A while back I promised to come back to the subject of Confirmation, a matter which our recent 2016 General Synod discussed and shelved for further discussion and study.
On the one hand, re-reading the Taonga report about the GS debate, I am heartened at the number of colleagues standing firm in resisting the abolition of Confirmation (via the then proposal that it become "Affirmation").
On the other hand, Bishop Jim White's statement re Confirmation, "There is nothing to confirm" offers a profound challenge to those of us who wish to see Confirmation retained and its name continue in the life of our church as one of five sacramental actions honoured alongside the Dominical sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist.
Both before and after General Synod 2016 Bosco Peters made a couple of posts on Confirmation (here and here). I made a few comments to the latter post but I am not guaranteeing that I have not changed my mind between then and now.
Not much, it seems to me, has changed this year in ACANZPland re an old saying about Confirmation that it is a rite in search of a theology - a theology which makes this rite plausible, justifiable and even necessary in the journey of faith.
Here goes. My thoughts:
(1) Acknowledged here is that the decision of our church in 1990 to make (i.e. confirm an understanding of the meaning of) Baptism the full and sufficient rite of initiation into the life of the church, including access to the Eucharist, made Confirmation redundant as a rite of initiation. That is, since 1990 there has been a canonical redundancy to Confirmation as a rite that (rightly or wrongly understood) completed initiation by being a gateway to reception of the Eucharist, enabled reception of the Spirit through the laying on of hands of the bishop, as well as an opportunity for the confirmand to confirm that the faith of their parents was also their faith.
(2) Also acknowledged, noting some comments in the report cited above on the GS 2016 debate, is that there is no necessary connection between Confirmation and catechesis, that is, the provision of education on the Christian way of life (in general) or, say, understanding the Eucharist (in particular).
(3) Also acknowledged, is that there are ways and means of confirming and/or affirming one's faith as a young adult or a mature adult which do not require Confirmation as a rite. Opportunities, on a repeated basis, exist for adults to "renew their baptism". Opportunities can be made for the giving of a public testimony of faith and, again, this need not be a unique occasion in a person's life.
(4) Also acknowledged, noting an exchange between me and Bosco Peters, is that Confirmation is not necessary to strengthen bonds of unity between parish and diocese, between congregation and bishop via the bishop coming to a parish for the sake of confirming people. Bishops these days visit parishes to preach and preside without any confirmands being confirmed and thus bonds of affection between parish and diocese are strengthened without connection to Confirmation. (Besides which, I have some openness to presbyters being able to confirm in some circumstances, as occurs in the Roman Catholic church).
So, what about Confirmation?
I remain loathe to change things without reference - to some degree or other - to the wider church. In this case 'Confirmation' (as I best understand it) remains a "thing" in Western Christianity, with a sort of parallel, Chrismation, in Eastern Christianity. Within churches (some? many? all?) of the Anglican Communion it continues to be held necessary as a step on the way to ordination. I suggest, first, that Confirmation being retained as a rite of this church is less problematic in respect of ecumenical relationships than either abolishing it or re-naming it (as the proposed motion to GS 2016 sought to do).
What might we then ask of Confirmation to do for us? Secondly, and contrary to Bishop Jim White's cited comment above, I suggest there is something to "confirm" which is appropriately even if not necessarily or uniquely done through Confirmation.
When baptised as a child I have no say in whether to be baptised and no say in being baptised. All statements are made by the baptising minister, the supporting cast of parents and godparents or the congregation (whether made on behalf of the child (BCP) or as their own statements of faith and commitment (NZPB).
When do I formally confirm in my own words that I wish to be counted in this world and in the world to come as a person baptised into God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit? When do I formally confirm that the faith my parents and godparents expressed at my baptism (and also the faith expressed by the congregation when it makes its confession "Jesus is Lord") is also "my" faith, the faith I myself wish to publicly articulate and claim as embraced by me?
The rite we call "Confirmation" is an already named opportunity for me to make that confirmation. And, yes, I understand that that is a shift in emphasis from the bishop "confirming" the confirmand through the laying on of hands and thus may require appropriate revision of the wording of our current rite. And, yes, I understand that what I have just written is a rationale for Confirmation for those Baptised as Infants, and not a rationale for those who have been Baptised as Adults. But on the latter, see below.
So far so words oriented, towards the words of our faith. "Ah," the critics of the current rite declaim, "nothing in this rationale for Confirmation requires that a bishop be present nor that the bishop lays hands on the confirmand. What you are talking about is talking not action such as laying on of hands and that underlines our criticism of the current rite."
This is true as far as it goes, but how might the church respond to a confirming believer? What might the church offer as its own "confirmation" that it has heard and applauds and celebrates a deliberate, considered public declaration of baptismal faith? What might the church offer as a sign of support and as an indication of its prayer for strengthening of resolve to follow Christ as a baptised person?
Framing questions in that way - of course - leads me, thirdly, to suggest in answer that it is not wrong that the rite of Confirmation continues to include the act of laying on of hands with prayer (as per NZPB p. 393). With this act of laying on of hands, as per most ancient custom of the church (various passages in Acts, James 5), the believer is strengthened for service in Christ's church through invocation of the Greatest Strengthener of All, the Holy Spirit. In this framing of the matter, of course we have a double confirmation: the confirmand confirms that the faith of the church is their faith and the church confirms that it has heard that confirmation and responds by praying for the confirmand.
On the one hand, framed in this way, I think it appropriate for such prayer with laying on of hands to be given to an adult person when baptised as an adult.
On the other hand, there is the question whether or not a bishop is necessary for such prayer. My own sense, fourthly, is that a bishop is not essential to the rite but definitely is a benefit to the rite. A particular benefit is that we when we ask that the norm for Confirmation be that the bishop if at all possible is the Confirmer then we are honouring the confirmand with the particular sign of the whole church as one body, the bishop, being present to hear the confirmand's confession of faith and to pray on behalf of the church for the strengthening of that faith through the Holy Spirit.
In other words, I am expressing an understanding of Confirmation which does not seek to do what is not now possible, that is argue that it is in some sense or another absolutely necessary for the faithful life of a believing Christian (e.g. to complete the necessary act of baptism).
Rather I am expressing an understanding of Confirmation which renews this ancient rite by finding again reasons to have a specific, once only rite in the life of the believer which draws together an aspect of baptism (formal, public, post-baptismal declaration of faith by the baptised) with an aspect of com-union (the church which hears that confirmation of faith confirms the believer belongs to the church and prays for the believer in a particular way (with laying of hands, with the church in its oneness in God represented, if at all possible, by the bishop) for strengthening in the life of faith through the power of the Holy Spirit, open to the gifts of the Spirit being released or re-released in the ministry of the believer within the church.
Pragmatically, such a rite is, in practice, very useful as a rite which can (but need not) be encouraged among young people in the church as they transition from childhood to adulthood (as indeed the rite has been useful, albeit with shifting senses of the most appropriate age during transition for which the rite is particularly encouraged (so, e.g., we find in our Anglican schools that typically students are confirmed in years 12 or 13 i.e. between 16 and 18 years of age.
What do you think?