When Jesus went to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin John it was much simpler. Water washed away the sins of the repentant. In Jesus’ case baptism was accompanied by the descent of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus’ disciples sat at his feet and listened, and went out and did his bidding, it was pretty much without fuss and bother. Even in the Early Church, as much as we can tell, baptism was simple. We are told that the Deacon Phillip baptized the Ethiopian at the first stream or puddle they came upon (Acts 8:26-40). The earliest Eucharists were likely not much more than the sort of bread and wine blessing on any Jewish table on Friday night, except that now they were offered by the president of the assembly in the name of the Lord, through which the Presence and Spirit entered the Christian body. The concern that the newly baptized would fall away was addressed with a year or more of training. In the mistaken idea that the remission of sin only occurred once at baptism, candidates often put it off for years (Augustine) or until close to death (Constantine). Catechumens were often barred from seeing the Eucharistic ritual, a practice which had a renewal in some Roman Catholic parishes in the last century. Not quite the Hospitality of God at his Table.
After Constantine made us respectable, and even mandated, it got complicated as the Church spread in numbers and geography. Now we needed councils and canon and cathedrals, oh, my. The modern Episcopal Church has been reaching for that simplicity, mostly through evangelical renewal. At the same time, evangelical church members are flocking to us as their churches become more socially restrictive. How to renew without giving up our heritage, one of an Episcopate to hold the larger body together? One where the enactment of the Eucharist, the real Presence is so profound, that only a priest or bishop may preside? For us, every sacramental act performed, baptism, reconciliation, Eucharist, is written in the Book of God, the Book of Life. We take our mystical tradition very seriously, as we should. One of those sacramental acts, Confirmation, has had something of a checkered theological history, and yet it offers another way to bring conversion to the Beloved Community, to both maintain our customs and to be faithful to the mission of evangelizing the world.
Yesterday our parish was graced by an Episcopal visit, and our bishop baptized and confirmed souls in our parish family. One, a friend, has struggled to come to this point. As so many others, this person came to us from an evangelical church. Even though theologically trained, the formality of the liturgy, the hierarchy of bishops, all of it, still seems foreign, alien, unnatural. But there is that something that draws so many evangelicals in. For them this was a ritual act, not so much to draw down the Holy Spirit as to bind them to the Episcopal Church.
We are trying to hear the needs of the Body by retooling the Eucharistic Liturgy, using a wider range of music, and incorporating new authorized prayers and services. While we are doing just about everything and anything to make ourselves relevant, inclusive, and millennial friendly, what seems to be attracting many of those tent revival Christians is our dignity, our liturgy, and our belief in the Presence in the Eucharist. As ever, here we Episcopalians are in the middle, trying to take the best from the formality of tradition and the enthusiasm of mission. If you have never seen our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry strut his revival tent stuff in the name of Jesus, you are in for a treat. Or a shock. Yet, when he sends a pastoral message on YouTube and asks us to pray the Lord’s Prayer with him, or you see him celebrating the Eucharist, streaming on Facebook, he is the most dignified and gentle of spiritual fathers. But the question remains. Just what is confirmation, and why by bishops?
In the early days of the American Episcopal Church, there weren’t a lot of bishops, so confirmation was a dead issue. It wobbled along both here and in England until the mid nineteenth century when a number of bishops picked it up enthusiastically. And the theology of the Holy Spirit became relevant. Was the Holy Spirit given at baptism and confirmation only the recognition of the gift of baptism by an adult or older child? At one time children would be decked out in suits or white dresses for their First Communion, but now it is pretty common for babies to receive communion. They are, after all, baptized into Christ.
Acts 19:1-7 is pretty clear that the baptism of John is insufficient for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (given that she bloweth where she listeth), but the scriptural suggestion that laying on of hands by the Apostles brought down the Spirit was used to fuel Episcopal confirmation, since the lineage of all bishops is believed to be through Apostolic Succession. The 1948 Lambeth Conference gave us the current notion that full Christian initiation required baptism, confirmation, and communion. Baptism gives the Holy Spirit. Confirmation brings the Spirit forth. Conformation strengthens us in the Spirit, as the confirmation collect in the Book of Common Prayer states.
That is the history, but what does this mean to us? If baptism is the primary sacrament of the Church, why are we reaffirming it with another sacramental act, one administered by a bishop, when a priest, or even in extreme cases a layperson, is good enough for baptism? While there is very little theological substance connecting confirmation with the Holy Spirit apart from what is bestowed in baptism, it does allow each person one chance to interact with their bishop, and through him or her to connect with their diocese and the whole Anglican Communion.
What I believe is that all the traditional sacraments are real and the Holy Spirit works through them, including Marriage, Ordination, Reconciliation, Anointing the Sick, and most importantly, the Eucharist, and any others that God may recommend to us in the future to bring Christ into the world. What it gave my friend is joy, a sense of belonging, and a renewal of the Spirit which was already in abundance.
I will stand with the wisdom of the Episcopal Church that Baptism and the Eucharist are the primary, and perhaps only sacraments, and that all needful for salvation is found in Holy Scripture. Perhaps Confirmation, an act of incorporation of a person into our part of the whole body of Christ through the charism of a bishop, is still theologically debatable, but it is ours, and it is real. Perhaps it will invoke a conversion of the Spirit of those confirmed. Perhaps it will fade away as inconsequential. That is in God’s hands.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.
Image: Confirmation at St Catherine/Santa Catalina Nehalem OR