Baptism and confirmation in Anglicanism

By water and the Holy Spirit: Baptism and confirmation in Anglicanism

Meyers, Ruth A

The work of the Holy Spirit is expressed in widely varying ways in contemporary Anglican worship. In congregations influenced by the charismatic renewal of the late twentieth century, vivid expressions of the power of the Spirit abound-praise music with worshipers raising their hands and swaying to the music, healing and other extemporaneous intercessory prayer with laying on of hands, testimony by worshipers, speaking in tongues. At the other end of the spectrum, no special attention is given to the power of the Spirit in worship. For example, mention of the Spirit in the invocation in the eucharistic prayer is formulaic and appears unremarkable: Eucharistic Prayer A simply states, relative to the bread and wine, “sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood of your Son ….. (BCP 1979, p. 363).

Yet all Christian worship is-or ought to be-Spirit-filled. It is the Spirit who inspires our praise of God and brings us into the divine life, that is, into the mystery of God revealed in Christ. The entire act of worship is empowered by the Holy Spirit, and through the Spirit, we are drawn into participation in God’s triune life.1

In Anglican worship, the texts of the liturgy ensure that there is reference to the Spirit. But mention of the Spirit in the rites of baptism and confirmation did not stop Anglicans from a prolonged debate, beginning in the late nineteenth century, about how and even whether the Spirit is at work in those rites. While this may seem to be an arcane theological controversy, it has implications not only for our understanding and practice of baptism and confirmation, including the role of the bishop wn those rites, but also for decisions about who may the admitted to communion and how we approach questions of empowerment for ministry.

The Seal of the Spirit

The 1979 Book of Common Prayer makes a bold claim about baptism: “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church” (p. 299). The assertion that baptism is full initiation and includes the work of the Spirit was a direct response to the protracted Anglican controversy about the role of the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation. While the debate was engaged far more vigorously in England than on the American side of the Atlantic, the Drafting Committee on Christian Initiation was well aware of the scholarly arguments and considered them carefully as they developed a new initiatory rite for the Episcopal Church.

The “Mason-Dix line”2 made a sharp distinction between baptism of water, which provided cleansing from sin, and baptism of the Spirit, bestowed through the imposition of hands. In its most extreme form, this view insisted that the Spirit was operative not in baptism but in confirmation, the seal of the Spirit that completed Christian initiation. Gregory Dix’s distinction between baptism of water and baptism of the Spirit was rebutted by Geoffrey Lampe, who argued in The Seal of the Spirit3 that the indwelling gift of the Spirit is one aspect of the Christian’s participation in the resurrection life of Christ that is begun in baptism.

Though few were willing to go as far as Dix in denying any action of the Spirit in water-baptism, his two-stage understanding of initiation is evident in several publications widely used in the Episcopal Church during the 1950s and 1960s.4 Lampe’s position, on the other hand, received far less attention. When in 1964 Massey Shepherd proposed a single initiatory rite, for infants or adults, with the bishop presiding, he described this as reintegrating baptism, confirmation and admission to communion, although he did not discuss the work of the Spirit in the rite.5 Leonel Mitchell, who had recently completed his doctoral dissertation on baptismal anointing, made a similar proposal.6

These and other proposals for a unified rite of initiation informed the work of the Drafting Committee on Christian Initiation from the beginning of prayer book revision in 1967, in part because Mitchell was a member of the committee throughout the process. In light of the heated debate in the early 1970s regarding the meaning and practice of confirmation, it is remarkable that the prayer and actions that follow the water baptism in the 1979 baptismal rite are so similar to the rite presented to the General Convention in 1970.7 Of particular significance is the inclusion of the prayer for the gifts of the Spirit, a paraphrase of the prayer for the sevenfold gift of the Spirit found in every Anglican confirmation rite since 1549, and the imposition of a hand, historically the essential ritual action of Anglican confirmation rites. The presence of these elements reflects the intent to include in baptism the central sacramental aspects of confirmation as it had been practiced in Anglicanism.

The prayer and the handlaying, optional chrismation and consignation, with the formula “N., you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever,” can be interpreted in various ways. Leonel Mitchell asserts that there is a deliberate ambiguity in the text, allowing the “seal” to be identified either with the consignation or as the inward part of the water action (the position of Lampe). Mitchell prefers the former interpretation, that is, that the seal is “closely identified with, but not identical to, the water baptism.”8 For the Roman Catholic liturgical scholar Gerard Austin, the 1979 baptismal rite is laudable because it reunites the rites of initiation, that is, baptism and confirmation, although Austin expresses concern that the inclusion of the phrase “in Baptism” in the formula at the handlaying could imply that this is not a distinct sacramental action.9

Identifying distinct sacramental actions within the baptismal rite preserves the medieval distinction of baptism and confirmation, now 11 reunited” in a single rite. But locating the seal of the Spirit in a specific ritual moment, whether that moment is the signing after the bath (“confirmation”) or the bath itself (as Lampe argued), may limit our perception of the work of the Spirit throughout the initiatory process. If we understand the Holy Spirit as one who prompts our praise of the triune God and draws us into the divine life, then we must begin with an expectation that the Spirit is at work in every part of the baptismal rite and in those who come to be baptized.

Toward a New Consensus?

A new Anglican consensus in this matter became evident at the 1991 International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, which asserted unequivocally that baptism is complete sacramental initiation, including the gift of the Holy Spirit, but did not identify the seal of the Spirit with any particular portion of the rite.10 Yet a survey of contemporary Anglican rites of baptism and confirmation, including those revised since the 1991 consultation, suggests that this consensus among the liturgical scholars and leaders at the consultation has yet to be fully received throughout the Anglican Communion.

In many ways, the work of the consultation is an affirmation of the 1979 baptismal rite. But questions can be raised about the order of the prayer and action that follow the water baptism. The rite in The Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada, which in many respects follows the 1979 BCP rite, places the signing and optional chrismation before the prayer for the gifts of the Spirit, with no option for an alternative order.11 The 1979 order, with prayer followed by action, can be interpreted as a distinct sacramental act (a form of confirmation) and was intended as such, although the rubric permitting the action to precede the prayer militates against a definitive interpretation along these lines. The Canadian order (and the alternative U.S. order) may make a stronger statement about the unity of the baptismal rite, which in turn may underscore the work of the Spirit throughout the rite rather than focusing it at one moment in the rite.

Other contemporary Anglican revisions have not followed the lead of the U.S. and Canadian churches in including the prayer for the gifts of the Spirit in baptism. Rather, in most, including those rites revised after the 1991 consultation, this prayer has remained in confirmation.12 While this provides continuity with previous Anglican confin-nation rites, including the medieval Sarum rite, earlier sources– the fourth-century writings of Ambrose of Milan and the eighth– century Gelasian sacramentary-include the prayer in the baptismal rite. The contemporary Anglican rites that leave the prayer in confirmation emphasize the bestowal of the Spirit in that rite.

It is not, however, only a matter of when the Spirit is invoked, but how the action of the Spirit is understood in baptism and in confirmation. During most of the twentieth century, proponents of a two-stage approach to initiation often described the distinctive grace of confirmation as “the ordination of the laity,” empowering laity for their ministry in the world.13 The 1989 South African rite implies such a view: “[In Baptism] we are raised with [Christ] to new life in the Spirit. In Confirmation we come to be filled… with the power of the Spirit for worship, witness and service.”14 Yet the Spirit who draws us into the life of the triune God at baptism also transforms us and enables our lives to be conformed to the image of God as revealed in Christ. This transformative action is not withheld for bestowal at some time after baptism, but is integral to the baptismal gift of the Spirit, as the 1991 Anglican Liturgical Consultation acknowledged: “Baptism affirms the royal dignity of every Christian and their call and empowering for active ministry within the mission of the church.”15

The Australian and English rites, both revised since 1991, give some attention to commissioning for ministry as part of baptism. The prayers in the Australian rite include a petition that those baptized may “continue in the fellowship and service of [Christ’s] Church [and] … proclaim, by word and example, the good news of God in Christ.”16 But the Australian book also appoints texts for use at confirmation that state that those who are baptized and confirmed are empowered by the Holy Spirit for ministry and service.17 It is not altogether clear from the rite whether this empowerment is effective in those baptized but not yet confirmed. In contrast, in the English baptismal rite the water-bath is followed by the “Commission,” which articulates the baptismal commitment to ministry. For baptizands unable to answer for themselves, the minister reminds the congregation that these children will need the assistance of the Christian community “to follow Jesus Christ in the life of faith” and “serve their neighbor after the example of Christ.” Candidates able to answer for themselves are asked to respond to questions of commitment similar to the questions in the baptismal covenant in the U.S. and Canadian rites.18

Understanding baptism as complete sacramental initiation, including the gift of the Spirit who empowers Christians for ministry, means that baptism must also be the basis for admission to communion, the principal sacramental means of nurturing members of Christ’s body. This is a radical change for Anglicans, whose prayer books since 1549 included a “confirmation rubric” requiring confirmation before admission to communion. The churches in New Zealand, the United States and Canada led the way in introducing this change, which was recommended to the entire Anglican Communion by a liturgical consultation in 1985 and reaffirmed by the 1991 consultation. Since the 1980s, communion of all the baptized has been discussed in many but not all Anglican provinces, and while practice has changed in some places, in other provinces there has been no change in the historic Anglican initiatory pattern of baptism, confirmation and admission to communion.19

The recent rites of the Church of England, which has retained the historic pattern, allow adults to be baptized and confirmed by the bishop at the same service and so admitted to communion. When adults are baptized in the parish and later confirmed by the bishop, they may be admitted to communion at their baptism or after confirmation.20 The Australian prayer book states that the baptism of adults should include their confirmation and first communion, “making one unified rite of Christian initiation.”21 The attempt to provide a single initiatory rite, at least in the case of adults, is laudable. But requiring confirmation, whether at baptism or at a later time, undermines an understanding of baptism as full initiation, including the gift of the Spirit. A similar problem is evident in the 1979 BCP, which includes an expectation that those baptized as adults, unless baptized with laying on of hands by a bishop, will make a public affirmation of faith and receive the laying on of hands by a bishop (p. 412). In contrast, the Canadian rite has no requirement for baptized persons to receive laying on of hands by a bishop, and it describes confirmation, reception and reaffirmation as “various modes of response to baptism,” not as initiatory rites.22

In the case of those baptized as adults, since their baptism includes the gift of the Spirit and so fully incorporates them into the life of the triune God, confirmation can only add imposition of hands by a bishop. The commentary on the Church of England rites specifies that the requirement of episcopal confirmation is a principal expression of the bishop’s oversight of the entire initiatory process. Yet Anglicans must consider how important it is to require Christians to receive laying on of hands by a bishop. Eastern Orthodox baptismal rites have historically included chrismation by a presbyter, and no ritual action by a bishop, at baptism or in some subsequent rite, has been expected or required. Increasingly in Roman Catholicism, confirmation-laying on of hands with prayer for the sevenfold gift of the Spirit, followed by chrismation-is administered by presbyters when adults are baptized at the Easter Vigil. In the Lutheran churches with which Anglicans are now in full communion, confirmation-laying on of hands-has historically been administered by presbyters. The 1991 Anglican Liturgical Consultation encouraged a broader view of the bishop’s ministry: as chief pastor, the bishop expresses the unity of the Church by presiding at baptism and the eucharist and by delegating or presiding at other rites of commitment, such as confirmation.23

For those baptized when unable to answer for themselves (e.g., infants and young children), confirmation not only may add laying on of hands by a bishop but also provides opportunity for individuals to make the profession of faith previously done on their behalf. Yet because their baptism fully initiated them into the body of Christ, confirmation must be seen as a rite of renewal of faith, an event within Christian life. The principal sacramental means of renewing that faith is participation in the eucharist. An opportunity for ritual profession of faith along with prayer for strengthening with the Spirit may also be desirable, although requiring such a rite diminishes the claim of full sacramental initiation in baptism.

While the life of faith may involve gradual awakening, being drawn by the Spirit ever more fully into participation in God’s triune life, Christian life is often punctuated by times of sin followed by repentance and renewal, and it may also have moments of sudden awareness and dramatic transformation by the Spirit. Most contemporary Anglican revisions recognize this by providing rites of reaffirmation in addition to a rite of confirmation. A number of these revisions allow a presbyter to administer some rites of renewal, particularly the renewal of baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil. But they require a bishop to administer rites of reaffirmation that are parallel to confirmation, a restriction that is even less justifiable than requiring that confirmation be administered by a bishop.

An understanding of baptism as full Christian initiation is undermined by requirements that baptized persons subsequently be confirmed by a bishop and by the requirement of confirmation prior to admission to communion. Rites that place commissioning for ministry as an effect of confirmation rather than baptism also diminish the significance of the baptismal gift of the Spirit. In addition, the language and structure of some contemporary Anglican rites may imply that the Spirit is bestowed at a specific moment at baptism rather than being active in every part of the rite, while others may give more attention to the action of the Spirit in confirmation than in baptism. In light of both contemporary pneumatology and the Anglican debate about the bestowal of the Spirit at baptism and at confirmation, it is important to develop rites of initiation and reaffirmation of faith which articulate an understanding that the Spirit is fully bestowed at baptism and leads the baptized ever more fully into participation in the mystery of the triune God.

1 Catherine LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991), pp. 362-363; Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 103-109.

So named because its principal proponents included Arthur James Mason, author of The Relation of Confirmation to Baptism (London: Longman, Green and Co., 1891), and Gregory Dix, The Theology of Confirmation in Relation to Baptism (Westminster, Md.: Dacre Press, 1946).

London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1951.

See Massey Shepherd, The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary (New York: Oxford University Press, 1950), p. 271 and The Worship of the Church (Greenwich, Conn.: Seabury Press, 1952), pp. 166-186; and Associated Parishes, Christian Initiation: Part I-Holy Baptism (1953) and Christian Initiation: Part II-Confirmation (1954).

5 Massey Shepherd, Liturgy and Education (New York: Seabury, 1965), pp. 103107; the substance of this book was originally presented in the Bradner lectures delivered at the General Theological Seminary in February 1964. For further discussion of Shepherd’s views, see Ruth Meyers, “Scholarship Shaping Liturgical Reform: Massey Shepherd’s Influence on Rites of Christian Initiation,” in J. Neil Alexander, ed., With Ever Joyful Hearts: Essays on Liturgy and Music Honoring Marion J. Hatchett (New York: Church Publishing, 1999), pp. 116-138.

6 Leonel Mitchell, “The ‘Shape’ of the Baptismal Liturgy,” Anglican Theological Review 47 (1965): 410-419.

7 Prayer Book Studies 18: On Baptism and Confirmation (New York: Church Pension Fund, 1970), pp. 39-40; cf. BCP 1979, p. 308.

8 Leonel Mitchell, Worship: Initiation and the Churches (Washington, D.C.: Pastoral Press, 1991), p. 144. The formula accompanying the postbaptismal action changed several times during the revision process; Mitchell (pp. 143-144) traces the development of this text and its interpretation.

9 Gerard Austin, Anointing with the Spirit: The Rite of Confirmation: The Use of Oil and Chrism (New York: Pueblo, 1985), p. 76.

to “Walk in Newness of Life: The Findings of the International Anglican Liturgical Consultation, Toronto 1991,” in David Holeton, ed., Growing in Newness of Life: Christian Initiation in Anglicanism Today (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1993), pp. 227-253; see especially pp. 229-230, 243-245, 252-253.

” The Book of Alternative Services (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1985), p. 160. 12 See Church of the Province of New Zealand, A New Zealand, A New Zealand Prayer Book (Lon

don: Collins Liturgical Publications, 1989), p. 392; Church of the Province of Southern Africa, An Anglican Prayer Book (London: Collins Liturgical Publications, 1989), p. 376; Anglican Church of Australia, A Prayer Book for Australia (Broughton Books, 1995), p. 61; Church of England, “Baptism and Confirmation at the Order for Celebration of Holy Communion” (2000), In the Church of the Province of Kenya, the prayer for the gifts of the Spirit is found neither in “Baptism” nor in “Draft Confirmation and Commissioning” in Modern Services (Nairobi: Uzima Press, 1991).

13 See, for example, Edward Lambe Parsons and Bayard Hale Jones, The American Prayer Book: Its Origins and Principles (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1937), p. 224; Convocations of Canterbury and York, Confirmation Today (London: Press and Publications Board of the Church Assembly, 1944), pp. 11-13, 31-32.

14 An Anglican Prayer Book, p. 369.

15 “Walk in Newness of Life,” in Growing in Newness of Life, p. 236. 16 A Prayer Book for Australia, p. 57.

17 Ibid., pp. 52, 61, 69.

is Church of England, “Holy Baptism” (2000), http.// commonworship.

19 For the statement and recommendations of the 1985 consultation, see Ruth A. Meyers, ed., Children at the Table: The Communion of All the Baptized in Anglicanism Today (New York: Church Hymnal Corp., 1995), pp. 127-144. See also “Walk in Newness of Life,” in Growing in Newness of Life, pp. 229, 232.

20 Church of England, “Initiation Services-Commentary by the Liturgical Commission” (1998),

21 A Prayer Book for Australia, p. 70.

22 The Book of Alternative Services, p. 149.

23 “Walk in Newness of Life,” in Growing in Newness of Life, pp. 249-251; see also p. 229.


* Ruth A. Meyers is Associate Professor of Liturgies at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, Evanston, Illinois. She is indebted to her colleague David Cunningham, who read and critiqued an early draft of this manuscript.

Ruth A. Meyers is Associate Professor of Liturgics at Seabury– Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois and an Episcopal priest. She has served for several years on the expansive-language subcommittee of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music and since 1999 has been a member of the Anglican/Roman Catholic Consultation in the USA. A member of the Council of the Associated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, she is editor of its journal, OPEN. She is co-editor of Gleanings: Essays on Expansive Language with Prayers for Various Occasions; the author of Continuing the Reforma

tion: Re-Visioning Baptism in the Episcopal Church; and general editor of the Liturgical Studies series of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (all published by Church Publishing).

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