Most Anglicans are familiar with Confirmation. We often recognize it as a rite of passage for adolescents or as an act of commitment for adults. Unfortunately, we don’t always think very much about its deep meanings. Briefly, let us review its general character and then look at the details of the service in the 1928 American Book of Common Prayer.
Confirmation which basically means “strengthening” is a sacramental rite of the Church that goes back to apostolic times. Basically, it involves the Laying on of Hands and/or Anointing with oil accompanied by prayers for the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In the Anglican tradition, Confirmation is done by a bishop. In some other traditions, Confirmation may also be administered by a priest designated by the bishop, using oil blessed by the bishop.
Confirmation is closely related to Baptism. As Baptism marks a birth into the life of grace, Confirmation marks a growth into that life. The gifts of the Spirit associated with Confirmation are traditionally the seven mentioned in the Greek text of Isaiah 11:2 (Piety is not in the Hebrew text): Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, ghostly/spiritual Strength, Knowledge, true Godliness or Piety, holy Fear. These are all gifts for living a mature spiritual and moral life.
Now let us turn to the Confirmation ritual in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer. This service differs in some ways from the 1662 English BCP. One notable difference is the omission of the preface or introduction. Although containing important exhortations about the training of confirmands, this preface mainly applies to adolescents who have been baptized in an Anglican context as infants. As we shall see, the 1928 BCP also adds a few items not in the 1662 service.
We may divide the 1928 American service into four basic parts: 1) presentation of the candidate(s), 2) a lesson from Acts viii, 3) an affirmation of the promises made at Baptism and 4) the laying on of hands with prayer.
First, the Presentation of the candidate(s) was added in 1892 in the US and in 1922 in Canada. It is similar to the presentation of candidates at Ordination and reminds us that Confirmation is a sort of "ordination of the laity.”
Secondly, the lesson from Acts 8:14-18 shows a scriptural basis for Confirmation in the work of the Apostles. This was another addition, by the Americans in 1892 and the Canadians in 1922. This text has been used in discussions of Confirmation for centuries, but it seems to have been added to North American rituals because so many protestant groups questioned the origin and value of Confirmation. This Scripture points out the value of laying hands on those already baptized. It does not mean that the Holy Spirit was missing at Baptism; it means that Christians need to keep growing in the gifts of the Spirit.
Thirdly, there is a Renewal of Baptismal vows. This renewal was long implied or assumed, but was not actually included in medieval Roman Catholic versions or in the 1549, 1552 or 1559 Prayer Books. The first question was included in the English BCP in 1662. The second question about following Christ was added in 1928 American BCP as a personalization of the first question. Canadian revisions and the 1927/28 English proposed Book added questions about the Apostles’ Creed and following the Commandments.
Fourthly, with the versicles, we begin the oldest part of the Confirmation ritual. The prayer for the confirmands is rooted in a prayer from the third century. In medieval Latin rites and in the 1549 BCP, the Bishop would sign the forehead of the candidate with chrism as he said, “N, I sign thee with the sign of the cross, and lay my hand upon thee, In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.” This action was omitted from 1552 through 1928, and the laying on of hands was accompanied by the prayer “Defend, O Lord, this thy Child….” The 1662 BCP added the Lord’s Prayer. The next prayer is from Cranmer in 1549, and the final prayer taken from ancient sources was added to confirmation in 1662. The first of these prayers is for the confirmands and the second for all present. The final blessing is the usual episcopal blessing from the ancient Church.
In summary, Confirmation is rooted in apostolic practice. It slowly developed as a rite separated from Baptism in the Western churches in ancient and medieval times, and it has continued in the Anglican Prayer Book tradition. Anglicans have added an emphasis upon instruction and the renewal of Baptismal vows, but we have also maintained the ancient idea of apostolic laying on of hands with prayer for the gifts of the Holy Spirit.