One of the more surprising features of Anglicanism from the perspective of many Protestants is that we practice the rite of Confirmation. “Isn’t that a Catholic thing?” they ask. Yes and no! It is a Catholic thing, in that the universal church has been doing it throughout history. However, the manner in which it is done varies quite significantly from place to place. The Roman Catholic Church does it in a certain way, the Eastern Orthodox Church does it another way, Lutherans and Presbyterians do in yet another way, and Anglicans also uphold the practice. Until the mid-20th century, the Anglican rite of confirmation was extremely similar to the Roman practice, being the gateway of adult membership in the Church and a necessary step for admission to receive the Eucharist. Recently, Anglican practice has shifted, allowing all baptized to receive Communion regardless of confirmation status (thus aligning with Eastern Communion discipline) while still retaining adult confirmation (thus maintaining Western Catholic practice).
But what is Confirmation, exactly? Unlike the two gospel sacraments, Baptism & Communion, confirmation has two slightly different strands of theological thought behind it. One view (especially emphasized in the East) is that it is really part of baptism in terms of being admitted into the Church and receiving the Holy Spirit. The other view (especially emphasized in the West) is that it is a stand-alone sacramental act in which the faith of the individual takes hold of faith of the Church. This has created a rift in theology and practice between the East and the West – the East calls confirmation “Chrismation” and administers the rite as part of the baptismal service, and the West calls it “confirmation” and administers the rite when a child is coming of age. Anglicanism stands clearly in the Western tradition when push comes to shove, but we are able to appreciate certain elements of Eastern theology. Thus we have a multi-layered view of Confirmation that I like to call “the four C’s of Confirmation” (a phrase I may have picked up from someone else – I can’t remember).
#1 Completion of Baptism
The primary biblical model for the practice of Confirmation is probably the story of the “Samaritan Pentecost” in Acts 8. There, Philip the Deacon is having a very powerful charismatic ministry, performing signs and wonders to back up his gospel preaching, and he baptizes lots of people (Acts 8:1-13). But, in verse 16 it is noted that they did not receive the Holy Spirit, so two of the Apostles came down to lay their hands on the people to pray that they receive the Spirit.
This is precisely the heart of the confirmation ceremony in both East and West: laying on of hands, perhaps anointing with oil as well, and praying for the Spirit’s presence. Baptism is our new birth in Christ, which is part & parcel with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but in Acts 8 the people seemed to need the Apostles’ laying on of hands as well. Some will interpret this passage to say that the Holy Spirit was already in those baptized, but not manifested in them in power until the laying on of hands. Be it a renewal in the power of the Spirit or a fresh giving of the Spirit, confirmation is, in one sense, a completion of baptism.
#2 Confession of Faith
For those who are baptized as infants, which is the norm in Anglicanism (alongside the entirety of catholic tradition – Eastern, Western, Lutheran, and Calvinist), there is a pastoral need for an adult affirmation of personal faith. For those who are raised as believers all their lives, there is often no single moment of personal conviction or conversion to be identified, so Confirmation is an opportunity for such a public declaration of adult faith.
Granted, this is not a very significant layer of Confirmation for people like me who were baptized as adults (or teenagers). But it’s just one layer of four.
#3 Commitment to the Church
This third layer of confirmation goes hand in hand with the previous and next layers for those who were baptized as infants; it’s all part of a mature confession of faith and commitment. But this is also a powerful and significant layer of Confirmation for people like myself who made a (relatively) adult confession of faith resulting in Baptism, and didn’t feel much need to reaffirm that conviction. For this layer, the commitment to the Church, is a different milestone. Oftentimes, our evangelistic efforts are geared toward getting people to commit their lives to Christ and the Gospel. The conversions to belief in God and belief in the Gospel are crucial steps, but the conversion to membership in the Church often proves to be a third step altogether.
By undergoing the rite of Confirmation, particularly in the fact that it is administered by a Bishop, we also make a statement of commitment to the Church Catholic. We’re not just individual converts for Jesus, we are members of a Body that transcends our local church, our country, and our century! That is why Anglican practice has kept the celebration of Confirmation to the Bishop only – because Bishops are the living links to the Apostles. By virtue of the Apostolic Succession they are tangible reminders of the larger body, and living instruments of unity throughout time and space. So when a Bishop lays his hands on us in Confirmation, it’s as if the whole Church just welcomed us in.
#4 Commissioning for Lay Ministry
Finally, as an adult confession of faith, Confirmation has a very practical and hard-hitting component to it. Receiving the power of the Holy Spirit is not just for us to celebrate, but an invitation into the very ministry of Christ himself. If we’re truly to take our faith seriously as mature adult Christians, that means we’re pursuing the ministry God has put before us, in accordance with the gifts and callings we receive from him. The power of the Holy Spirit is within us precisely so we can use that power. Thus, Confirmation is also a moment of commissioning.
When the Bishop lays his hands on us, praying for the strengthening gifts of the Spirit, it is very similar to an ordination service! The ingredients are almost identical: in both rites the candidates are examined, take vows, receive the laying on of hands by a Bishop, and are prayed for by the Bishop and the people. So in a sense, Confirmation is our “ordination to the laity.” This doesn’t mean that everyone who’s confirmed is expected (or even supposed) to become a leader – no, there are many gifts listed in the Bible, and relatively few of them have to do with leadership. The common underlying factor is mature faithfulness.
In summary, Confirmation is theologically connected to Baptism, involving the continuing & increasing presence and power of the Holy Spirit within us, signalling an adult confession of faith coupled with a commitment to the Church, and empowered with a commissioning to ministry as a member of the Body of Christ.