The Sacrament of Confirmation

What is Confirmation? Its meaning has developed a great deal since the first days of the church, and it is now understood in different ways in different Christian traditions.

In the very beginning only adults were baptised. After their baptism the bishop extended his hands over the candidate, said a prayer, and anointed them with the sign of the cross on the forehead. In the water of Baptism the Holy Spirit was given for pardon and new birth; in the oil of anointing the Holy Spirit was given for strength to live the Christian life. As (gradually) whole families came to be baptised, children and babies with their parents, no distinction was made on grounds of age - all received baptism and "confirmation" and could immediately share in the sacrament of Communion.

In time this changed, for practical not theological reasons. It was believed that the anointing and imposition of hands could only be done by a bishop. As the church spread wider geographically, it became impossible for the bishop to be present at every Baptism. Increasingly the second part of the ceremony was delayed until a bishop could be present, and eventually this led to the situation in which baptism was assumed to be appropriate to infancy and confirmation to later years. In this country for 300 years or so after the Reformation, bishops hardly visited the parishes at all; priests baptised babies and later admitted young people to Communion with minimal instruction. With the coming of the railways (now there's a good theological reason!) "bishops rose from their seats and itinerated", regular confirmation became the norm, and formal preparation for confirmation and Communion became common.

This is a very potted history of Confirmation. Along the way different interpretations have arisen. The Orthodox still anoint infants and welcome them to communion as babes in arms, fully accepted as church members with a spiritual integrity of their own. The Roman church baptises babies, offers communion to young children of six or seven, and slightly later confirms them. The Baptists refuse to baptise infants, and baptism by immersion is seen as the one way to full membership. We should beware of making generalisations and saying "this is what the church has always done".

New members welcomed into our communicant fellowship vary in age from ten or eleven to somewhat older! Some have grown up immersed in the ways and teaching of the Christian faith, for others their encounter with Christ has been a recent and sudden experience. All will feel that now is the right time to commit themselves to living the way of Christ; they want to deepen their sense of belonging.

As they kneel before the bishop he will pray that they may be "confirmed with the Holy Spirit". Through all the pragmatic changes of the centuries, this is the element which has remained constant. It is a common misunderstanding that in this sacrament we "confirm" the words said for us at our baptism. We do - as independent, free people we say those challenging words for ourselves - but that is a new meaning, introduced to explain the split rite. As the bishop stretches out his hands we recognise the ancient meaning; it is the Holy Spirit who "confirms", in its root meaning of "gives strength". He strengthens us, inspires us, encourages us to be able to live as those who consciously "turn to Christ".

At each Confirmation service we open ourselves up again to that indwelling of the Spirit in our own lives, and offer prayer and support to those embarking on this new stage of their Christian journey.

Eileen McLean
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 30th July 1997