Vol I No. 7
English Reformation

Children, Confirmation, and Communion

by The Editors

The Rev’d Gavin Dunbar


The classical Anglican pattern of Christian initiation, as found in the Prayer Books from 1549 to 1928, was comprised of four elements: Baptism (normally, in infancy), followed, when the baptized have come to “years of discretion” (conventionally seven to fourteen), by instruction in the Catechism, Confirmation and admission to Communion. One of the leading features of newer liturgies has been the restructuring of this pattern of Christian initiation. Although liturgists do not consider this restructuring to be complete because certain benighted vestiges of older patterns still persist to their thinking, they have changed much in the 1979 Prayer Book.

First of all, the 1979 BCP makes Baptism in principle a complete sacramental initiation into the Church, so that all the baptized are admitted to Communion,whether little children or adults, with or without a profession of faith. Second, Confirmation is given a marginal role at best in Christian initiation. The rite called Confirmation is now a reaffirmation of baptismal vows, with laying on of hands by the bishop. Certain elements that once belonged to it (anointing with oil of chrism, and prayer for the seven-fold gifts of the Spirit), have been annexed to Baptism. A rubric inserted into the draft at the insistence of the House of Bishops states that “those baptized at any early age are expected, when they are ready and have been duly prepared, to make a mature public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their Baptism, and to receive the laying on of hands by the bishop.” (p. 412) This vestige of the older pattern, however, should be read closely: “expected” does not mean “required”: and it is not a requirement for admission to Communion.Another vestige is the name “Confirmation,” which was retained for “political reasons,” but which liturgists continue to recommend be omitted.[1] Its placement in the 1979 BCP is significant as well, as a rite it is not found in association with either Baptism or the Eucharist, but among the “pastoral offices.” One of the chief architects of the 1979 Prayer Book referred to this service as “unfinished business.”

Contributing to the marginalization of Confirmation is the movement for “open communion” (that is, the admission to the Eucharist of those who havenot been baptized), spurred by concerns about inclusion. Undergirding these changes is the assumptionthat the classical Anglican pattern of initiation lacks a coherent rationale. Any response to such thinkingmust begin with a rediscovery of the distinctive historyand rationale of Confirmation, which this paperattempts to provide

The Ancient and Medieval Inheritance

In the ancient church, new Christians—chiefly adults, of course, although no doubt with their families, including little children—were initiated into the Church (after a period of preparation as catechumens) in unitary liturgies centered on Baptism and the Eucharist. By the early middle ages, however, infant Baptism was almost universal, and the other elements of initiation into the Church were often detached from it, and followed later, often at an interval of years. One of the lesser rites associated with Baptism was a ceremony of anointing, consignation, and laying on of hands which from the 5th century onward became known as Confirmation.

Over the course of the Middle Ages, its administration,reserved to the bishop, was detached from Baptism, and came to be considered a Sacrament itself, required of the Baptized before they were admitted to Communion, commonly after they had attained “years of discretion” (conventionally ages seven to fourteen), and were capable of the moral discernment necessary for making their first confession (required annually of all Christians from the fourth Lateran Council of 1215). It was this pattern, inherited by the 16th century Reformers, which became the basis of the classical Anglican pattern of Christian initiation, with instruction in the Church Catechism taking the place of first Confession.

Already, in late antiquity, the separation of Confirmation from Baptism had stimulated reflection on its theological rationale. The most influential account is attributed to Saint Faustus of Riez, a fifth century abbot at the great island monastery of Lerins, and bishop of the Provencal town of Riez. An orthodox Nicene catholic, who was for a time exiled by the Gothic king, who was an Arian, Faustus wrote a treatise on the divinity of the Holy Spirit, and then, in the 470’s, a treatise on Grace that played a role in what has been known since the seventeenth century as the “semi-Pelagian” controversy.

Like other monastics of Southern Gaul, he took Augustine’s side against the Pelagians. He followed Augustinian reasoning insofar as he denied the capacity of the human will to respond to God without the assistance of Grace. Yet Faustus resisted Augustine’s teaching on predestination, since it seemed to leave no role for human agency, for human effort,for the disciplines of prayer and of spiritual warfare. In the end, at the Synod of Orange in 529 led by Caesarius of Arles, the church affirmed the priority of grace in moving the will toward the good,but was silent on predestination—a position that has been called “semi-Augustinian.” Yet in the sermon for Pentecost which supplies the rationale for Confirmation, Faustus seems already to have struck a balance between the priority of grace on the one hand, and the necessity of human striving, of human agency in the spiritual warfare, on the other.

As the military order demands, that when the emperor receives someone among the number of soldiers, he not only signals the engagement but also furnishes the fighter with fitting arms, so with the baptized that blessing is a defense. You have given a soldier; give also military aid.What does it benefit if some parents bestow a great ability on a child unless they also take pains to provide a tutor? Thus the Paraclete, the guard of those reborn in Christ, is consoler and tutor. Therefore the divine word says, “Unless the Lord guards the city, in vain do they keep watch who guard it” (Ps. 127.1). Therefore the Holy Spirit, who descends upon the waters of baptism by a salvific falling, bestows on the font a fullness toward innocence, and presents in confirmation an increase for grace. And because in this world we who will be prevailing must walk in every age between invisible enemies and dangers, we are reborn in baptism for life, and we are confirmed after baptism for strife. In baptism we are washed; in confirmation we are strengthened. And although the benefits of rebirth suffice immediately for those about to die, nevertheless the helps of confirmation are necessary for those who will prevail. Rebirth in itself immediately saves those needing to be receive in the peace of the blessed age. Confirmation arms and supplies those needing to be preserved for the struggles and battles of this world.

Faustus’ rationale was remembered in the formula: “in baptism we are reborn for life; and we are confirmed after baptism for strife.” In Confirmation the baptized receives an increase of grace and strengthening by the Spirit for the spiritual warfare of the soldier of Christ. He understands Confirmation in relation to the Church militant here on earth, for which it prepares us. Confirmation, in short, is a rite a Christian maturity, and it is in those terms that it was also discussed by the 12th century scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas.

In the reasoning of Thomas Aquinas, it is axiomatic that grace does not destroy but perfects nature. For this reason, the Holy Spirit accommodates himself to the various conditions or states of the human creature. The Sacraments themselves are examples of this gracious accommodation to human weakness: for they are invisible spiritual gifts of grace conveyed through material signs visible and tangible to embodied human creatures. Thus the sacramental grace of the Holy Spirit is closely related to the stages of development of the human personality, or subjectivity—to the development of the powers of memory, reason, and will, whereby we may come to know and love God as our highest good. So when treating of Confirmation,Thomas makes use of a “biological analogy,” arguing by analogy from spiritual to corporal life. After citing 1 Corinthians 13:11, “when I became a man, I put away childish things,” Thomas writes that in the spiritual life,as in bodily life, there is a moment of birth (generation) and a moment of “increase, by which someone is led to a mature age. Therefore men receive a spiritual life through Baptism, which is a spiritual regeneration,and in Confirmation men receive as it were a certain mature age of spiritual life.” (Summa Theologiae 3:72, 1)

Looking to the contemporary situation, the liturgists constructing the 1979 BCP have followed neither Patristic nor Thomistic theology. On the one hand there is the possibility of Confirmation, yet inconsistently, the baptized is treated as fully Christian at the moment of Baptism, making Communion open without restriction or without a public profession of the faith. Thus what has been lost from the medieval synthesis is the rationale for Confirmation, the idea that Christians grow in grace and in understanding of the Faith. Thus the new liturgy is marked by a changed anthropology or idea of the human personality; the modern liturgists follow the ideas of modern psychology rather than the Aristotelian and Augustinian understanding of the human soul.

The Reformation Critique

The Protestant Reformers approached the rationale for Confirmation offered by Thomas Aquinas with somewhat mixed feelings. They disagreed with the medieval theologians that Confirmation was a Sacrament because it lacked explicit warrant of Scripture,either as an action commanded or a grace promised by Christ. As the Lutheran Martin Chemnitz wrote, in the doctrine maintained by the Roman church at Trent, upholding Confirmation as a Sacrament, “the antithesis of Baptism and Confirmation is perpetual, so that whatever effects are attributed to Confirmation are by that very fact denied to and drawn away from Baptism” (Examination of the Council of Trent,On Confirmation, 3 (1566)). John Calvin could be quite scathing (as indeed, was his wont):

They have feigned that the power of confirmation is to confer, for the increase of grace, the Holy Spirit, who was conferred in baptism for innocence; to confirm for battle those who in baptism were regenerated to life. This confirmation is performed with anointing [here follows a description of the rite]. All beautifully and charmingly done! But where is the Word of God, which promises the presence of the Holy Spirit here? They cannot show us one jot. How will they assure us that their chrism is a vessel of the Holy Spirit? We see the oil—the gross and greasy liquid—nothing else. Augustine says, “let the word be added to the element, and it will become sacrament”. Let them, I say, bring forth this word, if they would have us see in the oil anything else than oil.” Institutes IV.19.5

The claim for Confirmation, he considers, is made at the expense of Baptism, and so . . . it is an overt outrage against baptism, which obscures, indeed, abolishes, its function; it is a false promise of the devil, which drags us away from God’s truth. Or, if you prefer, it is oil, befouled with the devil’s falsehood, which deceives and plunges the simple-minded into darkness” IV.19.8

Yet for all his strictures about Confirmation as a Sacrament, and the rationale of Faustus of Riez, Calvin allows for, indeed recommends, what he asserted was the true ancient practice of Confirmation:

In early times it was the custom for the children of Christian after they had grown up to be brought before the bishop to fulfill that duty which was required of those who as adults offered themselves for baptism. For the latter sat among the catechumens until, duly instructed in the mysteries of the faith, they were able to make confession of their faith before the bishop and people. Therefore, those who had been baptized as infants, because they had not then made confession of faith before the church,were at the end of their childhood or at the beginning of adolescence again presented by their parents, and were examined by the bishop according to the form of the catechism. . . . But in order that this act, which ought by itself to have been weighty and holy, might have more reverence and dignity, the ceremony of the laying on of hands was also added. Thus the youth, once his faith was approved, was dismissed with a solemn blessing. . . . I warmly approve such laying on of hands, which simply done as a form of blessing, and wish that it were today restored to pure use”. (Institutes IV.19.4)

It is commonly said that Calvin’s account of ancient practice is mistaken: nonetheless, the idea of a public confession of faith after instruction and examination in the Catechism by those baptized as infants and come to “years of discretion” is consistent with the ancient idea of Confirmation as a rite of Christian maturity. He continues to understand the nature of the human personality in the older way. A self-conscious profession of faith is a necessary element in Christian initiation. What Calvin takes away from Confirmation as a Sacrament, he quietly restores with his advocacy of Confirmation as a rite of Christian maturity.

Calvin vociferously defends on biblical grounds the pattern inherited from the Middle Ages of baptism administered to infants, but communion reserved for those who come to years of discretion. At that time his argument was addressed to Anabaptists, radical reformers who denied the validity of infant baptism, but it addresses the late 20th and early 21st century concern of those who advocate administering communion as well as baptism to children (paedo-communion).Infants may be baptized without the faith and repentance of which it is the sacrament, because they are baptized into “future repentance and faith,and even though these have not yet been formed in them, the seed of both lies hidden with them by the secret working of the Spirit.” (IV.xvi.20) The child will grow into understanding of his baptism as he matures. Meanwhile, since all are born sinners, and need forgiveness and pardon from birth, they are not deprived of the comfort that Baptism brings.

Calvin knows perfectly well that the ancient practice was paedo-communion, “but the custom has deservedly fallen into disuse”:

For if we consider the peculiar character of baptism, surely it is an entrance and a sort of initiation into the church, through which we are numbered among God’s people: a sign of spiritual regeneration, through which we are reborn as children of God. On the other hand, the Supper is given to older persons who, having passed tender infancy, can now take solid food. (IV.xvi.30)

Thus Calvin silently adopts the “biological,” Aristotelian and Augustinian analogy of corporal and spiritual life which we observed in Thomas Aquinas’ account of Confirmation.

Notably, Calvin defends this position on Biblical grounds. (IV.xvi.30) From the New Testament he cites the teaching of 1 Corinthians 11, in which those coming to the Lord’s Supper must be capable of “discerning the body and blood of the Lord, of examining their own conscience, of proclaiming the Lord’s death,and of considering its power. . . . A self-examination ought, therefore to come first, and it is vain to expect this of infants.” Indeed to do so would be to put them at risk of condemnation: “why should we offer poison instead of life-giving food to our tender children?”He also cites the institution narrative’s command, “do this in remembrance of me,” and St. Paul’s teaching that those who partake of the Supper “proclaim the Lord’s death till he comes.” (1 Corinthians 11:25) Since infants are not capable of the acts of understanding, memory and proclamation required for the Lord’s Supper, they should not receive it. But discernment of Christ’s Body, understanding, memory, and proclamation of Christ’s saving work, are not required of those baptized, so even infants may receive baptism.

Calvin also cites the example of the Old Testament, whose teaching on circumcision had already provided him with the rationale for infant baptism.But the feast of Passover, the Old Testament type of the Lord’s Supper, “did not admit all guests indiscriminately,but was duly eaten only by those who were old enough to be able to inquire into its meaning.” The allusion here is to Exodus 12:26ff: “and it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, What mean ye by this service? that ye shall say, It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover. . . .”; an instruction that developed into the Haggadah recited at the Passover seder. Something similar is said of the conjoined Feast of Unleavened bread in Exodus 13:8,”and thou shalt show thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the Lord did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt.” No such instructions are recorded about circumcision. The inference Calvin makes is that the partaker in these sacred meals must be able to understand their significance.

Beyond purely exegetical arguments, however, Calvin shares with Thomas a view that the gift of the Holy Spirit are given according to the mode and capacity of the receiver, and in particular to the stages of development of human subjectivity. If grace precedes all human memory, reason, and will (as infant baptism emphatically indicates), it does not abolish them either. Memory, reason, and will cannot be left out of Christian initiation: it is as we participate, consciously and willingly, in God’s saving purpose, that it comes to fruition in us. Here then is the necessity of Catechism and Confirmation before admission to Communion.

The Anglican Reform

Calvin’s recommendations (which first appeared in the 1543 edition of the Institutes) are not original to him. Similar ideas for the scriptural reform of Confirmation had been expressed by Luther and Melancthon in the early 1520’s, and the compiling and publishing of catechisms for children and adolescents had already begun. This is the background for the reformed rites of Confirmation that appear in the first English Prayer Book of 1549, and (with some further changes) in 1552 and (eventually) 1662.

In answer to a questionnaire circulated in 1536, while the theological conservatism of Henry VIII prevailed, Cranmer denied any scriptural warrant for the institution of a sacrament of confirmation by Christ, or in the example of his apostles, or for the use the chrism. As to its efficacy, he says that “the bishop, in the name of the Church, doth invocate the Holy Ghost to give strength and constancy, with other spiritual gifts, unto the person confirmed; so that the efficacy of this sacrament is of such value as is the prayer of the bishop made in the name of the church.” Cranmer’s position is that, properly speaking, Confirmation is no Sacrament of Christ, but an ecclesiastical ceremony with prayer.[2]

Thirteen years later, with the theological and liturgical reform which Henry VIII had muffled now in full gear under the reign of his Protestant son,Edward VI, the Prayer Book of 1549 provided for a rite that follows the prescription Calvin had given in 1543: public examination of the children by the Bishop in the Catechism, which includes a public confession of faith, in the renewal of the promises of Baptism, and a laying on of hands with prayer. Moreover a rubric at the end of the service secured the place of Confirmation as a prerequisite for admission to Communion: “And none shall be admitted to the Holy Communion, until such time as he be confirmed, or be ready and desirous to be confirmed.”[3]

The ceremony consists in the laying on of hands (a ceremony used by the apostles). There is no anointing,the consignation is transferred to Baptism, and in 1552 the formula itself took on a new form: “Defend,O Lord, this child with thy heavenly grace, that he may continue thine for ever, and daily increase in thy holy spirit more and more, until he come unto thy everlasting kingdom.” Thus, general form of the older rite remains, together with the ancient prayer for the sevenfold gift of the Spirit (based on the list in Isaiah 11). Its language, very slightly modified, asks God to “strengthen . . .with the Holy Ghost the Comforter”those who had already received remission of sins and spiritual regeneration in baptism, and to “daily increase in them thy manifold gifts of grace,” which are the gifts of the Spirit necessary for Christian maturity: wisdom, understanding, counsel, “ghostly strength” (fortitude),knowledge, godliness, and holy fear. Though accepting much of the critique of confirmation found among other reformers, and their positive program for its reform, Cranmer does not altogether abandon the rationale of Faustus and the medieval doctors.

[1] Marion Hatchett, “Unfinished Business” in Leaps and Boundaries: the Prayer Book in the 21st Century, p. 19.

[2] Cranmer: Works: Miscellaneous Writings and Letters (Parker Society, 1846), p. 86.

[3] In the American colonies, where there were no Anglican bishops in residence before the Revolution, and few could manage the journey to England to be confirmed, this instruction was modified. It seems the terms of the rubric were applied to permit the admission to communion of those instructed in the Anglican church catechism.