Friday, June 01, 2012

Next Sacramental Target: Confirmation

Derek Olsen has called my attention to several resolutions to get rid of confirmation as a requirement for ordination and other church offices. As Christopher Arnold comments, this is part of a "an across-the-board devaluing of our rites of commitment." It fits right into the push to commune the unbaptized as a blurring of the pattern of church membership. Personally, I think that someone who cannot bring themselves to be confirmed or formally received into this church has too many reservations to be trusted as one of her officers or ministers.

Now everyone who has been paying attention in ECUSA knows that confirmation has been caught in a bit of a sacramental bind resulting from the emphasis on baptismal membership in the 1979 BCP. Marion Hatchett's Commentary on the American Prayer Book says nothing on the rite other than to refer the reader back to the section on baptism, in which confirmation is hardly addressed. The addition of chrismation to the baptismal rite also confused matters because that Eastern element is typically held to be the equivalent of western confirmation. That said, there are traditional understandings which those of us who are old enough remember, and rather than simply dismiss them, it seems to me that there is something to be said for trying to synthesize them in light of the baptismal emphasis of the 1979 book.

I personally was confirmed into the church as a teenager, having been baptized as an infant into the Presbyterian church and made a communicant there some years prior. My connections to that church faded, and in any case I was sent to an Episcopal high school in which I was given a pretty good theological and sacramental education. Indeed, when I skipped forward a grade, the only course I was not permitted to skip was fifth form (junior) sacred studies! I came to understand that I needed to become a member of this church, and having approached one of the chaplains, it was arranged that I would be one of the confirmands in the spring. My understanding of this, for myself, combined the change-of-membership and bar mitzvah aspects, for it was in that act of conversion that I took full responsibility for my faith.

And I don't see this as problematic, thirty-five years on. When Olsen says, "baptism is full initiation into the Body of Christ; Confirmation is full initiation into the Episcopal Church," I might not use exactly the same words, but the sense is sound. And that is also why I think the rite is best reserved to the bishop: connecting us into this church is, within our polity, expressed as connection to her bishops. And indeed it's ironic that, for all the growing vagueness about membership and its rights, the one thing the progressives do tend to get dogmatic about in church structure is that hierarchy.

Overall, this reinforces my support for a do-nothing general convention. Here we have yet another big theological revision, hidden within a procedural change at that, which cannot be properly discussed--and particularly so given all the other weightier topics on the floor. This is perhaps the biggest challenge to the church as an organization: we have to find a way to deal with these issues which isn't so patently dysfunctional. And personally, I think that way is to accept our traditions and stick by them.


Jon in the Nati said...

Two thoughts occur:

Firstly, it does seem plain that confirmation is a practice that, at very least, is desperately in need of some sacramental clarification. This is particularly true in light of the 79 BCP's emphasis on baptism. A former pastor of mine called confirmation a "sacrament in need of a theology."

However, I am not sure that this is really what the removal/change of these canons is about. It is, I think, about exactly what Christopher Arnold says. I suppose I just have to ask "why?" Who are these people who seek leadership in the church and yet can't be bothered to stand in front of the bishop for a couple minutes? I don't understand, and no one who advocates for the change appears to want to speak plainly on the matter.

C. Wingate said...

Well, the BCP actually does give a rationale for confirmation, but it seems as though the days of the prayer book having anything to do with the life of this church are long past.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

When I challenged the removal of the confirmation requirement for leadership ministry I had my head handed to me much in the manner of John's to Salome. I do agree that confirmation needs a bit of clarification, but the vehemence of those who urge its removal altogether -- against the advice of folks like Margaret Mead who noted the importance of such transitions in adolescence, i.e., what confirmation used to be -- mystifies me. Even if it is just seen as a reaffirmation of baptism, in the bishop's presence, why is that seen as such a bad thing -- after all we have the 4x per year Renewal of Baptismal Vows by the whole congregation. We all understand, I think, that baptism is a once-in-a-lifetime event with a real regeneration and change and character... but we do support these other forms of reaffirmation, so why not confirmation, de minimis, as mostly harmless? Even if only a symbolic act, surely the symbolism of tactile connection with the episcopate ought to be worth a farthing in an Episcopal church!