by Bishop Wayne Smith

Bishop Smith confirms Grace members at May 19 service at Christ Church Cathedral

The history of the sacrament of confirmation, as a separate rite from baptism, is convoluted, to say the least. Here is a thumbnail sketch: From early times, the Church designated bishops as the ordinary ministers of baptism, a rite with a threefold action–the water rite (immersion in water, or else the pouring of it), imposition of hands with anointing, and first communion. Over time, and as the Church grew in numbers, the bishops began to delegate this rite to the presbyters (priests). In the Eastern Church, the bishops delegated the rite in its entirety; in the West, the bishops retained for themselves the imposition of hands, while delegating the other two actions.

The baptismal rite in our Prayer Book essentially puts in place the pattern from the Christian East, with the water rite, anointing and/or imposition of hands, with at least the possibility of first communion, all in one service. And all this pattern applies, whether the presider is a bishop or a priest.

With this the being case, why then does the Episcopal Church retain imposition of hands by a bishop, in a separate rite of confirmation?

There are three good pastoral reasons for doing so. First, in a Church which practices the baptism of young children and infants, these people need, in their maturity, a solemn occasion to stand in front of God and everybody and reaffirm the promises once made on their behalf. Second, in a Church which attracts Christians from other communities of belief, there needs to be an occasion for these people to make solemn reaffirmation of baptism and its meaning, with the intent to live these vows henceforth in this Church. Third, the pastoral presence and human touch of a bishop remind everyone present that the Church extends beyond the merely local into diocesan community, into the whole of the Episcopal Church, and into the Church catholic.

The opening sentences in the introductory material to the Prayer Book rite of baptism read: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church. The bond which God establishes in Baptism is indissoluble.” (BCP, 298)  Confirmation adds nothing to baptism, but it remains a necessary pastoral sacrament. Episcopalians are right to hold it in such high value.


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