would call this authentic, others unprofessional). In any event, from their perspective, this requirement that lay ministers at Communion ought to be confirmed seemed like some rule whose past they never shared and whose present enforcement seemed theologically vague at best.
I actually agree with this requirement, although I think bishops should clarify with rectors that if they have a real need for more lay ministers and if confirmation isn’t in the immediate offing, they can move forward. Granted one should be baptized and committed to the Church and willing to be confirmed at the first opportunity in those instances. But why is this a good requirement in the first place? Is it just old-fashioned fussiness? Is it a holdover from a bygone era, a vestigial hoop to be jumped through and one which no one can really justify theologically or practically?
Since the liturgical movement of the 20th century and the emergence of a baptismal ecclesiology in the Episcopal Church, we’ve gained clarity about confirmation. Granted, that’s a relative assessment. Confirmation was vague before and is still vague now. But the predominant theology in the Episcopal Church (and certainly it is the theology of the 1979 BCP) is that one is a full member of the body of Christ at Baptism. Confirmation does not complete the rite. (Please dear friends, let’s not go down a rabbit hole about chrismation; that’s not my point.) When one is baptized, one is incorporated into the Body of Christ and welcomed into the household of God — and for good measure we can and many rightly do feed those newly born from the font (whether 8 days old or 80 years old) at the Eucharistic feast. The line from font to table is straight and unimpeded. But that’s a different story. The point is, again, confirmation does not complete baptism.
But confirmation is still a good and holy thing if we emphasize a mature public affirmation of Christian life within the body of Christ, the Church, officiated by that enfleshed symbol of all church relationships, the bishop. Confirmation provides an amazing opportunity for what I would call engaged catechesis — not simply data transfer but a deepening participation in the life of the Church in practical and concrete ways (warts and all).
Confirmation is a good and holy thing if we emphasize how the Christian life, including God’s work of salvation and the very deposit of faith itself transmitted in apostolic mission, is irreducibly relational. God the Father reconciles us to himself in God the Son and this Christ-accomplished reconciliation is mediated within the Church by God the Holy Spirit. This order of salvation opens to us our participation in the life of the Trinity, the only real “life” there is. Likewise, and perhaps more germane to the subject, is the undeniable fact that the gospel is shared in real, fleshy, and usually messy relationships. The only way any of us is in a relationship with Christ is because of the apostolic mission of the Church — that could mean sitting in one’s grandmother’s Sunday School class or finding a Bible in a drab motel, left there by some Gideon.
In other words, the gospel both presupposes and necessitates relationships.
The sign of a mature relationship to the Church, a commitment to the “poor little flock” (Luther’s favorite image for the Church), is kneeling before a bishop — that human being who, better than any noetic concept or idea, enfleshes relationships between local congregations and the whole ecclesia — and, with no small measure of submission, allowing that bishop to lay on hands and pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit to keep us all tethered together in our ongoing mission and life as God’s people, a mission that includes (here’s the long-awaited payoff) giving the cup of the new covenant to the faithful (Luke 22:20). I should add, tangentially and out of ecumenical charity, that while our Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and United Methodist sisters and brothers (and maybe some others) have presbyters administering this rite rather than reserving it exclusively to the bishop does not really change this fundamental point, nor need it detain us: Anglicans have consistently retained episcopal confirmation. Once more for good measure: confirmation is about relationships.
Such a requirement could extend to some other ministries — vestry membership immediately comes to mind, that body of committed lay people who exercise collaborative leadership with the clergy — but it is especially relevant when it comes down to what the Church, in its very essence, is and does: we are the people who share in word and sacrament, proclaiming the gospel, until the Lord comes again. Being on the vestry, while important, just isn’t as eschatologically freighted as sharing the cup of Christ’s blood. If one means to assist with that central aspect of what we do and who we are (c.f. again Luke 22:20), then is it so crazy to think that the relational submission to the apostolic Church which we call confirmation needs to be in place?
Requiring confirmation to share in this particular ministry (again, allowing for good-faith and often logistical exceptions) is not about propping up outdated, fussy rules. Nor is it simply a matter that the Church needs discipline, and this requirement is just “one of those things we do” to maintain right order, cf. here Paul’s dictum that has so often shaped Anglican worship, “let all things be done decently and in good order” (1 Cor. 14:40). In a more positive gloss, such a requirement is about sustaining good order, but it’s more than that.
By maintaining that the people who assist the clergy in distributing the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood to Christ’s people have themselves submitted to the practical, disciplined life in the Church as the Episcopal Church/Anglicanism has received it — in other words, being confirmed — we are living more deeply into that life of mutual subjection and interdependent relationships that mark the Body of Christ, a body whose membership we receive as gift not only from the Holy Spirit, but from the Holy Spirit working within and through the same apostolic Church.
And because the perfect, even eschatological image of the Church is God’s people gathered around the table (Rev. 19:7-10), those sharing in the administration of the sacrament — not merely the clergy who have also been ordained by a bishop — should have undergone this rite of confirmation, the rite of mature affirmation of responsible, practical, relational life within the Church as we have received it.
In the end, it’s not about what confirmation “adds,” even if one believes that the Holy Spirit is at work through the rite (or perhaps sacrament or lesser sacrament or whatever). While I do believe the Holy Spirit is at work in that moment, confirmation is about relationships in the Body of Christ. And in sum, requiring it for lay ministry at Communion is a good thing.